The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
Newspapers instead of banknotes! It could have only one meaning—black murder
FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS
What happened in the first instalment: Ruth Averill, an orphan, is living with a miser uncle at Starvel Hollow on the Yorkshire moor. While visiting a Mrs. Palmer-Gore, her uncle’s house is demolished by a fire and its three occupants burned to death. The miser, Averill, is known to have had a large amount in twentypound bank notes in his safe. When the safe is opened, it is found that these have been destroyed, only a number of sovereigns having survived the fire. Later one of the notes is found in circulation. Inspector French of New Scotland Yard is called in on the case. He examines the contents of the safe and finds them to be—charred remains of newspapers.
WHAT, he asked himself, could this portend? What other than robbery? And if robbery, then murder! Murder and arson! Could Tarkington and the Chief Constable be right, after all? Certainly, after this discovery he couldn’t drop the investigation until he had made sure.
He had brought with him a small case of apparatus, and from this he now took a bottle of gum and some thin cards. Painting over the cards with the gum, he laid on them such flakes of ash as bore legible words. From one piece in particular he thought he might be able to identify the newspaper of which it had been a part. It was a roundish scrap about the size of a shilling, along the top of which were the words: ‘—ing as we—’ in small type,
with below it in capitals, as if the headline of a small paragraph: ‘RAT-CATCHER’S F-’
French secured the cards in a case specially designed to preserve specimens, and re-closed the safe. It certainly looked as if Tarkington’s suggestions might be true, and as he put the case away in his pocket, he wondered if there was any further investigation he could make while he was on the ground.
Stepping outside the building, he considered how a hypothetical burglar might have forced an entrance. The window frames and doors were all gone; moreover, any marks which might have been made approaching them must long since have been defaced by time and the footprints of sightseers and workmen. French, nevertheless, walked all round the house and about the grounds, looking everywhere in the hope of coming on some clue, though he was scarcely disappointed when his search ended in failure.
He was anxious, if possible, to find out what newspaper had been burned. He did not think the point of vital importance, but on general principles the information should be obtained. There was no knowing what clue it might not furnish. On his way back to Thirsby, therefore, he turned aside to Mr. Oxley’s house and sent in his card.
In the privacy of the solicitor’s study French introduced himself and in confidence declared his mission to the town. He apologized for troubling the other on Sunday, but said that at the moment he wished only to
ask one question: Could Mr. Oxley tell him, or could he find ou for him from Miss Averill, what daily paper the late Mr. Averill had taken?
Mr. Oxley did not know, and excused himself to interro gate Ruth. Presently he returned to say it was the Leeds Mercury.
Next morning French took the first train to Leeds, and going to the Mercury office, asked to see the files of the paper for the month of September. Commencing at the 15th, the day of the fire, he began working back through the papers, scrutinizing each sheet for a paragraph headed ‘RAT-CATCHER’S F-’
He found it sooner than he had expected. Tucked in among a number of small news items in the paper of Tuesday, 14th September, he read: ‘RAT-CATCHER’S FATAL FALL'. And when he saw that the type was similar to that on the burnt scrap and the last line of the preceding paragraph was Mr.Thomas is doing as well as can be expected’, with the ‘—ng as we—’ in the correct
position relative to the ‘RAT-CATCHER’S F--’ he
knew he had really got what he wanted.
French was extraordinarily thorough. Long expei .ence had taught him that everything in the nature of a clue should be followed up to the very end. He did not, therefore, desist when he had made his find. Instead he worked on to see if he could identify any of the other scraps he had found. And before he left he had found eight out of the eleven he had mounted, and proved that the burnt papers were those of the 13th, 14th and 15th; the three days before the fire.
So far, then, the indications were at least for continuing the investigation. Leaving the Mercury office, French walked up the Briggate to Messrs. Carter & Stephenson’s, the makers of the safe. He asked for one of the principals, and was presently shown into Mr. Stephenson’s room.
Introducing himself in the strictest confidence in his true guise, he propounded his question: Was the safe absolutely fireproof”
Mr. Stephenson rose and went to a drawer from which he took a number
“Look at those.” he invited, and ' tel! me was the fire at Starvel any worse than those fires?”
The views were all of burnt-out buildings, most of them completely gutted and resembling the wreckage of Starvel. French assured him that the cases seemed on all fours.
"Very well, there were safes in all those fires—safes just the same as that at Starvel. and all those safes had papers in them and there wasn't a single paper in any one of them so much as browned.” French took out his burnt fragments.
“Look at those, Mr. Stephenson,” he invited in his turn. "Suppose there were newspapers in that safe before the fire, could they have come out like that after it?” "Not under any' conceivable circumstances,” Mr. Stephenson declared emphatically, “that is, of course, unless the door had been left open. With the door shut it’s absolutely impossible. And I’ll be prepared to stand by that in any court of law if you should want me to.” The man's manner was convincing, and French saw no reason to doubt his statement. But he saw also that its truth involved extremely serious consequences. If Mr. Stephenson were right the newspapers had not been burnt during the Starvel fire. They could only have been burned while the safe door was open. But the door was locked during the fire; Kent had had to get an expert to open it. They must, therefore, have been burned before it was locked. A sinister fact truly, and terribly suggestive!
On his way back to Thirsby, French sat smoking in the comer of a carriage, weighing in his mind the significance of his discoveries.
'T'HE more Inspector French pondered over the problems which his discoveries had raised, the more difficult these problems seemed to grow. There was so desperately little to go on. It was a common enough trouble in detective work certainly, but this business was worse than the average. He could not recall a case which offered fewer clues or ‘leads’.
As he turned over in his mind all that he had learned it seemed to him, indeed, that there was but one channel to be explored, and that a channel which offered a very poor chance of success—the £20 bank note. If he were unable to trace the £20 bank note, and the odds were enormously against his doing so, he did not see what other line of inquiry he could follow up.
Of course, there was the usual police question: ‘Who was seen in the -vicinity of the crime at the time of its commission?’ But he had already put this inquiry to Kent and the answer had been: ‘No one.’
If. as seemed likely, Tarkington’s theory were true and this crime had been committed by the burglars who had already brought off so many coups in the district, Fr n h was up against a very able gang. For over six morihs the police had been searching for these men and they seemed no nearer finding them now than in the beginning.
The bank note, then, appeared to be the only chance, and French decided that he would begin operations by trying to trace the passer, trusting that if this line failed, some other would by that time have opened out.
The night was still young, and desiring to lose no time, French left his comfortable corner in the bar and went out to call on Mr. Tarkington.
The bank manager was greatly interested when French revealed his calling and mission. He willingly repeated all he knew about old Simon Averill and his finances and explained his theories at length.
