Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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With the heavy rain–drops hanging like leeches, or running together, as they do, at every thorn or scale of the bark, seeking provocation to come down the nape of the neck of any man, Rufus Hutton went creeping under, trying not to irritate them, pretending that he was quite at home, and understood them like a jungle. Nevertheless he repented, and did not thoroughly search more than ten square yards. The things would knock him so in the face, and the stumps would stick in his trousers so, and the drops were so bad for his rheumatism; and, as it was quite impossible for any man to make way there, what on earth was there to look for?
In spite of all this, he did find something, and stowed it away in his waistcoat pocket, to be spoken of, or otherwise, according to the turn of events. And by this he meant no dishonesty, at least in his own opinion, only he pitied young Cradock most deeply, and would do all he could in his favour. At the side of the narrow by–path leading from that woodman?s track (by which John Rosedew had approached) into the far depth of the thicket, Dr. Hutton found, under a blackberry–bush, a little empty tube, unlike any tube he had seen before. It was about two inches and a half in length, and three–fourths of an inch in diameter. Sodden as it was with the rain, and opened partway along the seam, it still retained, unmistakably, the smell of exploded powder. It seemed to be made of mill–board, or some other form of paper, with a glaze upon the outside and some metal foil at the butt of it. What puzzled Rufus most of all was a little cylinder passing into and across the bottom, something like a boot–tag.
Dr. Hutton was not at this time skilled in modern gunnery. He knew how to load a fowling–piece, and what the difference was between a flint–gun and a percussion–gun; moreover, he had been out shooting once or twice in India, not from any love of the sport, but to oblige his neighbours. So he thought himself both acute and learned in arriving at the conclusion that this was a cartridge–case.
“Mark, does Mr. Cradock Nowell generally shoot with cartridges”?
“He laiketh mostways to be with a curtreege in his toard barryel, sir”.
“Oh, keeps a cartridge in his left barrel, does he; and fires first the right, I suppose”?
Leaving Mark to continue the search, Rufus returned to the Hall, after carefully taking the distances between certain important points. He was bound, as he felt, to lose no time in making the strictest examination of the poor youth?s body. For now, in this great calamity, the management of everything seemed to fall upon Rufus Hutton. Sir Cradock, of course, was overwhelmed; John Rosedew, although so deeply distressed, for the boys were like his own to him, was ready to do his utmost; but, as every one knew, except himself, he was not a man of the world. Unluckily, too, Mr. Garnet, always the leading spirit wherever he appeared, had not yet presented himself in this keen emergency.But his son came up, in the course of the day, to ask how Sir Cradock Nowell was, and to say that his father was quite laid up with a violent bilious attack.
Dr. Hutton worked very hard, kept his mind on the stretch continually, ordered every one right and left. He even contrived to repulse all the kindred, to the twentieth collateral, who were flocking in, that day, to rejoice at the manhood of the heir. From old Hogstaff, who knew all the family, kith and kin, and friends and enemies, he learned the names of the guests expected, and met them with laconic missives handed through the closed gates at the lodges. In many cases, it is to be feared, indignation overcame sympathy; “upstart insolence”! was heard through the clatter of carriage–windows, very nearly as often as, “most sad occurrence”! However, most of them were consoled by the prospect of learning everything at the inquest on the morrow. What could be clearer than that Cradock must be hanged for Clayton?s murder? The disgrace would kill the old baronet. “And then, it would be very painful, but my wife would be bound, sir, for the sake of her poor children, to prove her direct descent from that well–known Sir Cradock Nowell, who shot a man in the New Forest. Ah, I fear it runs in the family”.
But their wrath was most unphilosophical, unworthy of any moralists, when they found that Rufus had cheated them all as to the time of the inquest. In every direction he spread a report that the coroner could not attend until three o?clock on Friday, while he had arranged very quietly to begin the proceedings at noon. And he had taken good care to secure the presence of all the chief men in the neighbourhood – the magistrates, the old friends of the family, all who were interested in its honour rather than in its possessions. As none of the baffled cousins could solace themselves with outcry that the matter had been hushed up, they discovered that kind feeling had made the scene too sad for them.
The coroner sat in the principal room at the “Nowell Arms”; the jury had been to see the body lying at the Hall, and now were to hear the evidence. Six or seven of the county magistrates sat behind the coroner, and their clerk was with them. Of course they did not attend officially, their jurisdiction being entirely several from that of the present court. But there could be little doubt that their action would depend, in a great measure, upon what should now transpire.
