The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
Was the destruction of the gloomy house in Starvel Hollow murder and arson? Or was it ghostly accident? Inspector French found this riddle the most baffling problem of his career
FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS
RUTH AVERILL moved slowly across the drawingroom at Starvel, and stood dejectedly at the window, looking out at the Scotch firs swaying in the wind and the sheets of rain driving across the untidy lawn before the house.
The view was even more depressing than usual on this gloomy autumn afternoon. Beyond the grass-grown drive and the broken-down paling of posts and wire which bounded the grounds, lay the open moor, wild and lonely and forbidding. A tumble of dun-colored sedgy grass with darker smudges where rock out-cropped, it stretched up, bleak and dreary, to the lip of the hollow' in which the dilapidated old house had been built.
To the girl standing in the window with a brooding look of melancholy on her pretty features the outlook seemed, symbolical of her life, for Ruth Averill was not one of those whose lives could be said to have fallen in pleasant , places. —— ,
But, in spite of her unhappy expression, she was good to look at as she stood watching the storm.
Though rather under medium height she had a charm-ing figure and something of a presence. She was dark, as though in her veins might flow some admixturé of Spanish or Italian blood. Her features were small and delicate, but her firmly rounded chin gave promise of character. She scarcely looked her twenty years of age.
Bwt though she had the fresh vitality of youth, there was something old-fashioned in her appearance. Her dress was of the plainest, and in the fashion of three years earlier. Though scrupulously neat, it was worn threadbare. Her shoes were cracked and her stockings showed careful darns. „ - - - ... yS j
For Ruth Averill was an orphan, dependent on the bounty of her uncle, Simon Averill, for every penny. And Simon Averill was a miser.
Ruth was born in Southern France, and she had dim recollections of a land of sun and warmth, of jolly people and bright colors. But since she had come to this gloomy old house in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors the joy had gone out of her life. Her companions during childhood had been the two not very prepossessing servants and the still less attractive gardener and out-door man. With her uncle Simon she had nothing in common. Even at the time of her arrival he was elderly and morose, and every* day he seemed to grow more self-centred and less approachable.
After 3ome years a break had come in her life; she had been sent to a boarding school. But she had not been happy there, so that when she was ‘finished’ she was almost glad to return to the dullness and loneliness of
There she had found changes. Her uncle Simon was now an invalid, querulous and solitary, and living only for the accumulation of money. His passion took the form of collecting actual coins and notes and hoarding them in his safe. He made no attempt to cultivate the friendship of his niece, and had it not been that he required her to read to him once a day, she would have seen him but seldom.
At this time also the two old women servants and the gardener had gone, and their places had been taken by a comparatively young married couple called Roper. Though more efficient than their predecessors, Ruth did not take to either of the newcomers, with the result that the fourteen months which had passed since her return rom school were lonelier than ever.
Had it not been that Ruth had developed an interest in flowers and gardening, she would have found herself hard put to it to fill her life. Gardening and her friendship with a semi-invalid entomologist who lived close by, together with occasional excursions to the neighboring market town of Thirsby, were the only distractions she could count on.
But recently another factor had come into her life. She had met on a number of occasions a young man named Pierce Whymper, the junior assistant of an ecclesiastical architect in Leeds. Whymper was acting as clerk of works during some renovations to the parish church at Thirsby, and when Ruth had gone with one or two of the local ladies to inspect the work he had been particularly attentive. He had begged her to come again to see how the job progressed, and she had done so on more than one occasion. Then one day she had met him walking near Starvel, and she had invited him to come in and have tea. This visit had been followed by others and they had made excursions together on the moor. Though no word of love had been spoken during any of these interviews, she knew that he was attracted to her, and though she would hardly admit it to herself, she knew also that she would marry him if he should ask her.
Such was the general condition of affairs in the old house of Starvel on this gloomy September afternoon, an afternoon which was to be remembered by Ruth as the end of her old life and the prelude to a new existence in a different world.
SHE was standing, staring mournfully out of the window, the attendant, Roper, entered the room. She turned with her instinctive courtesy to hear what the man had to say.
Roper explained that Mr. Averill had instructed him to hand a message, which he had received in a letter to himself, to Miss Ruth, and to say that he hoped Miss Ruth would accept the invitation it contained. Further, that as there would be expenses in connection with the visit, he wished Miss Ruth to have the ten pounds enclosed in this other envelope. She could go in to Thirsby in the morning, get any little thing she might want, and go on to York in the afternoon.
With rapidly beating heart Ruth unfolded the dogeared corner of the note, which was addressed simply ‘Ruth’, and read as follows:
‘Oakdene,’ Ashton Drive,
York. September 10th.