“The only other thing I wish to ask you,” French remarked when the other showed signs of coming to an end, “is about previous sums sent out to Starvel. Your clerk kept a record of the numbers of all the twentypound notes sent in the last consignment, but have you a similar record of former consignments?”
Mr. Tarkington nodded.
“I early appreciated that point and made inquiries,” he replied in his precise, measured tones. “By my own instructions it has been the practice to keep such records of all notes over ten pounds in value, and this was done in tlTe case of those sent to Starvel. The records, however, are not retained very long, and I did not hope to be able to lay my hands on those of earlier consignments. But by a piece of pure chance my clerk, Bloxham, found some earlier records in an old notebook, and I am able to give you the numbers of the notes of eleven; not consecutive consignments, but stretching at intervals over nearly five years. They cover £3860, all of which was sent to Starvel in twenties; that is 193 twenties. I have their numbers here.”
“That’s'a piece of luck for me,” French commented, as he pocketed the list which the other passed him. “Curious that Mr. Averill collected twenty-pound notes. Why not fifties or hundreds or tens?”
Mr. Tarkington shook his head.
“Like most of us,” he said, a hint of human kindness showing beneath his rather dry manner, “the poor old fellow had his weakness. Why he should prefer twenties to notes of other denominations I don’t know. I can only record the fact that he did.”
The next morning French occupied himself in making the acquaintance of the obvious dramatis personae in the case. He paid a long visit to Ruth Averill, hearing her story at first hand and questioning her on various details which occurred to him. Oxley he saw at his office and the lugubrious Abel Hesketh, the town officer, he found at the
toll room in the markets. He was wait ing for Dr. Emerson as the latter concluded his morning round, and he went to the trouble of an excursion over the moor to interview the red-haired farmer, George Mellowes, who had driven Roper home on the fatal night. Dr. Philpot he also called on, to obtain his impressions of the Starvel household. Lastly, he saw the bank clerk Bloxham, who struck him at once as a man of character. Though seemingly not more than thirty, he had a strangely old face, sardonic and determined, looking almost sinister. He gave his testimony with a refreshing restraint of words, and seemed to have observed carefully and to know just what he had seen. He said that on three occasions when he was at Starvel Mr. Averill had opened his safe and he had had a glimpse of its contents. From the size of the stacks of notes he would estimate that these contained possibly 1500 separate notes. If these were twenties that would mean £30,000. There was also a cardboard box of sovereigns. If he had not heard the number he would have estimated it at two thousand.
To all of these people, except Oxley, who already knew the truth, French accounted for himself by the story of the detective employed to ascertain the cause of an unexplained fire. All seemed anxious to help him, but unfortunately none could tell him anything more than he already knew.
Having thus completed the obvious local inquiries, he felt free to follow up the matter of the £20 note. He, therefore, left Thirsby by the afternoon train and late that night reached St. Paneras. Next morning saw him at the headquarters of the Northern Shires Bank in Throgmorton Avenue. In five minutes he was closeted with the manager, who shook his head when he heard what was required of him.
“I naturally imagined some such question might arise,” the manager said, “and I questioned the clerk who had received the note. At first he was unable to give me even the slightest hint, but on thinking over the matter he said the balance of probability was in favor of its having been paid in by the messenger from Cook’s office in Regent Street. He explained that in Cook’s deposit, which was an unusually heavy one, there were no less than seventeen notes for twenty pounds, and he remarked to the messenger: ‘You’re strong in twenties to-day.’ It was shortly afterwards that the clerk discovered he held one of the numbers sent in by Mr. Tarkington. He had twenty-two twenties in hand when he made his discovery and he believed he had not parted with any since the Cook lodgment, therefore, the chances that the note came from Cook’s are as seventeen to five.”
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“There b no certainty about that,” said French.
“No certainty, but a good sporting chance,” the manager returned with a smile as he bade his visitor good day
The next step was obviously Cook’s office. Here again French asked for the manager, and here again that gentleman shook his head when French stated his business.
“I should be only too glad to help you, Mr. French,” he declared, "but I fear it is quite impossible. In the first place we don't know the numbers of any of the notes which passed through our hands, and we don’t, therefore, know if we had the one in which you are interested. Apparently you don't even know it yourself. But even if we did know, we couldn't possibly tell you who paid it in. So rauch m sney comes in over the counter that individual notes could not be traced. And then we have no idea of the date upon which we received this one, if we did receive it. You think we lodged it yesterday week. We might have done so and yet have received it weeks before. You see. we keep a fairly large sum in our safe in connection with our foreign exchange department.”
“Do you give receipts for all monies received?”
“For most transactions. But not all. If a man came in for a ticket to Harrogate, for example, we should hand him the ticket, and the ticket would be his receipt. Again, no note other than that of the actual sums passing is taken in our exchange department.”
French smiled ruefully.
“It doesn’t seem to get any more hopeful as it goes on, does it?” he remarked, continuing after a moment’s silence. “You see what I'm trying to get at, don’t you? If I could look over your receipts for some time prior to yesterday week I might find a name and address which would suggest a line of inquiry.”
"I follow you.” the manager returned. “It is just possible that you might get something that way, though I must warn you it is most unlikely. You see, the balance of the payments in notes would not, in the nature of things, require receipts, and conversely most of the accounts requiring receipts are paid by cheque. However if you wish to make a search, I am prepared to help you. How far back do you want to go?”
“The note in question was known to be in the possession of the dead man on Friday, 10th September. It was discovered in the bank here on Monday, October 18th. That is," he took out his engagement book and rapidly counted, “thirty-three working days: a little over five weeks." He looked deprecatingly at the other, then added: “Rather a job to go through all that, I’m afraid.” “It’ll take time,” the manager admitted. “But that’s your funeral. If you wish to see our books, I shall be pleased to facilitate you in every way I can.”
French thanked him and a few minutes later was hard at work under the guidance of a clerk going through interminable lists of names and addresses. For two hours he kept on steadily, then suddenly surprised his companion by giving a muttered curse. He had come on a name which dashed all his hopes and showed him that his one clue was a wash out. The item read:—
“Oct. 5th. Pierce Whymper, Oaklands, Bolton Road, Leeds— £16 Ss 4d.”
“Curse it!" French thought. “There goes all my work! There’s where the twenty-pound note came from all right. That young man has been out at Starvel before the fire and Averill has given him the note for some purpose of his own.
He asked the clerk to take him once again to the manager.
“Your kind help, sir, and this young gentleman’s, has not been wasted.” he began. “I’ve almost certainly got the man who gave you the note. Unfortunately, however, he turns out to be some one who could have obtained it from its owner in a perfectly legitimate way. So I fear its usefulness as a clue is nil. At the same time I should like to follow up the transaction and make quite sure it Í3 all right.
It is this one that I have marked —name of Whymper.”