The jury was chosen carefully to preclude, so far as might be, the charge of private influence. They were known, for the most part, as men of independence and probity, and two of them as consistent enemies to the influence of the Hall. As for general spectators, only a few of the village–folk allowed their curiosity to conquer their good feeling, or, perhaps, I should say their discretion; for all were tenants under Sir Cradock; and, though it was known by this time that Bull Garnet was ill and in bed, prostrated by one of his old attacks, everybody felt certain that he would find out who dared to be present, and visit them pretty smartly.
It would be waste of time to recount all the evidence given; for we know nearly all that Dr. Hutton and the clergyman would depose. Another medical man, Dr. Gall, had also examined poor Clayton?s remains; and the healing profession, who cure us (like bacon) after they have killed us, are remarkable for agreeing in public, and quarrelling sadly in private life. So Dr. Gall deposed exactly as Mr. Hutton had done. He was very emphatic towards Rufus, in the use of the proper prefix; but we who know the skill displayed presuppose the game certificate.
One part, however, of the medical evidence ought to be repeated. Poor Clayton had not died from an ordinary small–shot wound or wounds, but from a ghastly hole through his throat, cut as if by a bullet. As Dr. Gall, who knew something of guns, very concisely put it, the hole was like the hole in a door, when boys have fired, as they sometimes do, a tallow–candle through it. And yet it was fluted at the exit, in the fleshy part of the neck, as no bullet could have marked it. That was caused by the shot diverging, beginning to radiate, perhaps from the opposition encountered.
“In two words”, said Dr. Gall, when they had badgered him in his evidence, “the deceased was killed either by a balled cartridge, or by a charge of loose shot fired within six feet of him”.
“Very good”, thought Rufus Hutton, who heard all Dr. Gall said; “I?ll keep my cartridge–case to myself. Poor Crad shan?t have that against him”.
Hereupon, lest any mist (which goddesses abound in, vide Homer passim) descend upon the eyes or mind of any gentle follower of my poor Craddy?s fortunes, let me endeavour to explain Dr. Gall?s obscurities.
Cartridges, as used by sportsmen with guns which load at the muzzle, are packages of shot compact, and rammed down in a body. Some of them have spiral cases of the finest wire, covered round with paper; others, used for shorter distance, have only cylinders of paper to enclose the shot. The interstices between the shots are solidified with sawdust. The only use of these things is – for they save little time in loading – to kill our brother bipeds, or quadrupeds, if such we are, at a longer distance. The shots are prevented from scattering so widely as they love to do, when freed from the barrel?s repression. They fly in a closer body, their expansive instincts being checked, when first they leave the muzzle, by the constraint of the case and the tightness of their brotherhood. But it sometimes happens, mainly with wire– cartridges, that the shot can never burst its cerements, and flies in the compass of a slug, until it meets an obstacle. When this is so, the quarry escapes; unless a bullet so aimed would have hit it. This non–expansion is called, in good English, the “balling” of the cartridge. And those which are used for the longest distance, and for wild–fowl shooting – green cartridges, as they are called, containing larger shot – are especially apt to ball.
Dr. Gall was aware, of course, that no one beating for a woodcock would think of putting a green cartridge into his gun at all; but it seemed very likely indeed that Cradock might have used a blue one, for a longer shot with his left barrel; and the blue ones, having wire round them, sometimes ball, though not so often as their verdant brothers. It only remains to be said that when a cartridge balls, it flies with the force, as well as in the compass, of a bullet. With three drachms of powder behind it, it will cut a hole at forty yards through a two–inch deal.
Whether it were a balled cartridge or a charge of loose shot at six feet distance, was the momentous issue. In the former case, there would be fair reason to set it down as an accident; for the place where Cradock had first been seen was thirty yards from Clayton; and he might so have shot him thence, in the dusk, and through the thick of the covert. But if that poor boy had died from a common charge of shot, “Murder” was the only verdict true men could return on the evidence set before them. For Cradock must have fired wilfully at the open throat of his brother, then flown to the hedge and acted horror when he saw John Rosedew. Where was Cradock? The jury trembled, and so did Rufus Hutton. The coroner repeated the question, although he had no right to do it, at that stage of the evidence.
“Since it occurred he has not been seen”, whispered Rufus Hutton at last, knowing how men grow impatient and evil when unanswered.
“Let us proceed with the rest of the evidence”, said his honour, grandly; “if the young man cares for his reputation, he will be here by–and–by. But I have ridden far to–day. Let us have some refreshment, gentlemen. Justice must not be hurried”.