‘My Dear Ruth,— I hope you will allow me to address you in this way, as your father and I were old friends. I nursed you when you were a baby, and though we have not met for many years, I do not feel that you are a stranger.
‘This is to ask if you will come and stay here for a few days and meet my daughters Gwen and Hilda. I do hope you can.
‘Our autumn flower show opens on Wednesday, and the roses, are always worth seeing. I am sure you would enjoy it, so try to reach here on Tuesday afternoon and you will be in time to go there with us.
‘Yours very sincerely,
Ruth could scarcely believe her eyes as she read this friendly letter. Mrs. Palmer-Gore she dimly remembered as a large, kindly, fussily-mannered woman, whom she
had liked in spite of her trick of giving unpleasantly moist kisses. But she had
never visited her, or ever been to York, and the prospect thrilled her.
But unexpected as the invitation was, it was as nothing compared to her uncle’s attitude towards it. That he should have given her permission to go was surprising enough, but that he should have sent her ten pounds for her expenses was an absolute miracle.
“Oh, how kind of uncle,” she exclaimed. “I must go up and thank him.”
Roper shook his head.
“Well, miss, I shouldn’t if I were you,” he advised in his pleasant Scotch voice. He came from somewhere in Fife. “The master’s not so well, as you know, and he particularly said he didn’t want to be disturbed. I’d wait and see him in the morning before you go. You will go, I suppose?”
“Of course I shall go, Roper.” She hesitated, undecided. “Well, perhaps if he said that, I’d better see him in the morning, as you suggest.” /
“Very good, miss. Then I’d best arrange for a car to/ take you in to Thirsby in the morning? About ten, maybe?” /
“Thank you. Yes, about ten will do. And you might send a telegram to York which I will write for you.”
The man bowed and withdrew, and Ruth gave herself up to glorious dreams of the next few days: not so much of visiting the Palmer-Gores and York, but of getting away from Starvel. ^
That night she could scarcely sleep from excitement, and next morning she was ready with her shabby little suitcase long before the time at which the car was to arrive.
She was somewhat uneasy about her uncle’s condition. For several days he had been ailing, and when she had gone in to say good-bye to him before leaving she had thought him looking very ill. He was asleep, but breathing heavily, and there was something in his appearance which vaguely disquieted-her.,......•
“I don’t think he’s at all well,” she said to Roper when she came down. “I believe he should have the doctor.”
“I was of the same opinion, miss, and I took the liberty of calling at Dr. Philpot’s when I went in to order your car. But the doctor’s ill. He’s got influenza and is confined to bed. I thought of going on to pr. Emerson, and then I thought if it’s only influenza that’s wrong with Dr. Philpot we might just as well wait. He’ll likely be about again in a day or two.”
Dr. Philpot was Mr. Averill’s usual attendant. He was a youngish man who had come to the place some three or four years earlier, and who had already built up a reputation for care and skill. The other practitioner, Dr. Emerson, was old and past his work, and had retired in all but name.
Ruth paused in some perplexity.
“That’s very unfortunate. But I think you are right that if it’s only a matter of a day or two we should wait for Dr. Philpot. I hadn’t heard he was ill.”
“Neither had I, miss. He was all right on Thursday,for he was out that day to see Mr. Giles.”
“So I understand. How is Mr. Giles to-day?”
“I haven’t heard this morning, miss, but last night he
was far from well. Mrs.
if there is any\ thing wanted.’!
“I’ll go round to see him on my way to Thirsby,” Ruth decided. “Can I give Mrs. Roper a lift?”
“Thank you, miss, it would be a convenience. I’ll tell her.”
Markham Giles, the entomologist, was their nearest neighbor. He was the son of an old friend of Mr. Averill’s and lived alone
^st to sê
in a little cottage half a mile away across the moor. He had served in Flanders, had been badly gassed and wounded, and six months later had left the hospitals the shadow of his former self. He and Ruth were good friends and she had helped in the capture and arrangement of his specimens.
Some days previously he had developed influenza, and though he did not seem seriously ill, he was not shaking it off. Mrs. Roper had been kind in looking after him and Ruth also had done what she could.
Ten minutes later the two women arrived at the tiny cottage which lay just outside the lip of Starvel Hollow, the big saucer-shaped depression in the moor in the centre of which stood Simon Averill’s house. Markham Giles looked worse than when Ruth had last seen him. He lay with half-closed eyes and seemed too dull and listless to more than notice his visitors. But he feebly thanked them for coming and said he was quite comfortable and wanted nothing.