“Fortunately,” the manager answered, “that is an earier proposition than the la3t.” He directed the clerk to conduct French to a Mr. Bankes. “Mr.
Bankes “ill give you details about that tase,” he went on "ar.d if there is anything further you require, just come back to me."
Mr. Bankes proved most willing to assist, and in a few moments the whole of the transactions between Mr. Pierce Whymper of the one part and Me3sr3. Thos. Cook & Son of the other part, stood revealed. They were as follows:—
On Saturday, 18th September, the day of the inquest at Thirsby, Whymper had written to ask the cost of a second class return ticket from London to Talloires, near Annecy, Savoy, and to know if a passport would be necessary for the journey, and if so where such was to be obtained. This letter was received at Cook’s on Monday evening and replied to on Tuesday 21st. Two days later Whymper wrote asking Messrs. Cook to provide the tickets as well as various coupons for meals, etc., en route, which, lie said, he would call for on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 6th. He evidently had done so, as on that date a receipt had been made out to him for the $16 Ss. 4d.
“What was the route covered?” French inquired.
“Dover-Calais, Paris Nord, Paris P.L.M., Bourg, Amberieu, Culoz, and Aix-les-bains. Return the same way. Meals on the outward journey were included as well as three days’ pension at the Hotel Splendid, An necy.”
“1 don’t know Annecy at all. What kind of place is it?”
“Delightful little town on the lake of the same name. A tourist place, becoming better known in recent years. 1 could recommend it for any one who liked a fairly quiet change.”
“But surely October is too late for it?”
“Well, yes, it’s rather late. Still, I have no doubt it would be pleasant enough even then.”
Next day French travelled back to Thirsby.
From the talkative Miss Judith Carr, the barmaid at the Thirsby Arms, French learned that Whymper had lodgings on the outskirts of the town, at 12 Stanhope Terrace, and when dusk had fallen he went out to make, the young man’s acquaintance.
WHYMPER was at work on some plans when French was shown into his sitting-room. He was a typical, healthy-looking Englishman of the upper middle class. French observed him with some favor, as not at all the type to be mixed up in criminal enterprises. He rose on French’s entry, and with a slight look of surprise, indicated an armchair at the fire.
“Mr. Pierce Whymper?”
French began with his pleasant smile. “My name is French, and I called to see you on a small matter in which I am going to ask your kind help.”
Whymper murmured encouragingly.
“I must explain in the very
strictest confidence,” French went on, glancing searchingly at the other, “that I am an inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard, and it is in connection with an investigation I am making that I want your assistance.”
As he spoke French had been watching his companion, not with inimical intent, but as a matter of mere habit. He was surprised and interested to notice a look of apprehension amounting almost to fear in the young man’s eyes, while his face paled perceptibly, and he moved uneasily in his seat. French decided at once to be more careful in his examination than he had intended.
“I have been,” he resumed, “working at Messrs. Cook’s office in Regent Street. I need not go into details, but there has been a robbery, and they have been handling some of the stolen money. Your name appeared among others who had been dealing with them during the period in question, and I am trying to find out if you or these others could unwittingly have passed in the money.”
That Whymper was experiencing considerable relief French was sure. He did not reply, but nodded expectantly.
“I can ask everything I want in a single question.” French’s voice was friendly and matter of fact, though he watched the other intently. “Where did you get the twenty-pound note with which you paid for your trip to Annecy?”
Whymper started and the signs of uneasiness showed tenfold more strongly.
“Where did I get it?” he stammered, while French noted the admission his bluff had drawn. “Why I could not tell you. I had it for a considerable time. It probably came in my pay.”
“You get your pay in notes?” French’s voice was stern.
“Well, sometimes—that is, I may have got the note from my father. He makes me an allowance.” The young man twisted nervously in his chair and gave every sign of embarrassment. French, whose experience of statement makers was profound, said to himself: ‘The man’s lying.’
It did not occur to him that this thoroughly normal looking youth could be guilty of the Starvel Hollow crime, but it suddenly seemed possible that he might know something about it.
“I should like you to think carefully, Mr. Whymper. The matter is more serious than perhaps you realize. You handed Messrs. Cook a stolen twenty-pound note. I am not suggesting that you stole it or that you are in any way to blame for passing it. But you must tell me where you got it. You cannot expect me to believe that you don’t know. Twenty-pound notes are too uncommon for that.”
Rather to French’s surprise the young man began once more to show relief.
“But that’s what I must tell you, Inspector,” he declared, but he did not meet French’s eye, and again the other felt he was lying. “I have had that note for a long time and I don’t really remember how it came into my possession.” “Now, Mr. Whymper, as a friend I should urge you to think again. I am not making any threats, but it may become very awkward for you if you persist in that statement. Think it over. I assure you it will be worth your while.”
French spoke coaxingly and the other promised he would try to remember. He seemed to French like a man who felt he had been exposed to a danger which was now happily past. But if he thought he had got rid of his visitor he was mistaken.
“When were you last at Starvel, Mr. Whymper?”
At this question Whymper seemed to crumple up. He stared at his questioner with an expression of something very like horror. When he answered it was almost in a whisper.
“The day after the fire. I have not been there since.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean, when were you last there before the fire?”
Whymper’s composure was coming back. He seemed to be nerving himself for a struggle. He spoke more normally.
“Really, I couldn’t tell you, Inspector. It was a long time ago. I was only there half a dozen times in my life. Once it was by Miss Averill’s invitation, the other times on the chance of seeing her.”
“Were you there within a week of the fire?”
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“Oh, no. The last time was long before that.”
“Had you any communication, with Mr. Averill—I mean within a week of the fire?”
“No. I never had any communication with Mr. Averill. I have never seen him.”
“Or with any one in the household; either by letter telegram, telephone, personal interview or in any other way whatever?”
"Yes. I met Miss Averill accidentally on the day before the fire. Mrs. Oxley, the wife of a solicitor here, came round to the church where I am working to see about some stones she was buying, and Miss Averill was with her Miss Averill was on her way to stay with some friends and I saw her to the station.”
Did she give you the twenty-pound note?”
She did nothing of the kind.” Whymper returned with some heat.
Was Miss Averill the only member of the Starvel household with whom you communicated during the week
before the fire?”
Whymper hesitated and appeared to be thinking.
•Well. Mr. Whymper?”
I met Roper, Mr. AveriU's valet and general man, for a moment on the evening of the fire. We met by chance and merely wished each other good-evening.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“On the street just outside the church gate. I was leaving work for the night.”
“At what hour was that?”
“About half-past five.”
“And do you assure me that you had no other communication with any member of the Starvel household during the period in question?
“Nor received any message through any third party?”
