The Bit and Halter was seething with excitement. Its landlord, Joe Harris, selected foreman of the jury about to sit on the poor remains of that which, five days earlier, had been the living entity known as Annie Evans, had all the bustling air of a Master of the Ceremonies at some important entertainment. The tap overflowed as on an auction day-occasion most popular for bringing together from near and far those birds of prey to whom a broken home or a bankrupt farm stock offers an irresistible attraction. Here it was another sort of calamity, but the moral was the same. It turned upon that form of Epicurism which consists in watching comfortably from an auditorium the agonies of one's martyred fellow-creatures in the arena. There are sybarites of that complexion who, if they cannot be in at the death, will go far to be in at the burying.
The case, both from its local notoriety and the agreeable mystery which surrounded it, had aroused pretty widespread interest. Speculation as to its outcome was rife and voluble. Quite a pack of vehicles stood congregated in the road, and quite a crowd of their owners in and about the inn enclosure. Each known official visage, as it appeared, was greeted with a curious scrutiny, silent until the new-comer had passed, and then rising garrulous in the wake of his going. There was no actual ribaldry heard, but plenty of rather excited jocularity, with odds given and taken on the event. If the poor shattered voiceless thing, which lay so quietly in its shell in an outhouse awaiting the coming verdict, could only once have pleaded in visible evidence for itself, surely the solemnity of that mute entreaty for peace and forgetfulness would have found its way even to those insensate hearts. But charity is as much a matter of imagination as of feeling, and many an unobtrusive need in the world fails of its relief through the lack of that penetrative vision in the well-meaning. Our souls, it may be, are not to be measured within the limits of our qualities.
At near eleven o'clock the deputy District Coroner, Mr Brabner, drove up in a fly. He was a small important-looking, be-whiskered man, in large round spectacles of such strength as to impart to his whole face a solemn owlish look, very sapient and impressive. A hush fell upon the throng as he alighted, with his clerk, and, ushered by the landlord, entered the inn. But he had hardly disappeared when a more thrilling advent came, Hke Aaron's serpent, to devour the lesser. This was of the arrested man, in charge of a couple of officers from the County police-station. The unhappy little Gascon looked frightened and bewildered. His restless, vivacious, brown eyes glanced hither and thither among the people, seeming to deprecate, to implore, to appeal for pity from a monstrous terror which had trapped and was about to devour him. But his emotions had hardly found scope for their display when he was gone-hurried in by his escort.
Thereafter--the party from the house, with all necessary witnesses, being already assembled in the inn-no time was lost in opening the proceedings, which were arranged to take place in the coffee-room, the one fair-sized chamber in the building, though still so small that only a fraction of the waiting public could be allowed admittance to it, the rest hanging disconsolately about the passages and windows, and getting what information they could by deputy. The Coroner took his seat at one end of the long table provided; the jury-probi et legates homines to the number of twelve, good farm-hands and true, the most of them, and ready to believe anything they were told-were despatched to view the body; and the business began. Mr Redstall, a Winton solicitor, watched the case on behalf of Sir Calvin, the deceased's family being unrepresented, and Mr Fyler, barrister-at-law, appeared for the police. A report of the subsequent proceedings is summarised in the following notes :-
Evidence of identification being in the first instance required, Sergeant Ridgway, of the Scotland Yard detective force, stated that it had been found impossible so far, in spite of every effort made, to trace out the deceased's relations. He had himself made a journey to London, whence the girl had been originally engaged, for the express purpose of inquiring, but had failed wholly to procure any information on the subject. All agencies had been communicated with, and the name did not figure anywhere on their books. An advertisement, appealing to the next of kin, had been inserted in a number of newspapers, but without as yet eliciting any response. He called on Mrs Bingley to repeat the statement she had already made to him regarding the deceased's engagement by her, and the housekeeper having complied, he asked the Coroner, in default of any more intimate proof, to accept the only evidence of identification procurable at the moment. Further attempts would be made, of course, to elucidate the mystery, as by way of the deceased's former employer, Mrs Wilson; but that lady, being gone to New Zealand, might prove as difficult to trace as Evan's own connexions; and in any event a long time must elapse before an answer could be obtained from her. A search of the girl's boxes and personal belongings, though minutely conducted by himself and the housekeeper, had failed to yield any clue whatsoever, and, in short, so far as things went, that was the whole matter.
The Sergeant spoke, now as hereafter, always with visible effect, not only on the jury but on the Coroner himself. His cool, keen aspect, his pruned and essential phrases, the awful halo with which his position as a great London detective surrounded him, not to speak of the local reputation he had lately acquired, weighted his every word, to these admiring provincial minds, with a gravity and authority which were final. If he said that such a thing was, it was. The Coroner's clerk entered on his minutes the name of Annie Eva'ns, domestic servant, age twenty-three, family and condition unknown; and the case proceeded.