Ruth’s mind was troubled as she turned away. She had always been intensely sorry for Markham Giles, and now she hated leaving him lying there alone. But there was nothing that she could do, and with a half sigh she reentered her vehicle and was driven into Thirsby.
There she spent the morning shopping, packing her purchases in her suitcase. This was followed by a frugal meal at the local tea shop, and then arose the question of how she should spend the hour remaining until train time.
She left her suitcase at the tea shop, and sallied forth. Involuntarily her steps turned towards the church, though she assured herself that under no circumstances would she enter the building. There could, however, be no objection to walking past the gate.
What she would have done eventually if left to herself will never be known, as Fate intervened and arranged her visit for her. Turning a corner she all but ranjinto Mrs. Oxley, the wife of one of the local solicitors. Mr. Oxley had charge of all Simon Averill’s business. j
They stopped to talk and Mrs. Oxley heard the visit to York with interest and sympathy.
“Well,” she said, “if you’re not doing anytfaij half-past three, come with me to the church, sexton, promised to send me some of the old flag rock garden, and I want to know when I’m likef them.”
There was nothing for it but to go, and whetl Oxley had any suspicion of how matters stood, or wnether she was genuinely anxious about her paving-stoneè, Ruth was left alone to talk to Whymper for a good ten minutes. ¡And the young man did not fail to improve the occasion.
until the for the to vet Mrs. hether
It appeared that he had to go to the station to make inquiries about a consignment of cement so it was natural that he should leave the church with the ladies. Mrs. Oxley, it then turned out, had business in the opposite direction and tckher regret was upable to accompany the others. So the task of seeing Miss Averill off fell to Mr., Whymper.
It was with shining eyes and heightened color that, half an hour later, Ruth Averill sat in the corner of a third-class compartment, while the train moved out of Thirsby. That
Whymper loved her she was now positive. It was true that he had not actually spoken of love, but his every word and look proclaimed his feelings. He had, moreover, insisted on telling her about his family and his position and prospects—a good sign. As to her own feelings, she was no longer in any doubt whatever. She loved him, and in loving him the gray clouds that pressed down upon her life seemed to break and the rosy light of hope to pour in through the rift.
She duly reached York and found Mrs. Palmer-Gore waiting for her on the platform. With her for two days she spent a pleasant holiday, enjoying the unwonted good fellowship. The visit was to have lasted a week, 'but on the afternoon of the second day, her stay was brought to an abrupt termination.
They had just sat down to lunch when a telegram was handed to her. It was the first she had ever received. Excited and a trifle embarrassed, she hesitated to open it.
But tyhen in answer to Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s kindly: “Read it, dear. Don’t mind us,” she learned its contents, all thought of herself was swept from her mind.
It was signed ‘Oxley’, though whether it came frcm the solicitor or his wife she could not tell. It read: ‘Terrible accident at Starvel. Your uncle injured. Return Thirsby and_stay night with us.’
By Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s advice she wired to the Oxleys that she would be with them at 5.40, and after a hurried lunch she found herself once more in the train. The Oxleys met her at the station, and having driven her to their home, broke the news.
It seemed that when about eleven o’clock that morning the baker was approaching Starvel to make his customary Thursday call, he had noticed a faint pall of smoke hanging in the sky above the hollow. On crossing the shoulder he had glanced down as usual into the curious circular dell, and had instantly been overwhelmed with incredulous amazement. There were the trees, the thin, stunted pines which surrounded the old house, but—the house uas gone! The long line of slated roof which had stood out above the trees had absolutely vanished. No trace remained. At first sight the man thought that the entire building had disappeared, but a closer approach revealed blackened windowless walls surrounding a still smouldering interior, all that remained of the old place.
No sign of life appeared about the ruins, and the horrorstricken man was forced to the conclusion that all three occupants had lost their lives in the flames.
He drove hurriedly into Thirsby and gave the alarm, and oon Sergeant Kent of the local police force with some of his men, Dr. Emerson, Mr. Oxley and a number of others were hastening to the scene. They found matters as the baker had described, the smouldering ruins standing gaunt and sinister at the bottom of the dell, lonely and deserted, hidden from the surrounding country by the rim of the strange natural Hollow.
The fire had evidently raged with extraordinary fury. With the exception of an outhouse separate frcmjb^ main building not a scrap of anything inflammable remained. Floors, roof, staircase, window sashes, all were gone. And in that glowing mass of red-hot debris within the blackened and twisted walls lay, almost certai^j^y^i bodies of Simon Averill, and of John and Flora Roper.