Well. Mr. Whymper, it is only fair to tell you that the rote m question was in Mr. Averill’s safe five days before the fire. You will have to explain how it came into your possession, if not to me, then later on in court. Now think” French's voice was suave and coaxing, “would you not rather tell me here in private than have it dragged out of you in the witness box?”
“I would tell you at once, Mr. French, if I had anything to tell, but I've nothing. There must be some mistake about the note. The one I gave to Messrs. Cook couldn't possibly have been in Mr. Averill’s safe at any time.”
The words sounded reasonable, but Whymper’s manner discounted them. More than ever was French convinced that the man was lying. He pressed him as hard as he could, but Whymper stuck to his story and nothing that French could say shook him.
Recognizing he had failed for the moment, French set himself to calm the other’s anxieties before taking his leave. He pretended to accept the young man’s statement, saying he was afraid his journey had proved a wildgoose chase, and that he would now have to interview the other persons whose names he had obtained from Cook's. Whether his efforts were successful he wasn’t sure, but the look of relief on Whymper’s face made him think so. Outwardly at all events both men seemed to consider the incident closed when, after French had again warned the other as to secrecy, they bade each other g'xidnight.
BUT to French it was very far, indeed, from being closed. He saw that the matter must be probed to the bottom. There was, however, nothing he could do that night except to take one obvious precaution. Whymper must be watched, and going to the police station r.e surprised Sergeant Kent considerably by asking him 10 put the young man under careful surveillance.
This precaution was a bow drawn at a venture, but to r rench’3 surprise and delight, on the very next day it proved that the arrow had found its way between the joints of Whymper’s harness. While he was breakfasting a note was brought to him from Kent. In it the sergeant said th^t as a result of the order to put a watch on Whymper. Constable Sheldrake had made a statement which he, Kent, thought the inspector should hear. Sheldrake said that on the evening of the fire he had spent a couple of his free hours in taking a walk in the direction of Starvel with a friend of his, a young lady. Between half-past nine and ten the two were approaching the junction where the Starvel lane diverged from the road which circled round the outside of the hollow when they heard steps approaching. Not wishing to be observed, they had slipped behind aome bushes, and they had seen a man coming from the Starvel lane. He had passed close to them, and by the .ight of the moon Constable Sheldrake had not only recognized Whymper, but had 3een that his face bore an expression of horror and distress. At the time there was no suspicion either of Whymper or of foul play at Starvel, and the constable, not wishing to be chaffed about the girl, had not mentioned the matter. But now he believed it -to be his duty to come forward with his report.
Here was food for thought. The Starvel lane after .passing -through .the Hollow almost petered out. As a
rough track it wound on past one or two isolated cottages, debouching at last into a cross road some four miles farther on. It was, therefore, most unlikely that Whymper could have been coming from anywhere except Starvel. But if he had been coming from Starvel he had lied, as he had stated that lie had not been there within a week of the fire.
This fact made French’s next step all the more imperative. lie went down to the police station and saw Kent.
"Look here, sergeant,” lie explained, “I want to search that young man’s rooms and I want your help. Will you do two things for me? First, 1 want you to find out at what time he goes home in the evening and let me know, and second to make some pretext to keep him half an hour later than usual at the church to-night. Can you manage that?”
"Of course, Mr. French. You may count on me.”
Kent was as good as his word. When French returned to the hotel in the afternoon a note was waiting for him, saying that Whymper always reached home about six. Accordingly ten minutes before six found French once more knocking at the door of 12 Stanhope Terrace.
“Has Mr. Whymper come back yet?” he asked the stout, good-humored looking landlady.
She recognized her visitor of the night before and smiled.
“Not yet, sir. But he won’t be long. Will you come in and wait?”
This was what French wanted. It was better that she should suggest it than he. He paused doubtfully.
“Thanks,” he said at last, “perhaps it would be better if you think he won’t be long.”
“He might be here any time. Will you go up, sir? You know your way.”
French thanked her and slowly mounted the stairs. But once in Whymper’s sitting-room with the door shut behind him his deliberation dropped from him like a cloak and he became the personification of swift efficiency. Noiselessly he turned the key in the lock and then quickly but silently began a search of the room.
It was furnished rather more comfortably than the average lodging-house sitting room, though it retained its family resemblance to the dreary species. In the centre was a table on half of which was a more or less white cloth and the preparations for a meal. Two dining-room chairs and two easy chairs, one without arms, represented the seating accommodation. A sideboard, a corner cabinet laden with nondescript ornaments, a china dog and a few books, together with a small modern roll-top desk completed the furniture.
French immediately realized that of all these objects only the desk was of interest to him. It was evident.y Whymper’s private property, and in its locked drawers would lie any secret documents the young man might possess. Silently French got to work with his bunch of skeleton keys and a little apparatus of steel wire, and in two or three minutes he was able to push the lid gently up. This released the drawers, and one by one he drew them out and ran through their contents.
He had examined rather more than half when he pursed his lips together and gave vent to a soundless whistle. In a small but bulky envelope at the back of one of the drawers was a roll of banknotes. He drew them out and counted them. They were all twenties. Twentyfour of them — £480.
With something approaching excitement French took from his pocket the list given him by Tarkington of the numbers of twenty-pound notes sent to Starvel. A few seconds sufficed to compare. Every single one of the twenty-four was on the list!
HAVING noted the twenty-four numbers, French hurriedly replaced the notes and with even more speed looked through the remaining drawers. He was now chiefly anxious that Whymper should not suspect his discovery, and as soon as he was satisfied that he had left no traces of his search, he silently unlocked the door and then walked noisily downstairs. As he reached the hall the landlady appeared from the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said politely, “that I cannot wait any longer now. I have another appointment. Please tell Mr. Whymper that I’ll call to see him at the church to-morrow.”
The door closed behind him, but he made no attempt to return to the hotel. Instead he hung about the terrace until he saw Whymper approaching in the distance. Then walking towards him, he hailed him as if their meeting was accidental.
“Good-evening, Mr. Whymper. I’ve just been calling at your rooms to ask if you could see me at the church to-morrow. One or two points occurred to me in connection with our discussion of last night, and I wanted to get your views on them. Unfortunately I have an appointment to-night, and cannot wait now.”
Whymper, evidently not too pleased at the prospect, curtly admitted he would be available, and with a short “Good-night,” passed on.
French went his way also, but when in a few seconds the shadowing constable put in an appearance, he stopped
"Look here, Hughes. I have a suspicion that Whymper iriay try to get rid of some papers to-night. Be specially careful if you see him trying to do anything of the kind, and let me hear from you about it in the morning.”
He reached the hotel and in his pleasant way had a leisurely chat with the landlord before turning in. But when once he reached his room for the night he lit a cigar and settled down to see just where he stood.
