the woman in white-Page 63


  XI

  The inquest was hurried for certain local reasons which weighed withthe coroner and the town authorities. It was held on the afternoon ofthe next day. I was necessarily one among the witnesses summoned toassist the objects of the investigation.

  My first proceeding in the morning was to go to the post-office, andinquire for the letter which I expected from Marian. No change ofcircumstances, however extraordinary, could affect the one greatanxiety which weighed on my mind while I was away from London. Themorning's letter, which was the only assurance I could receive that nomisfortune had happened in my absence, was still the absorbing interestwith which my day began.

  To my relief, the letter from Marian was at the office waiting for me.

  Nothing had happened--they were both as safe and as well as when I hadleft them. Laura sent her love, and begged that I would let her knowof my return a day beforehand. Her sister added, in explanation ofthis message, that she had saved "nearly a sovereign" out of her ownprivate purse, and that she had claimed the privilege of ordering thedinner and giving the dinner which was to celebrate the day of myreturn. I read these little domestic confidences in the bright morningwith the terrible recollection of what had happened the evening beforevivid in my memory. The necessity of sparing Laura any suddenknowledge of the truth was the first consideration which the lettersuggested to me. I wrote at once to Marian to tell her what I havetold in these pages--presenting the tidings as gradually and gently asI could, and warning her not to let any such thing as a newspaper fallin Laura's way while I was absent. In the case of any other woman,less courageous and less reliable, I might have hesitated before Iventured on unreservedly disclosing the whole truth. But I owed it toMarian to be faithful to my past experience of her, and to trust her asI trusted herself.

  My letter was necessarily a long one. It occupied me until the timecame for proceeding to the inquest.

  The objects of the legal inquiry were necessarily beset by peculiarcomplications and difficulties. Besides the investigation into themanner in which the deceased had met his death, there were seriousquestions to be settled relating to the cause of the fire, to theabstraction of the keys, and to the presence of a stranger in thevestry at the time when the flames broke out. Even the identificationof the dead man had not yet been accomplished. The helpless conditionof the servant had made the police distrustful of his assertedrecognition of his master. They had sent to Knowlesbury overnight tosecure the attendance of witnesses who were well acquainted with thepersonal appearance of Sir Percival Glyde, and they had communicated,the first thing in the morning, with Blackwater Park. Theseprecautions enabled the coroner and jury to settle the question ofidentity, and to confirm the correctness of the servant's assertion;the evidence offered by competent witnesses, and by the discovery ofcertain facts, being subsequently strengthened by an examination of thedead man's watch. The crest and the name of Sir Percival Glyde wereengraved inside it.

  The next inquiries related to the fire.

  The servant and I, and the boy who had heard the light struck in thevestry, were the first witnesses called. The boy gave his evidenceclearly enough, but the servant's mind had not yet recovered the shockinflicted on it--he was plainly incapable of assisting the objects ofthe inquiry, and he was desired to stand down.

  To my own relief, my examination was not a long one. I had not knownthe deceased--I had never seen him--I was not aware of his presence atOld Welmingham--and I had not been in the vestry at the finding of thebody. All I could prove was that I had stopped at the clerk's cottageto ask my way--that I had heard from him of the loss of the keys--thatI had accompanied him to the church to render what help I could--that Ihad seen the fire--that I had heard some person unknown, inside thevestry, trying vainly to unlock the door--and that I had done what Icould, from motives of humanity, to save the man. Other witnesses, whohad been acquainted with the deceased, were asked if they could explainthe mystery of his presumed abstraction of the keys, and his presencein the burning room. But the coroner seemed to take it for granted,naturally enough, that I, as a total stranger in the neighbourhood, anda total stranger to Sir Percival Glyde, could not be in a position tooffer any evidence on these two points.

  The course that I was myself bound to take, when my formal examinationhad closed, seemed clear to me. I did not feel called on to volunteerany statement of my own private convictions; in the first place,because my doing so could serve no practical purpose, now that allproof in support of any surmises of mine was burnt with the burntregister; in the second place, because I could not have intelligiblystated my opinion--my unsupported opinion--without disclosing the wholestory of the conspiracy, and producing beyond a doubt the sameunsatisfactory effect an the minds of the coroner and the jury, which Ihad already produced on the mind of Mr. Kyrle.

  In these pages, however, and after the time that has now elapsed, nosuch cautions and restraints as are here described need fetter the freeexpression of my opinion. I will state briefly, before my pen occupiesitself with other events, how my own convictions lead me to account forthe abstraction of the keys, for the outbreak of the fire, and for thedeath of the man.

  The news of my being free on bail drove Sir Percival, as I believe, tohis last resources. The attempted attack on the road was one of thoseresources, and the suppression of all practical proof of his crime, bydestroying the page of the register on which the forgery had beencommitted, was the other, and the surest of the two. If I couldproduce no extract from the original book to compare with the certifiedcopy at Knowlesbury, I could produce no positive evidence, and couldthreaten him with no fatal exposure. All that was necessary to theattainment of his end was, that he should get into the vestryunperceived, that he should tear out the page in the register, and thathe should leave the vestry again as privately as he had entered it.

  On this supposition, it is easy to understand why he waited untilnightfall before he made the attempt, and why he took advantage of theclerk's absence to possess himself of the keys. Necessity would obligehim to strike a light to find his way to the right register, and commoncaution would suggest his locking the door on the inside in case ofintrusion on the part of any inquisitive stranger, or on my part, if Ihappened to be in the neighbourhood at the time.

  I cannot believe that it was any part of his intention to make thedestruction of the register appear to be the result of accident, bypurposely setting the vestry on fire. The bare chance that promptassistance might arrive, and that the books might, by the remotestpossibility, be saved, would have been enough, on a moment'sconsideration, to dismiss any idea of this sort from his mind.Remembering the quantity of combustible objects in the vestry--thestraw, the papers, the packing-cases, the dry wood, the old worm-eatenpresses--all the probabilities, in my estimation, point to the fire asthe result of an accident with his matches or his light.

  His first impulse, under these circumstances, was doubtless to try toextinguish the flames, and failing in that, his second impulse(ignorant as he was of the state of the lock) had been to attempt toescape by the door which had given him entrance. When I had called tohim, the flames must have reached across the door leading into thechurch, on either side of which the presses extended, and close towhich the other combustible objects were placed. In all probability,the smoke and flame (confined as they were to the room) had been toomuch for him when he tried to escape by the inner door. He must havedropped in his death-swoon--he must have sunk in the place where he wasfound--just as I got on the roof to break the skylight window. Even ifwe had been able, afterwards, to get into the church, and to burst openthe door from that side, the delay must have been fatal. He would havebeen past saving, long past saving, by that time. We should only havegiven the flames free ingress into the church--the church, which wasnow preserved, but which, in that event, would have shared the fate ofthe vestry. There is no doubt in my mind, there can be no doubt in themind of any one, that he was a dead man before ever we got to the emptycottage, and
worked with might and main to tear down the beam.

  This is the nearest approach that any theory of mine can make towardsaccounting for a result which was visible matter of fact. As I havedescribed them, so events passed to us outside. As I have related it,so his body was found.