It will have been perceived already that the coroner was by no means “the right man in the right place”. The legal firm, “Cole, Cole, and Son”, had been known in Southampton for many years, as doing a large and very respectable business. The present Mr. Cole, the coroner, who had been the “Son” in the partnership, became sole owner suddenly by the death of his father and uncle. Having brains enough to know that he was far from having too much, he took at once into partnership with him an uncommonly wide–awake, wary fellow, who had been head–clerk to the old firm, ever biding his time for this inevitable result. So now the firm was thriving under the style and title of “Cole, Chope, and Co”., Mr. Chope being known far and wide by the nickname of “Cole?s brains”. Mr. Cole being appointed coroner, not many months ago, and knowing very little about his duties, took good care for a time not to attempt their discharge without having “Cole?s brains” with him. But this had been found to interfere so sadly with private practice, that little by little Cole plucked up courage, as the novelty of the thing wore off, and now was accustomed to play the coroner without the assistance of brains. Nevertheless, upon an occasion so important as this, he would have come with full cerebrum, but that Chope was gone for his holiday. Mr. Cole, however, was an honest man – which could scarcely be said of his partner – and meant to do his duty, so far as he could see it. In the present inquiry he had less chance of seeing it than usual, for he stood in great awe of Mr. Brockwood, a man of ability and high standing, who, as Sir Cradock Nowell?s solicitor, attended to watch the case, at the suggestion of Rufus Hutton.
Both the guns were produced to the coroner, in the condition in which they were found, except that John Rosedew, for safety?s sake, had lowered the right hammer of Clayton?s to the half–cock, before he concealed it from Cradock. Cradock?s own unlucky piece had been found, on the following morning, in a rushy pool, where he had cast it, as he fled so wildly. Both the barrels had been discharged, while both of Clayton?s were loaded. It went to the heart of every man there who could not think Cradock a murderer, when in reply to a juryman?s question, what was the meaning of certain lines marked with a watch–spring file on the trigger–plate of his gun, it was explained that the twins so registered the number and kind of the season?s game.
After this, Mark Stote was called, and came forward very awkwardly with a deal of wet on his velveteen cuffs, which he tried to keep from notice. His eyes were fixed upon the coroner, with a kind of defiance, but even while he was kissing the book, he was glad to sniff behind it.
“Mr. Mark Stote”, said the coroner, duly prompted, “you have, I believe, been employed to examine the scene of this lamentable occurrence”?
Mark Stote took a minute to understand this, and a minute to consider his answer.
“Yees, my lard, I throwed a squoyle at ’un”.
The representative of the Crown looked at Mark with amazement equal at least to that with which Mark was regarding him.
“Gentlemen”, asked Mr. Cole, addressing the court in general, “what language does this man talk”?
“West Saxon”, replied Mr. Brockwood, speaking apart to the coroner; “West Saxon of the forest. He can talk plain English generally, but whenever these people are nervous, they fall back unconsciously upon their native idiom. You will never be able to understand him: shall I act as interpreter”?
“With all my heart; that is to say, with the consent of the jury. But what – I mean to say, how – ”
“How am I to be checked, you mean, unless I am put upon oath; and how can you enter it as evidence? Simply thus – let your clerk take down the original answers. All the jury will understand them, and so, perhaps, will he”.
The clerk, who was a fine young gentleman, strongly pronounced in attire, nodded a distinct disclaimer. It would be so unaristocratic to understand any peasant–tongue.
“At any rate, most of the magistrates do. There are plenty of checks upon me. But I am not ambitious of the office. Appoint any one you please”.
“Gentlemen of the jury”, said the coroner, glad to shift from himself the smallest responsibility, “are you content that Mr. Brockwood should do as he has offered”?
“Certain, and most kind of him”, replied the jury, all speaking at once, “if his honour was unable to understand old English”.
“Very good”, said Mr. Brockwood; “don?t let us make a fuss about nothing. Mr. Stote says he ‘throwed a squoyle;’ that is to say, he looked at it”.
“And in what state did you find the ground”? was the coroner?s next question.
“Twearable, twearable. Dwont ’e ax ov me vor gude now, dwont ’e”. And he put up his broad hand before his broad face.
“Terrible, terrible”, said the coroner, going by the light of nature in his interpretation; “but I do not mean the exact spot only where the body was found. I mean, how was the ground as regards dry and wet, for the purpose of retaining footmarks”?
“Thar a bin zome rick–rack wather, ’bout a sannit back. But most peart on it ave a droud up agin. ’Twur starky, my lard, moor nor stoachy”. Here Mark felt that he had described things lucidly and powerfully, and looked round the room for approval.
“Stiff rather than muddy, he means”, explained Mr. Brockwood, smiling at the coroner?s dismay.