He racked his brains as to whether there was no other statement of Whymper’s which he could check. Then he remembered that the young architect had admitted having seen Roper on the afternoon of the tragedy. This was a point of contact with Starvel, and French wondered whether more might not have passed between the two men than Whymper had divulged. He decided that it would be worth while trying to find out.
According to his own statement Whymper had met Roper outside the church gate at about 5.30 in the evening in question. Next morning, therefore, French strolled to the church, and getting into conversation with one of the workmen, learned that the sexton was usually waiting to lock up when the men left at 5.15. From the notice board he learned the sexton’s address, ran him to earth and explained that he wished to speak to him confidentially.
To his customary story of the insurance company who wished to discover the cause of the Starvel fire he added some slight embroidery. At the inquest a suggestion was made of contributory negligence—in other words, drink —and his instructions were to find out what he could about this possibility.
Now he had heard that Roper was seen outside the church gate about 5.30 on the afternoon of the tragedy and he, French, wondered whether the sexton might not have noticed him when locking up.
It was a long shot, but rather to French’s surprise, it got a bull’s eye. The sexton had seen Mr. Roper. Mr. Whymper, the young gentleman in charge of the renovation, had been ten or fifteen minutes late finishing up that evening and he, the sexton, had waited by the gate till he should leave. While there he had noticed Roper. The man seemed to be hanging about as if waiting for some one, and when Mr. Whymper appeared, Roper went up and spoke to him. The two men talked together as if Roper were delivering a message, then they separated, walking off in opposite directions. They talked, the sexton was sure, for two or three minutes. No, he did not observe the slightest sign of drink on Mr. Roper. As a matter of fact the man wished him good-evening and he could swear he was then perfectly sober.
“Well, I’m glad to know that,” French declared, “though I suppose it is really against my company. But I expect we shall have to pay in any case. Now, I think I’d best see this Mr. Whymper you speak of, and get his confirmation of your views.”
“You’ll find him in the church, probably in the north transept where they’re rebuilding the window.”
French did not, however, go immediately to the north transept of the church. Instead he found his way to the residence of a certain Colonel Followes, a prominent magistrate with a reputation for discretion, whose name had been given him by Sergeant Kent. He took the colonel into his confidence, made the necessary formal statement and obtained a warrant for the arrest of Pierce Whymper. Whether or not he would execute it would depend on the young man’s answers to his further questions, but he wished to be able to do so if it seemed wise.
Returning to the church, French found his quarry superintending the resetting of the stone mullions of the beautiful north transept window. He waited until the young man was free, then said that he would be glad if they could now have their talk.
“Come into the vestry room,” Whymper returned. “I use it as an office and we won’t be disturbed.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Whymper,” French said, “to have to return to the subject we discussed last night, but since then further facts have come to my knowledge which render it necessary. I think it right to tell you that these facts suggest that you may be guilty of a number of extremely serious crimes. I am, however, aware that facts, improperly understood, may be misleading, and I wish, therefore, to give you an opportunity of explaining the matters which seem to incriminate you. I would like to ask you a number of questions, but before I do so I must warn you that if your answers are unsatisfactory I must arrest you, and then anything you have said may be used in evidence against you.”
Whymper had paled slightly while the other was speaking. “I shall try to answer your questions,” he said in a low voice, and French resumed: —
“The main question is, of course, the one I asked you last night: Where did you get the twenty-pound note with which you paid Messrs. Cook? You needn t tell me that you don’t know. Apart from the improbability of that I have absolute proof that you know quite well. Now, Mr. Whymper, if you are innocent you have nothing to fear. Tell me the truth I can promise you I will give your statement every consideration.”
“I have already explained that I don’tknow where the note came from.”
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French paused, frowning and looking inquiringly at the other.
“Very well,” he said at last, “let us leave it at that for the moment. Now tell me : Did you receive any other money from Mr. Averill or Miss Averill, or Roper or Mrs. Roper within three or four days of the fire?”
“There was a matter of a certain £500. It was in Mr. Averill’s safe four days before the fire. All but twenty pounds of it was in your possession last night. Now where did you obtain that money?”
In spite of his being prepared for the worst, Whymper seemed completely taken aback by the question. He did not answer, but sat staring at the Inspector, while an expression of utter hopelessness grew on his face. French went on:— “You see, Mr. Whymper, I know all about your having that money. And I know that you were at Starvel on the night of the fire. I know also that your interview with Roper outside the church on that same evening involved a good deal more than a mere exchange of good-nights. Come now, I want to give you the chance of making a statement, but I don’t want to press you. If you would like to reserve your replies until you have consulted your solicitor, by all means do so. But in that case I shall have to take you into custody.”
FOR some moments Whymper did not speak. He seemed overcome by French’s words and unable to reach a
decision. French did not hurry him. He had sized up his man and he believed he would presently get his information. But at last, as Whymper remained silent, he said more sternly:—
“Come now, Mr. Whymper, you’ll have to make up your mind, you know.”
His words seemed to break the spell and Whymper replied.
“I wanted to keep this matter secret,” he began, “for quite personal reasons. The £500 you speak of, of which the money I paid to Cook was a part, was not stolen. It never occurred to me to imagine I could be accused of stealing it. I don't see now what makes you think I did. However, I see that I must tell you the truth so far as I can and I may begin by admitting that what I have said up to now was not the truth.”
French nodded in approval.
“That’s better, Mr. Whymper. I am glad you are taking this line. Believe me, you will find it the best for yourself.”
“I’m afraid I can’t take any credit for it. I needn’t pretend I would have told you if I could have helped myself. However, this is what happened:—
“On that Wednesday evening of the fire, as I left the church about half-past five, I saw Roper outside the gate. He seemed to be waiting for me and he came up and said he had a message for me from Mr. Averill. Mr. Averill wasn't very well or he would have written, but he wanted to see me on very urgent and secret busi-
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ness. Roper asked could I come out that night to Starvel and see Mr. Averill, without mentioning my visit to any one. I said I should be out there shortly after eight o’clock, and we parted.”
Again French nodded. This was a good beginning. So far it covered the facts.
“I walked out as I had promised. Roper opened the door. He showed me into the drawing-room and asked me to wait until he had informed Mr. Averill. He was absent for several minutes and then he came back to say that Mr. Averill was extremely sorry, but he was feeling too ill to see me. He, had, however, written me a note, and Roper handed me a bulky envelope.
“I was fairly surprised when I opened it for it contained banknotes, and when I counted them I was more surprised still. There were twenty-five of them and they were all for £20: no less than £500 altogether. There was a note with them. I don’t remember the exact words, but Mr. Averill said he was sorry he was too unwell to undertake what must be a painful interview, that he didn’t wish to put the facts in writing, that Roper was entirely in his confidence in the matter and would explain it, and that as I should want money for what he was going to ask me to do, he was enclosing £500, to which he would add a further sum if I found I required it.