Anxious that Ruth should not have to learn the terrible news from the papers, Mr. Oxley had returned to Thirsby and sent his wire. He had thought it best to make this only a preparation, intending that the fulhstorv should be broken more gently on the girl’s arrival.
Ruth was terribly shocked and upset. It was the first
time, since reaching years of discretion, that she had been brought in contact with tragedy and death, and she was appalled by its horror. She begged to be allowed to go out to Starvel, but neither of the Oxleys would hear of it, pointing outthat a visit would only harrow her feelings, and that she could do nothing there to help.
As the long evening dragged away she found herself hoping against hope that Whymper would call. But there was no sign of him and she supposed he had not heard of her return.
Sergeant Kent, however, had heard of it, and about eight o’clock he called and asked to see her. He was a tall, rathe brusque man, thcug,r
in Oxley’s presence he was polite enough. He questioned her as to the household and its personnel, but she had nothing to tell him which could throw any light on the
The next day it was found possible to attempt some research work among the ruins, and by ten o'clock a number of men were engaged in removing the cooler portions of the debris. Ruth insisted that she must see the place for herself, and the Oxleys, not liking to let her go alone, drove her out in their car. But the terrible picture which met her eyes and the thought of what lay below the sinister mound where the men were working made her feel almost sick with horror. In silence she allowed Mrs. Oxley to lead her back to the car and drive her to Thirsby.
On their way to the little town a second blow fell on the young girl, and coming so quickly on the first, left her weak and trembling. As they mounted the rim of the Hollow they sa» a funeral approaching along a converging road. It was a sorry procession; only the hearse, and the vicar and Dr. Emerson in the former’s car. As the two ladies drew up for it to pass, the vicar also stopped, and he and the doctor came over to expresstheir sympathy with Ruth.
"You will be sorry for poor Mr.
Giles, also. Miss Ruth,” the vicar went on. “I understood you were kind enough to help him in his scientific researches.”
Ruth stared at him in horror.
"You don't mean,” she stammered, "that Mr. Giles is—is dead?”
"He died the day before yesterday. I’m sorry to say. After a short illness he passed away in his sleep.
He had no suffering. But, only thirty-six!"
Ruth was stunned. Markham Giles, also! ^
That evening the charred remains of three human b>dies were found within the tragic walls of Starvel.
WHEN Ruth Averill awoke next morning she found that the overwhelming sense of sick horror which had weighed her down on the previous evening had lightened. She had been worn out in body from the shock and the nervous strain, but sleep had restored her physical well-being, and her mind reacted to her body. She was young, she was in perfect health, and—she was in love.
While making up her mind to rise and face what the day might bring forth, Ruth was greatly comforted by a visit from Mrs. Oxley. That lady mentioned, casually and yet with a wealth of detail, that Mr. Whymper had called on the previous evening to inquire for Miss Averill. With really praiseworthy ingenuity she spun out the subject for nearly ten minutes, then she went on to tell something of almost—though, of course, not quite—equal importance. Mr. Oxley had wished her to say, in the strictest confidence—no one at this stage was supposed to know anything about it—but in order to relieve Ruth’s mind, he thought he might tell her—that she was not to worry as to her future. He had drawn up old Mr. Averill’s will and there would be some money. Mr. Oxley had not said how much, but Mrs. Oxley was sure there would be enough. At all events Ruth was not to worry. And now, breakfast would be ready in half an hour and there was plenty of hot water in the bathroom.
During the morning Ruth went down into the little town and engaged in the melancholy business of buying mourning. Mr. Oxley had lent her twenty pounds, explaining that she could repay him when she got her own money. This prospect of money coming to her made Ruth feel excited and important, and she could not refrain from daydreaming about all the wonderful things she would do when she received it.
During Sergeant Kent’s call on the evening after the tragedy he had warned Ruth that she would be required to give evidence at the inquest. Now he came round to say that this was to be held in the courthouse at three o’clock that afternoon, and that she must be sure to be there in good time.
The courthouse was already crowded when Ruth and the Oxleys reached it, but Mr. Oxley’s position as the leading solicitor of the town and Ruth’s as one of the most important witnesses procured them an immediate entrance and places on the seats usually reserved for counsel. As Ruth looked round the small old-fashioned building she saw many familiar faces. That tall very thin man with the little moustache and the bald head was Mr. Tarkington, the bank manager, and the slight, medium-sized man beside him was Mr. Bloxham, the clerk whom he used to send out to Starvel with Mr. AveriU's money. The venerable-looking old gentleman with the short white beard who was just pushing to the front was Dr. Emerson. And there—how could she have
failed to see him befere?—there, at the back of the court was Pierce Whymper. He looked anxious and troubled, and though when she caught his eye and smiled, he smiled back, there was a something of embarrassment or reserve in his manner that seemed to her strange and disquieting. And just beside him—but a sudden shuffle took place about her, and looking in front of her, she saw that a stout thick-set man with a square face and a walrus moustache had entered from some invisible side door and was taking his seat in the judge’s chair.