“Were there any footprints upon it, in the part where the ground could retain them”?
“?Twur dounted and full of stabbles, in the pearts whur the mulloch wur, but the main of ’un tuffets and stramots”.
“That is to say”, Mr. Brockwood translated, “the ground was full of impressions and footmarks, where there was any dirt to retain them; but most of the ground was hillocky and grassy, and so would take no footprints”.
“When you were searching, did you find anything that seemed to have been overlooked”?
“Yees, my lard, I vound thissom” – producing Crad?s stubby meerschaum – “and thissom” – a burnt felt–wad – “and a whaile vurther, ai vound thissom”. Here he slowly drew from his pocket a very fine woodcock, though not over fat, with its long bill tucked most carefully under its wing. He stroked the dead bird softly, and set its feathers professionally, but did not hand it about, as the court seemed to anticipate.
“In what part, and from what direction, has that bird been shot”?
“Ramhard of the head, my lard, as clane athert shat, and as vaine a bird as iver I wish to zee. But, ah?s me, her be a wosebird, a wosebird, if iver wur wan”.
Mark could scarcely control his tears, as he thought of the bird?s evil omen, and yet he could not help admiring him. He turned him over and over again, and dropped a tear into his tail coverts. Mr. Brockwood saw it and gave him time; he knew that for many generations the Stotes had lived under the Nowells.
“Oh, the bird was shot, you say, on the right side of the head, and clean through the head”.
“Thank you”, proceeded the coroner. “Now, do you think that he could have moved after he touched the ground”?
“Nivir a hinch, I allow, my lard. A vell as dead as a stwoun”.
“Now inform the court, as nearly as you can, of the precise spot where you found it”.
It took a long time to discover this, for Mr. Stote had not been taught the rudiments of topography. Nevertheless, they made out at last that the woodcock had been found, dead on his back, with his bill up, eight or ten yards beyond the place where Clayton Nowell fell dead, and in a direct line over his body from the gap in the hedge where Cradock stood. Dr. Hutton must have found the bird, if he had searched a little further.
“Now”, said the coroner, forcibly. “Mr. Stote, I will ask you a question which is, perhaps, a little beyond the rules of ordinary evidence, I mean, at least, as permitted in a court of record” – here he glanced at the magistrates, who could not claim the rank of record – “which of these two unfortunate brothers caused, in your opinion, the death of – of that woodcock”?
Mr. Brockwood glanced at the coroner sharply, and so did his own clerk. Even the jury knew, by intuition, that he had no right to tout for opinions.
“Them crink–crank words is beyand me. Moy head be awl wivvery wi’ ’em, zame as if my old ooman was patchy”.
“His honour asks you”, said Mr. Brockwood, with a glance not lost on the justices – for it meant, You see how we court inquiry, though the question is quite inadmissible – “which of the brothers in your opinion shot the bird which you found”?
“Why, Meester Cradock, o’ course. Meester Cleaton ’ud needs a blowed un awl to hame, where a stwooud”.
“Mr. Clayton must have blown him to pieces, if he shot him from the place where he stood, at least from the place where Mr. Clayton fell. And poor Mr. Clayton lay directly between his brother and the woodcock”?
Mr. Brockwood in his excitement forgot that he had no right to put this question, nor, indeed, any other, except as formally representing some one formally implicated. But the coroner did not check him.
“By whur the blude wor, a moost have been naigh as cud be atwane the vern–patch and the wosebird”.
“Very good. That fern–patch was the place where Mr. Cradock dropped from the gap in the hedge. Mr. Rosedew has proved that. Now let us have all you know, Mark Stote. Did you see any other marks, stabbles you call them, not, I mean, in the path Mr. Rosedew came along, nor yet in the patches of thicket through which poor Cradock fled, but in some other direction”?
This was the very question the coroner ought to have put long ago. Thus much he knew when Brockwood put it, and now he was angry accordingly.
“Mr. Brockwood, I will thank you – consider, sir, this is a court of record”!
“Then don?t let it record stupid humbug”! Mr. Brockwood was a passionate man, and his blood was up. “I will take the responsibility of anything I do. All we want to elicit the truth is a little skill and patience; and for want of that the finest young fellow I have ever known may be blasted for life, for this world and the other. Excuse me, Mr. Coroner, I have spoken precipitately; I have much reverence for your court, but far more for truth”.
Here Mr. Brockwood sat down again, and all the magistrates looked at him with nods of approbation. Human passions and human warmth are sure to have their way, even in Areopagus. At last the question was put by the coroner himself. Of course it was a proper one.
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