“Roper then went on to tell me a certain story. I can only say that it is quite impossible for me to repeat it, but it involved a visit to France. Mr. Averill would have preferred to have gone himself but he was too old and frail, and he could not spare Roper. He asked me would I undertake it for him. The money was for my expenses, if I would go. The matter was, however, very confidential, and this I could see for myself.
“I agreed to go to France, and took the notes. I left Starvel about half-past nine, and walked back to my rooms. Next day came the news of the tragedy. This put me in a difficulty as to the mission to France. But I saw that my duty would be to go just as if Mr. Averill was still alive. So I went, as you seem to know, but I was unable to carry out the work Mr. Averill had wished me to do. Instead, therefore, of spending four or five hundred pounds as I had expected to, the trip only cost me my traveling expenses, and I was left with £480 of Mr. Averill’s money on my hands. At first I thought I had better hand it over to Mr. Oxley, Mr. Averill’s solicitor, but afterwards I decided to keep it and go out again to France and have another try at the business.”
French was puzzled by the story. It certainly hung together and it certainly was consistent with all the facts he had learned from other sources. Moreover, Whymper’s manner was now quite different. He spoke convincingly and French felt inclined to believe him. On the other hand, all that he had said could have been very easily invented. If he persisted in his refusal to disclose his business in France, French felt he could not officially accept his statement.
“That may be all very well, Mr. Whymper,” he said. “I admit that what you have told me may be perfectly true. I am not saying whether I myself believe it or not, but I will say this, that no jury on the face of this earth would believe it. Moreover, as it stands, your story cannot be tested. You must tell the whole of it. You must say what was the mission Mr. Averill asked you to undertake in France. If I can satisfy myself about it there is no need for any one else to know. Now, be advised, and since you have gone so far, complete your statement.”
The hopeless look settled once more on Whymper’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he said despondently. “I can’t. It’s not my secret.”
“But Mr. Averill is now dead. That surely makes a difference. Besides, it is impossible that he could wish to get you
into the most serious trouble any man could be in because of even a criminal secret. Tell me in confidence, Mr. Whymper. I’ll promise not to use the information unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Whymper shook his head. “I can’t tell,” he repeated.
French’s tone became a trifle sterner.
“I wonder if you quite understand the position. It has been established that some person or persons went to Starvel on the evening we are speaking of, murdered Mr. Averill and Roper and his wife,” Whymper gave an exclamation of dismay, “stole Mr. Averill’s fortune and then set fire to the house. So far as we know, you alone visited the house that night, some of the stolen money was found in your possession, and when I give you the chance of accounting for your actions, you don’t take it. Do you not understand, Mr. Whymper, that if you persist in this foolish attitude you will be charged with murder?”
Whymper’s face had become ghastly and an expression of absolute horror appeared on his features. For a moment he sat motionless, and then he looked French straight in the face.
"It’s not my secret. I can’t tell you,” he declared with a sudden show of energy and then sank back into what seemed the lethargy of despair.
French was more puzzled than ever. The facts looked as bad as possible, and yet if Whymper’s tale were true, he might be absolutely innocent. And French’s inclination was to believe the story so far as it went. The secret might be something discreditable affecting, not Mr.,but Miss Averill, which would account for the man’s refusal to reveal it.
Whether or not he should arrest the young man was to French a problem which grew in difficulty the longer he considered it. On the whole, he was against it. If Whymper turned out to be innocent such a step would, of course, be a serious blunder, but even if he were guilty there were objections to it. Arrest might prevent him from doing something by which he would give himself away or at least indicate the correct line of research. Free, but with arrest hanging over him, the man would in all probability attempt to communicate with his accomplice—if he had one—and so give a hint of the latter’s identity. French made up his mind.
“I have more than enough evidence to arrest you now,” he said gravely, “but I am anxious first to put your story to a further test. I will, therefore, for the present only put you under police supervision. If you can see you way to complete your statement, I may be able to withdraw the supervision. By the way, have you got the note Mr. Averill enclosed with the £500?”
“Yes, it is in my rooms.”
“Then come along to your rooms now and give it to me. You had better hand over the notes also, for which, of course, I’ll give you a receipt. I shall also want a photograph of yourself and a sample of your handwriting.”
When French reached the hotel he took out some samples of Mr. Averill’s handwriting which he had obtained from Mr. Tarkington and compared them with that of Whymper’s note. But he saw at a glance that there was nothing abnormal here. All were obviously by the same hand.
That evening after racking his brains over his problem it was borne in on him that a visit to Annecy was his only remaining move. It was not hopeful, but as he put it to himself, you never knew. He felt there was nothing more to be learned at Thirsby, but he might find something at Annecy which would give him a lead.
He saw Sergeant Kent and urged him to keep a close watch on Whymper’s movements, then next day he went up to town and put the case before Chief Inspector Mitchell.
That evening at 8.30 French left
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Victoria and early next morning reached Paris. Crossing the city, he bathed and breakfasted at the Gare de Lyon, and taking the 8.10 a.m. express, spent the day watching the great central plain of France roll past the carriage windows.
At Aix French changed, completing his journey on a little branch line and reaching Annecy just in time for dinner. He drove to the Splendid, where Whymper liad stayed, a large hotel looking out across a wide street at the side of which came up what looked like a river, but which lie afterwards found was an arm of the lake.
AFTER dinner French asked for the manager, and producing his photograph of Whymper, inquired if any one resembling it liad recently stayed at the hotel. But yes, the manager remembered his guest’s friend perfectly. He had stayed, he could not say how long from memory, but he would consult the register. Would monsieur be so amiable as to follow him? Yes, here it was. M. Whymper?—was it not so? M. Whymper had arrived on Friday the 8th of September an d had stayed for three nights, leaving on Monday the 11th. No, the manager could not tell what his business had been nor how he had employed his time.
French had not expected to learn more than this from the manager. He remembered that in his original letter to Cook Whymper had asked for Talloires, and he now spoke of the place. Talloires, it appeared, was a small village on the east side of the lake, rather more than halfway down. A picturesque spot, the manager assured him, with no less than three hotels. If monsieur wished to visit it he should take the steamer. All the steamers called.
Next morning accordingly French took the steamer from the pleasant little Quay alongside the park.
Right opposite the pier at Talloires was a big hotel and there French, having ordered a drink, began to make inquiries. But no one had seen the original of the photograph, or recollected hearing a name like Whymper.
Another large hotel was standing close by, and French strolled towards it beneath a grove of fine old tre^s which grew down to the water’s edge. This hotel building had been a monastery and French enjoyed sauntering through the old cloisters, which he was told, formed the salle a manger during the hot weather.
