[... back to menu for this book]
IT was on a bitter cold day in the depth of winter, that I
was compelled to make one of a jury assembled to hold an inquest on the body of
a man recently and suddenly deceased. The place allotted for the purpose was an
upper room in a public-house adjacent to my own residence, whither, at the
appointed hour, I repaired, though I must confess with considerable reluctance.
The wind blew raw and keen, penetrating to the very bones ; a slight, very
slight thaw had commenced, just enough to make the snow beneath one's feet
sloppy and insinuating, and suggestive of influenza and rheumatism. On entering
the room I found some ten or twelve individuals of the respectable class seated
on the polished wooden chairs of the place ; not round the fire, which, newly
lighted for the occasion, and smoking furiously, as if angry at being called to
take a part in such a serious business, invited no such intimacy, but each
"sullenly apart," muffled and buttoned to the chin, and evidently
desirous of dismissal. In the centre of the room stood a small table and an
arm-chair, reserved for the coroner, who had not yet arrived a wine-glass full
of ink, and a single pen new from the stationer's, completed the scanty
preparation. In the corner of the room farthest from the fire sat a pale,
melancholy child of ten or twelve years of age, and an elderly person whom I
took to be her mother ; both were of the poorer class.
The coroner not arriving at the time specified, considerable dissatisfaction became apparent upon the silent visages of my companions, and very likely upon my own as well. [-314-] Here, however, we sat and shivered for a full hour in comfortless speechlessness, strangers, as far as I could judge, to each other, and having, with one exception, apparently, a general determination to remain so. The individual furnishing the exception was perhaps of a lower grade than the rest, and was, besides, constitutionally unfitted altogether for the business in hand. While the rest sat still and motionless as sphinxes, he twisted, wriggled, and turned upon his seat, rubbed his hands and smiled with a cordiality which ought to have been catching, though it was not. All his attempts at conversation, and they were many, met with a freezing and unqualified rebuff ; and at length, giving it up as a bad job, he turned his attention to the fire, and I really felt grateful when, by a little judicious poking, he succeeded in eliciting a cheerful aspect from that, the only face in the room in accord with his own. Encouraged by this success he actually produced a snuff-box from his pocket, and giving it a good-natured tap on the lid, offered it politely to his neighbour, who, however, would not share in the stimulant, but left him to enjoy it alone, and to waste the sunshine of his countenance upon the unresponding company.
How slowly that long hour crawled away, and how I regretted that my pockets were void of books or anything readable! There was one old gentleman behind a pair of goggle spectacles, deliberately spelling through a greasy, beer-stained portion of a weekly paper - even him I envied. At length the rattle of wheels was heard below, and, amidst a general movement and upstanding, the coroner entered the room. My friend with the snuff-box sobered his merry face, took a parting pinch, and addressed himself to the serious business of the hour.
The coroner proceeded immediately to apologise politely for the delay he had unwittingly occasioned us, arising, as he said, from an unexpected mass of evidence to be gone into in another case in which he had been engaged that morning. I could not help thinking that he appeared to be well used [-315-] to making apologies, and to having them well received. This done, and the requisite twelve being ascertained to be present, he proceeded to administer the oath usual on such occasions. This ceremony was got through summarily, the elderly gentleman who had monopolised the newspaper being first sworn as foreman. Six of the others, each placing a finger on the gospels, were sworn in at a batch ; the same as to the remainder, and the business was concluded in less than two minutes.
The next step was to inspect the body of the deceased, previous to hearing what evidence might have to be adduced. For this purpose we followed our foreman over the melting snow and mingled mud, through a long labyrinth of narrow and half-paved back-streets, to the house or rather hut; where lay the object of our inquiry. It was during this transit that I for the first time heard any of the circumstances attending the death we were called to investigate. It appeared that the deceased was a labouring man, who had returned from his employment unexpectedly in the middle of the day, complaining of indisposition ; he had gone to bed, and died in a few hours, without having recourse to medical assistance.
We entered the lowly dwelling, and there, in a small front room on the ground-floor, hardly nine feet square, on a bed that filled half the space, lay (surrounded by a family of small children), as if in a quiet sleep, the remains of one of the sons of toil and privation. He looked old, but not dead; three-score and ten upon the point of waking - such he seemed to me. I was deceived, however, somewhat in regard to his age.
When, in separate detachments - for the room was too small to hold us all at once - we had duly contemplated this sad sight, we returned shivering to the inn-room, where we found the coroner, who had not been idle during our absence, engaged in questioning the child I have before referred to. When we were all seated, he read over the evidence he had [-316] elicited in the interval ; and, first putting a few simple questions to the child as to the nature of an oath, which she answered satisfactorily, he swore her to the truth of what she had already said, and was about to say in reply to any questions asked.