“Dr. Londsale, the coroner,” Mr. Oxley whispered, and Ruth nodded. She was surprised to find that the affair began so tamely. She had expected an elaborate and picturesque ritual, but nothing of the kind took place.
“Call Peter Spence!” Sergeant Kent shouted, after the preliminaries had been concluded.
“Peter Spence!” repeated two or three policemen, and a stout redfaced man pushed to the front, and entering the witness box, was sworn.
Spence told his story in great detail. In answer to the sergeant’s questions he explained that he drove a breadcart belonging to Messrs. Hinkston of Thirsby, and that for over twelve years he had, three times a week, delivered bread at Starvel. He remembered the day before yesterday. On that day, about eleven in the morning when he was approaching Starvel to deliver bread, he had observed a cloud of smoke in the sky. On crossing the lip of the Hollow he happened to look down at the house. He was amazed to notice that the roof, which formerly showed up above the surrounding trees, had totally disappeared. He drove on quickly to the place, and then he saw that the house had been burned down. Only the walls
were standing. There was no one about. He hurried into Thirsby, and reported the matter to Sergeant Kent.
The next witness was a lugubrious looking man in gray tweeds. He deposed that his name was Abel Hesketh, and that he was Town Officer of Thirsby. He also acted as chief of the fire brigade. On the Thursday in question he received a telephone message from Sergeant Kent, informing him that Starvel had been burnt down. He inquired if he should get the brigade out, but the sergeant answered that it would be of no use, the damage being already done. Sergeant Kent asked him to go with him to see the place. He did so, and he would describe what he saw. The entire buildings at Starvel were gutted except a detached outhouse at the opposite side of the yard. He had never seen such complete destruction. Nothing that could be burnt was left. Between the walls the débris was still a red-hot glowing mass. In answer to the coroner, he thought it quite impossible to say either where or how the fire had originated. There was no wind that night and the outbreak, once started, would creep through the entire building.
Hesketh went on to say that the very heavy rain which fell on the following night had cooled down the red hot interior, enabling his men to search the ruins. They had come on the charred remains of three human beings. Yes, he could say just where the remains were found. The house was in the shape of the inverted letter ‘q’ with the shorter wing pointing to the west and the longer to the south. At the extremity of the shorter wing—in the north-western corner— were two bodies. The third body was about ten feet from the end of the southern wing. All the bodies were unrecognizable, but he assumed they were those of the three inmates of the house.
After the bodies had been removed he continued his investigations, but he found nothing of interest except a safe, which was in the southern wing, not far from the single body. It was locked, and he had set it up on a pile of débris so that the expert that he understood Sergeant Kent was getting co open it should be able more conveniently to carry out the work.
Sergeant Kent corroborated the evidence of the last two witnesses in so far as their testimony concerned himself, and added that an expert from Hellifield had that morning opened the safe. In it he had found £1,952 in sovereigns and a mass of burnt papers.
Ruth’s feelings were harrowed by these recitals, which seemed to bring home the tragedy to her in all its grim starkness. But she had not time to dwell on the terrible pictures, as at the conclusion of Kent’s evidence, her own name was called.
With her heart beating rapidly she left her seat and entered the little pulpit-like enclosure. There she stood while the sergeant repeated a phrase about truth, and then, having given her name, she was told to sit down. The coroner bent towards her.
“I am sorry, Miss Averill,” he said kindly, “to have to ask you to attend and give evidence in this tragic inquiry, but I promise you I shall not keep you longer than I can help. Now, sergeant.”
There seemed no end to Sergeant Kent’s inquisition. He elicited the facts that her uncle’s and the Ropers’ beds were situated in the extremities of the southern and western wings respectively.
“You heard the last witness describe where the bodies were found,” he went on. “Would I be correct in saying that if Mr. Averill and the Ropers had been in bed when the fire took place their bodies would have been found in just those positions.”
Ruth assented, and then the sergeant asked how the house was lighted. There was oil, Ruth told him, oil for the lamps other than Mr. Averill’s and for the cooker which was used sometimes instead of the range. There was also petrol. Her uncle’s sight was bad and he used a petrol lamp. The oil and petrol were kept in a cellar. This cellar was under the main building, and if a fire were to start there, in her opinion the whole house would become involved. The lamps were attended to by Roper, who had always been most careful in handling them.