Having done justice to an excellent dejeuner, he returned to business, producing his photograph and asking his questions. And here he met with immediate success. Both the waiter who attended him and the manager remembered Whymper. The young architect had, it appeared, asked to see the manager and had inquired if he knew where in the neighborhood a M. Prosper Giraud had lived. When the manager replied that no such person had been there while he had been manager—over five years—Whymper had been extremely disconcerted. He had then asked if a Mme. Madeleine Blancquart was known, and on again receiving a negative reply, had been more upset than ever. He had left after lunch and the manager had heard that he had repeated his questions to the police. >C
In ten minutes French was at the local gendarmerie, where he learned that not only had Whymper made the same inquiries, but had offered a reward of 5,000 francs for information as to the whereabouts of either of the mysterious couple. Interrogations on the same point had been received from the police at Annecy, so presumably Whymper had visited them also.
This supposition French confirmed on returning to the little town. Whymper had made his inquiries and offered his reward there also and had seemed terribly disappointed by his failure to locate the people. He had left his address and begged that if either of the persons were heard of a wire should be sent him immediately.
As French made his way back to London he felt that in one sense his journey had not been wasted. Whymper’s actions seemed on the whole to confirm his story. French did not believe he would have had the guile to travel out all that way, and to show such feeling over a failure to find purely imaginary people.
The more French considered the whole affair, the more likely he thought it that there really was a secret in the Averill family, a secret so important or so sinister that Whymper was willing to chance arrest rather than reveal it. And if so, it could concern but one person. Surely for Ruth Averill alone would the young man run such a risk. And then French remembered that until the fire, that was, until Whymper’s visit to Starvel, the courtship of the young people had been going strong, whereas after the tragedy the affair had seemed at a standstill. There was some secret vitally affecting Ruth. French felt he could swear it. And what form would such a secret be likely to take? French determined that on his return he would make some guarded inquiries as to the girl’s parentage.
But when he reached London he found a fresh development had taken place, and his thoughts for some time to come were led into a completely new channel.
rT*'HE cause of Inspector French’s change of outlook on the Starvel case was a note from Sergeant Kent which was waiting for him on his arrival at Scotland Yard. The sergeant wrote enclosing a letter addressed to ‘The Heirs or Assigns of the late Mr. John Roper, Starvel, Thirsby, Yorkshire, W.R.’. The postmaster, he explained, had shown it to him, asking him if he knew to whom it should be forwarded. Though he did not suppose it could have anything to do with the tragedy, the sergeant thought that French should see it.
“No good,” French thought. “Nothing to me.” Nevertheless he slit open the envelope and withdrew the contents.
It was a letter headed ‘The Metropolitan Safe Deposit Co., Ltd., 25b King William Street, City’, and read as follows:—
‘Dear Sir or Madam,—We beg to remind you that the late Mr. John Roper of Starvel, Thirsby, Yorkshire, W.R., was the holder of a small safe in our strongrooms. The rent of the safe, 30s. (thirty shillings stg.) is now due, and we should be glad to receive this sum from you or alternatively to have your instructions as to disposal of its contents.
‘For The Metropolitan Safe Deposit Co., Ltd.’
To French it seemed a rather unusual thing that a man in Roper’s position should require the services of a safe deposit company. He could not but feel a certain curiosity regarding the object which required such careful guarding. As things were he supposed he had as much right as anybody to deal with the affair, and as it was but a short distance to King William Street, he decided he would go down and investigate.
Half an hour later he was explaining the position to the manager. As far as was known, Roper had no relatives or heirs. His safe would, therefore, be given up, and on behalf of Scotland Yard, he, French, would take charge of its contents.
The contents in question proved to be a small sealed envelope, and when French had once again reached the seclusion of his own office he tore it open and ran his eye over its enclosure. As he did so his eyes grew round and he gave vent to a low, sustained whistle. To say that he was at that moment the most astonished man in London would be a very inadequate description of his sensations.
The enclosure consisted of a single sheet of gray note paper with an address,
'Braeside. Kintillock, Fife’, printed in small embossed letters at the top. One side was covered with writing, a man’s hand, cultivated, but somewhat tremulous. It read:—
15th May, 1921.
T, Herbert Philpot, doctor of medicine and at present assistant on the staff of the Ransome Institute in this town, under compulsion and in the hope of avoiding exposure, hereby remorsefully confess that I am guilty of attempting the death of my wife, Fdna Philpot, by arranging that she should meet with an accident, and when this merely rendered lier unconscious, of killing her by striking lier on the temple with a cricket bat. I do not state my overwhelming sorrow and despair, for these are beyond words!
‘May God have mercy on me,
French swore in amazement as he read this extraordinary document. Dr. Herbert Philpot! Surely that was the Thirsby doctor? He turned to his notes of the case. Yes, the name was Herbert all right. Presumably it was the same man. At all events it would be easy to find out.
But what under the sun did the document mean? Was it really a statement, of fact, a genuine confession of murder, written by Philpot? If so, how had it fallen into the hands of Roper, and what had the man been keeping it for? Had he been blackmailing Philpot? Or was the whole thing a forgery? French was completely puzzled.
His hand stole toward his pocket and half unconsciously he filled and lit his pipe, puffing out clouds of blue smoke while he thought over this latest development. If the confession were genuine and if Roper were blackmailing Philpot, Philpot would want to get rid of Roper. Could it, therefore, be possible that Philpot was in some way mixed up with the Starvel crime?
But this was sheer idiocy! French pulled himself together. An inspector of his service ought to know better than to jump to conclusions! Hadn’t bitter experience again and again taught him its folly? Let him get hold of his data first.
And then French remembered having heard gossip to the effect that Philpot had gambled. He had taken it with a grain of salt for gossip was rarely reliable. But if Philpot had been gambling to the extent of embarrassing himself financially ... It was worth looking into anyway.
Obviously the first thing was to make sure that the Philpot of the confession really was the Thirsby doctor. This at least was easy. He sent for a medical directory and traced the Thirsby man’s career. A few seconds gave him his information.
Herbert Philpot was born in 1887, making him now 39 years old. He passed through Edinburgh University, taking his final in 1909. For a year he was at sea, and for two more years he worked in one of the Edinburgh hospitals. In 1913 he was appointed junior assistant at the Ransome Institution at Kintilloch, where he remained for eight years. In September, 1921—four months after the date of the confession, French noted—he set up for himself in Thirsby.
So that was that. French’s interest grew as he considered the matter. If the confession were genuine, the affair would be something in the nature of a scoop, not only for himself personally, but even for the great organisation of the Yard. It would create a first-class sensation. The powers that be would be pleased and certain kudos and possible promotion would be forthcoming.
French left the Yard and drove to the office of The Scotsman in Fleet Street. There he asked to see the files of the paper for the year 1921, and turning to the month of May, he began a search for news of an accident to a Mrs. Philpot at Kintilloch.