The case, as the coroner observed, was the simplest that could possibly occur. From the replies of the child, we learned the following facts, exemplifying, I have no doubt, the history of multitudes of the countless army of workers for daily bread, except in the extreme suddenness of the death, which made the circumstance legally amenable to investigation under a coroner's warrant. The deceased had been employed for many years by a manufacturer in the City, and was highly respected for his sobriety and industry. On the Wednesday before the inquest, which was held on a Monday, he had come home unexpectedly at two in the afternoon, complaining of great difficulty in breathing, and, requesting his wife to make him some tea, had gone to bed. Having drank a little, be said he wished very much for a quiet sleep, and desired his wife not to let the children make a noise. The deponent, the eldest but one of the children, of which there were eight, alone remained with the mother at his bedside. The mother requested him to "have the doctor," but he refused to do so, and leaning back on his pillow, as though very, very weary, fell asleep. He remained silent for about an hour, and then commenced breathing heavily (the child described it as "snoring in his breast''). After some time he was again silent when his wife, observing that his head lay very low in the bed, rose to place a pillow beneath it, and was horror-struck at finding him cold and stiffening. Medical aid was immediately summoned, but all too late ; he had been dead nearly an hour. The stertorous breathing was the sole evidence of his last agony. He was sixty-three years of age ; his wife, who was five-and-twenty years younger, was on the point of giving birth to a ninth child, and could not attend [-317-] the inquest. The elderly female I had taken for the mother of the child, was a kind and simple-hearted neighbour, whose evidence merely corroborated that of the child, and gave proof of her own genuine feeling and tender sympathy.
The witnesses being desired to withdraw, we proceeded to deliberate upon the verdict. It was not considered necessary to have a post-mortem examination. The coroner, an approved medical practitioner himself, assured us there was nothing suspicious or even unusual in the case. The poor man had doubtless died of disease of the heart, or of apoplexy - a dissection might decide which. But of what use or import was it to know? The immediate cause of his death might, perhaps, be found in the extreme exposure to cold to which he had subjected himself on the morning of his decease it having come out in evidence that he had mistaken the hour, and rose at half-past three o'clock in the morning, instead of six, in his anxiety to be early at work during a press of business. Not thinking it worth while to go to bed again for so short a time, he had sat without fire for more than a couple of hours before proceeding to his employment.
We could do nothing better than adopt the suggestion of the coroner, and agree to the verdict of "Death from natural causes," which was accordingly done.
It was surprising how suddenly the face of things now changed. Everybody rose and buttoned up his great-coat, and donned his gloves, and bared the right hand again to sign the document, half printed, half written, containing the verdict, and then departed without ceremony ; so hastily, indeed, that I saw more than one return for walking-sticks or umbrellas forgotten in their anxiety to be off. It was curious to see the different modes of handling the pen ; some, delighting in their dashing autograph and flourish, made signatures audible at twenty yards distance ; others, with careful deliberation, in a manner printed their names, [-318-] legible for centuries. One slim, Adonis-like figure, whom I took for an artist, wrote the finest Italian hand with a pen which he produced from a gold "Mordan"; his performance, however, was immediately buried under the signature of an old stager, who, having less perfect vision, inscribed with the gaping quill of the party, his own blotty patronymic immediately upon it. Next came our friend of poker and snuff-box celebrity. He was the last excepting myself; and twice he signalled me to precede him ; but I was inexorable, and determined to inspect his caligraphy, cost what it would. Still he dallied, and looked wofully around him. It was plain he had not calculated upon this, and it was not till the coroner lifted his head to remind him of his duty, that, in desperation he seized the pen - could it possibly be for the first time in his life? I am afraid so. There it stood upright between the fingers of his clenched fist, dripping with ink (he had thrust it to the bottom of the wine-glass), and distilling drops more durable than precious. After many futile attempts to settle upon the right spot, he at length succeeded in the perpetration of a series of hieroglyphics that might have defied Champollion.
Having appended my own humble signature, I retreated to the corner I had hitherto occupied in search of hat and gloves. The little child who gave all the evidence we had heard was sitting by the window, and now sobbing violently, as if for the first time aware of the extent of her loss. The kind-hearted neighbour held one of her hands, and tried in vain to soothe and comfort her. After an equally vain attempt on my own part, I turned to withdraw, and found that the coroner had taken his flight with a precipitancy which I could only account for on the supposition of another sudden death - or a dinner. In his chair sat a stalwart drover, who rang the bell violently, and vociferated, as I descended the stairs, "Come, Betsy serve up the steaks, and bring a pint of stout!"