The sergeant next attempted to draw from her an
opinion as to how the fire might have originated. Did Mr. Averill read late in bed? Might he have knocked over his petrol lamp? Could he have fallen in the fire? Did he take a nightcap of whisky? And so forth. But Ruth had no ideas on the subject. Any accident might have happened, of course, but she didn’t think any that he had suggested were likely. As to her uncle taking drink, he was a strict teetotaller.
This ended Ruth’s examination. None of the jurors wished to ask her any questions, and after her evidence had been read over to her and she had signed it, she was allowed to return to her seat with the Oxleys.
Dr. Emerson was the next witness. He deposed that he had examined the remains disinterred from the débris. It was, of course, quite impossible to identify them, but so far as he could form an opinion of the body found in the southern wing it was that of an elderly, tall, slightly built man and the others were those of a man and a woman of medium height and middle age. These would correspond to Mr. Averill and the Ropers respectively, and so far as he was concerned he had no doubt whatever that the bodies in question were theirs.
A Miss Judith Carr was next called. She proved to be a rather loudly-dressed young woman whom Ruth had not seen before. She was pretty in a coarse way, and entered the witness-box and took her seat with evident self-confidence.
Her name, she admitted heartily, was Judith Carr, and she was barmaid at the Thirsdale Arms, the largest hotel in Thirsby. She knew Mr. Roper, the attendant at Starvel. He occasionally called for a drink, usually taking one or at most two small whiskies. She remembered the evening of the fire. That evening about seven o’clock Mr. Roper had come into the bar. He seemed to have had some drink, but was not drunk. He asked for a small Scotch, and believing he was sober enough she had given it to him. He had taken it quickly and gone out.
The last witness was a young man with bright red hair who answered to the name of George Mellowes. He was, he said, a farmer living at Ivybridge, a hamlet lying some miles beyond Starvel. On the day before the tragedy he had been over in Thirsby on business, and he had left the
town in his gig shortly after seven to drive home. He had not passed beyond the lights of the town when he had overtaken Mr. Roper, whom he knew. Roper was staggering, and it was not difficult to see that he was drunk. The deceased was by no means incapable, but he had undoubtedly taken too much. Mellowes had stopped and offered him a lift, and Roper had thanked him and with some difficulty had climbed into the gig. He had talked in a maudlin way during the drive. Mellowes had gone a little out of his way and had set the other down at the gate of Starvel. Roper had opened the gate without difficulty, and had set off towards the house, walking fairly straight. Mellowes had then driven home. That was close on to eight, and there was no sign of a fire.
When Mellowes had signed his deposition and returned to his seat, the coroner made a little speech to the jury. He suggested that they might find that Simon Ralph Averill, John Roper and Flora Roper had lost their lives in a fire at Starvel on the night of the fifteenth of September, the cause of which there was no evidence to show.
Without leaving the box the jury found as the coroner directed, the verdict was entered on the records and signed, and the inquest was over.
S RUTH emerged from the comparative gloom of the courthouse into the bright September sunshine her spirits seemed to rise. A reaction had set in from the strain of the inquiry, with its continuous suggestion of the hideous details of the tragedy.
It was, therefore, no indication of heartlessness that she should glance eagerly around as she and her friends advanced from the shadow of the old building into the little square. She was young and the claims of the living were more to her than those of the dead. And who will reproach her for the thrill of pleasurable excitement which she experienced as the sight she was hoping for met her eyes? There was Pierce Whymper evidently waiting for a chancd of speaking to her. With a smile she invited him over, and he came and joined her. At the same moment Mr. Tarkington, the thin hawk-like bank manager, whom she had seen in the courthouse, approached and spoke to Mr. Oxley.
“Will you go on?” the latter said to his wife. “I want to go round to the bank with Mr.Tarkington. I’ll follow in a few minutes.”
Mrs. Oxley, Ruth and Whymper moved off in one direction while Mr. Oxley and Mr. Tarkington disappeared in the other. For a time the trio chatted with animation, then Ruth grew gradually more silent, leaving the burden of the conversation to the others. She was in fact puzzled and a little hurt by a subtle change which she felt rather than noticed in Whymper’s manner. He seemed somehow different from the last time she had seen him—that time in another existence when she had left Thirsby for her visit to York. Then he had been obviously eager for her company, anxious to talk to her, even before Mrs. Oxley making no secret of his admiration and regard. But now, though he was just as polite as ever, his manner was less spontaneous, indeed at times she thought it almost embarrassed. It occurred to her that possibly the change might be in herself, and even when their ways parted at the turn to the church she had not completely made up her mind. But whatever the cause a certain disappointment remained, and when she went up to change for dinner she had lost a good deal of the lightheartedness she had felt on emerging from the courthouse.