He found it sooner than he had expected. On the 17th May, two days
after the date of the confession, there was a short paragraph headed ‘Tragic Death of a Doctor’s Wife.’ It read:—
‘The little town of Kintilloch, Fife, has been thrown into mourning by the tragic death, on Tuesday evening, of Mrs. Edna Philpot, wife of Dr. Herbert Philpot, one of the staff of the Ransome Institute. The deceased lady in some way tripped while descending the stairs at her home, falling down the lower flight. Dr. Philpot, who was in his study, heard her cry and rushed out to find her lying unconscious in the hall. She was suffering from severe concussion and in spite of all his efforts, she passed away in a few minutes, even before the arrival of Dr. Ferguson, for whom Dr. Philpot had hurriedly telephoned. Mrs. Philpot took a prominent part in the social life of the town and her loss will be keenly felt.’
“It’s suggestive enough,” French thought, as he copied out the paragraph. “It looks as if she had been alone with him in the house. I must get more details.”
He returned to the Yard and put through a telephone call to the Detective Department of the Edinburgh police, asking that any information about the accident be sent him as soon as possible.
Two days later French received a voluminous dossier of the case from the authorities in Scotland. There were cuttings from several papers as well as three columns from the Kintilloch Weekly Argus. There was a detailed report from the local sergeant embodying a short history of all concerned, and a copy of Dr. Ferguson’s certificate of “death from concussion, resulting from a fall.” Finally there was a covering letter from the head of the department, marked “confidential,” which stated that, owing to some dissatisfaction in the mind of the local superintendent, the matter had been gone into more fully than might otherwise have been the case, but that this inquiry having evolved no suspicious circumstances, the affair had been dropped.
By the time he had read all the papers twice, French had a very good idea in his mind of what at least was supposed to have taken place. Dr. Philpot was third in command on the medical staff of the Ransome Institute, a large mental hospital about a mile from Kintilloch, a small town in Fifeshire. He was a man of retiring disposition, neither popular nor exactly unpopular, and pulling but a small weight in the public and social affairs of the little township. In May, 1914, he had married Miss Edna Menzies, the daughter of the manager of a large factory near Dundee. Miss Menzies was a pretty young woman with a vivacious manner and was a general favorite, particularly among the athletic and sporting sets of the community.
The Philpots, who had no children, lived at Braeside, a small detached house some half-mile from the town and a few hundred yards from the gate of the Ransome Institute. The only other member of the household was a general servant, Flora Macfarlane, who had been with them for over three years at the date of the tragedy and who was believed to be an efficient servant. But she was ‘ay one for the lads,’ as the local gossips expressed it, and though the breath of scandal had so far passed her by, dark hints were given and heads shaken when her doings came under review.
This girl, Flora, lived only a short di*tance from Braeside. For some week* before the tragedy her mother had been ailing, and she had formed the habit of running over to see her for a few minute* when her duties permitted. About 5.80 on the afternoon of the accident she had asked and obtained permission to make one of these visits, undertaking to be back in time to prepare dinner. This would normally have meant an absence of about half an hour. But as the girl left a heavy shower came on, with the result
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that, after sheltering under a tree for a few minutes, she abandoned her purpose and returned to the house some fifteen minutes earlier than she had expected. Braeside is built on sloping ground, the hall door being level with the road in front while the basement kitchen has an independent entrance to the lower ground behind. Flora used this lower entrance, and as she passed through she heard Dr. Philpot speaking in a loud and agitated voice. Something in the sound suggested disaster and she ran up the back stairs to the hall to see if anything was wrong. There she found Mrs. Philpot lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs, motionless and the color of death. As a matter of fact the lady was then dead, though Flora did not know this until later. Dr. Philpot, with an appearance of extreme anguish and despair, was telephoning for help. His call made, he put down the receiver and then, noticing the girl, cried: “She’s dead, Flora! She’s dead! She has fallen downstairs and been killed!” He was terribly upset and indeed seemed hardly sane for some hours. Presently Dr. Ferguson, the senior medical officer of the Institute, arrived and a few minutes later Sergeant MacGregor of the local
Dr. Philpot afterwards explained that he was writing letters in his study when he heard a sudden scream from his wife and a terrible noise like that of a body falling down the stairs. He rushed out to find Mrs. Philpot lying in a heap at the bottom of the lower flight. She was unconscious and a large contusion on her temple showed that she had struck her head heavily on the floor. He laid her on her back and tried everything that his knowledge suggested to bring her round, but it was evident that she had been fatally injured and in a minute or two she was dead. The doctor had been so busy attending to her that he had not had a moment to summon aid, but directly he saw that all was over he telephoned for his chief and the police.
The lower flight consisted of sixteen steps. At the top was a small landing. On this the stair carpet was worn and there was a tiny hole. After the tragedy the edge of this hole next the lower flight was found to be raised and torn. That, coupled with the fact that the deceased lady was wearing very high-heeled shoes, suggested the theory that she had met her death by catching her heel in the carpet while descending the stairs.
Such was the gist of the story as understood by French. He thought it over in some doubt, considering it from various angles. The tale certainly hung together, and there was nothing impossible in it. Everything indeed might well have taken place exactly as described, and French felt that had he not known of the confession, no suspicion of foul play would have entered his mind. But in the light of the confession he saw that the events might bear another interpretation. In any case, there was sufficient to justify a visit to Kintilloch.
But one point—a vital one—he could settle before starting, or so he believed. Walking down the Embankment to Charing Cross, he went to the writing room of the station hotel and wrote a letter on the hotel paper.
‘Dear Sir,—I should be grateful if you would kindly inform me if a man named Henry Fuller ever worked for you as gardener, and if so, whether you found him satisfactory. He has applied to me for a job, giving you as a reference.
‘Apologising for troubling you,
French addressed his letter to ‘Herbert Philpot, Esq., M.D., Thirsby, Yorkshire, W.R.’ and dropping it into the hotel letter box, returned to the Yard.
Two days later he called for the reply, explaining to the porter that he had intended to stay in the hotel but had had to change his plans. Dr. Philpot wrote briefly that there must be some mistake, as no one of the name mentioned had ever worked for him.
But French was not interested in the career of the hypothetical Henry Fuller. Instead he laid the letter down on his desk beside the confession and with a powerful lens fell to comparing the two.
He was soon satisfied. The confession was a forgery. The lens revealed a shakiness in the writing due to slow and careful formation of the letters which would not have been there had it been written at an ordinary speed. French had no doubt on the matter, but to make assurance doubly sure he sent the two documents to the Yard experts for a considered opinion. Before long he had their reply. His conclusion was correct, an enlarged photograph proved it conclusively.
To be continued