Mr. Oxley, when he arrived shortly after, also showed a change of manner. He wras a kindly, jovial man, fond of a joke and the sound of his own voice, but during dinner he was strangely silent and wore an expression of concern and disappointment. But he did not offer any explanation until the meal was over, and then he followed the ladies into the drawing-room and unburdened his mind.
“I am awfully sory, Miss Ruth,” he began hesitatingly, “but I am afraid I have brought you some more bad news. It’s about money,” he added, hurriedly, as the girl turned a piteous glance towards him. “I’ll tell you exactly what has happened. You know, or perhaps you don’t, that in spite of the way he lived, your uncle was a rich man. As his solicitor I have known for many a year, but I had no idea of just how much he had. Tarkington knows I was his solicitor and he was talking about it just
now. He tells me that Mr. Averill must have been worth between thirty and forty thousand pounds when he died. Of course one would naturally suppose that the money was in securities of some kind, but here is my terrible news. Tarkington assures me that it was not, that practically the whole sum was in Mr. Averill's safe.” “Oh, Arthur!” Mrs. Oxley burst out. “You can’t mean that it’s gone."
"I’m afraid I do,” her husband answered. ‘‘It's awful to think about, but there were only some five hundred pounds in the bank. The rest was in Mr. Averill’s safe in notes and gold. The nineteen hundred odd pounds in gold are there alt right, but the whole of the paper money has been destroyed.”
“Oh. how perfectly dreadful! But surely it can be replaced? Surely something can be done by the bank?” Mr. Oxley shook his head
“Nothing, I’m afraid. I talked it over with Tarkington. The money is a total loss ”
Mrs. Oxley took Ruth into her arms.
“You poor child,” she commiserated. ‘T just can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
But Ruth took the news coolly.
'T shall have far. far more than I ever expected,” she answered. "I want to get some work, and I shall have plenty to support me while I am training and perhaps even a little after that. I am more than content,”
Mrs. Oxley kissed her and commended her spirit, though she felt the girl’s attitude was due more to her unworldliness and ignorance of life than to courage under disappointment. She wished to change the subject, but Ruth asked to have her position made clear to her and begged the others’ advice as to her future. The Oxleys, delighted by her common sense, willingly agreed to discuss the situation, and after a long talk a proposal of Mr. Oxley was provisionally agreed to.
It appeared that, assuming the old man’s money had really been lost, Ruth’s capital would amount to about £2,400. Of this Mr. Oxley was to invest all but £100, so as to bring Ruth about £130 per annum. The remaining £100 was to be spent in taking a secretarial course at one of the London training colleges. With the backing of the ¿130 a year and what she could earn for herself she ought, Mr. Oxley believed, to be quite comfortably off.
But you must,” Mr. Oxley went on, “stay here for as long as you like, until you have rested and got over the shock of this terrible affair.”
Mrs. Oxley warmly seconded this invitation, and Ruth thankfully accepted it.
morning in mid-October, some five weeks after the fire, Mr. Tarkington called to see his friend Oxley.. The bank manager’s thin face wore a serious and mystified expression, which at once informed Mr. Oxley that something out of the ordinary had occurred to disturb the other's usual placid calm."
Good morning, Oxley,” said Mr. Tarkington in his thin, measured tones. “Are you busy? I should like a word with you.”
Come along in, Tarkington,” the solicitor rejoined heartily. “I’m not doing anything that can’t wait. Sit you down, and have a spot.”
"Thanks, no, I’ll not drink, but I’ll take one of these cigarettes if I may.” He drew the client’s big leather covered chair nearer to Mr. Oxley and went on: “A really extraordinary thing has just happened, Oxley, and I thought I’d like to consult you about it before taking any action—if I do take action.”
Mr. Oxley took a cigarette from the box from which the other had helped himself.
"What’s up?” he asked, as he struck a match.
"It’s about that terrible Starvel affair, the fire, you know. I begin to doubt if the matter is really over, after all.”
"Not over? What on earth do you mean?”
“I’ll tell you, and it is really a mostdisturbingthought. But before you can appreciate my news I must explain to you how Averill carried on his bank business. The poor fellow was a miser, as you know, a miser of the most primi-. tive kind. He loved money for itself—just to handle and to look at and to count. His safe was just packed full of money. But, of course, you know all this, and that it was through this dreadful weakness of his that poor girl lost what should have come to her.”
"I know,” Mr. Oxley admitted.
“Averill’s income passed through the bank, and that’s how I come to be aware of the figures. He had between sixteen and seventeen hundred a year and it came from three sources. First he had a pension; he had held a good job with some company in London. That amounted to about three hundred pounds. Next he had an annuity which brought him in £150. But the major portion came from land— land on the outskirts of Leeds which had been built over and which had become a very valuable property. In this he had only a life interest—not that that affects my story, though it explains why that poor girl didn’t get it.”
“I know about that property,” Mr. Oxley interjected.
old man got it through his wife and it went back to her family at his death.’’
“I imagined it must be something of the kind. Well, to continue. Averill's income, as I said, was passed through the bank. He received it all in cheques or drafts and these he would endorse and send to me for payment. He had a current account, and my instructions were that when any cheque came I was to pay it in to this account until it stood at something between £40 and £60—whatever would leave an even £20 over—and I was to send the surplus cash in £20 notes out to Starvel. Averill evidently looked upon this as a sort of revenue account and paid all his current expenses out of it. It never, of course, rose above the £60 and seldom fell below £20. To carry on my simile, any monies that were over after raising the current account to £60 he considered capital, and they went out to swell the hoard in the safe at Starvel. In addition he kept a sum of £500 on deposit receipt. I don’t know exactly why he did so but I presume it was as a sort of nestegg in the event of his safe being burgled. You follow me?”
“I follow you all right, but, by Jove! it was a queer arrangement.”
"Everything the poor old man did was queer, but, as you know, he was—” Mr. Tarkington shook his head significantly. “However, to go on with my story. These monies that were to be sent out to Starvel I used to keep until they reached at least a hundred, and then I used to send a clerk out with the cash. The mission usually fell to Bloxham—you know Bloxham, of course? Averill liked him and asked me to send him when I could. Bloxham has seen into the safe on two or three occasions, and it is from him I know that it was packed with notes as well as the gold.”
“I never can get over all that money being burnt,” Mr. Oxley interjected. “It makes me sick to think of it even now. Such stupid, needless, wicked waste!”
Mr. Tarkington took no notice of this outburst.
“It happened that about a week before the tragedy,” he went on in his precise manner, “a cheque for £346 came in from the Leeds property. The current account was then standing at £27, so I paid £26 into it, raising it to £53, and sent Bloxham with the balance, £320, out to Starvel. The money was in sixteen twenties, the numbers of which were kept. As I said, it was one of the old man’s peculiarities that he liked his money in £20 notes. I suppose it made it easier to hoard and count. Bloxham saw Averill lock these notes away in his safe and brought me the old man’s receipt.”
Mr. Tarkington paused to draw at his cigarette, then continued:—
“In my report about the affair to our headquarters in Throgmorton Avenue, I mentioned among other things that these notes, giving the numbers, had been destroyed in the fire. Well, Oxley, what do you think has happened? I heard from headquarters to-day and they tell me that one of these notes has just been paid in!”
Mr. Oxley looked slightly bewildered.
“Well, what of it?” he demanded. “I don’t follow. You reported that these notes had been destroyed in the fire. But wasn’t that only a guess? How did you actually know?”
“It was a guess, of course, and I didn’t actually know,” Mr. Tarkington agreed. “But I think it was a justifiable guess. I am acquainted with Averill’s habits; he made no secret of them. Monies he paid out he paid by cheque oñ the current account—everything that one can think of went through it, even the Ropers’ salaries. The cash sent out to Starvel went into the hoard.”
“All of it didn’t.”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“The ten pounds to Ruth Averill didn’t.”
Mr. Tarkington seemed slightly taken aback.
“Well, that’s true,” he admitted slowly. “I forgot about the ten pounds. I—”
“And there’s another twenty that didn’t,” Mr. Oxley continued, “and that’s the twenty that turned up in London. I don’t get your idea, Tarkington. Just what is in your mind?”
Mr. Tarkington moved uneasily in the big armchair. “It seems far-fetched, I know, and I hardly like putting it into words, but are you satisfied in your own mind that business was all just as it appeared to be?”
“What? The fire? How do you mean ‘as it appeared to be’?”
“That it really was the accident we thought it.”
Mr. Oxley whistled.
“Oh, come now, Tarkington, that’s going a bit far, isn’t it? Do you mean arson? What possible ground could you have for suggesting such a thing?”
“I don’t exactly suggest it; I came to ask your opinion about it. But what passed through my mind was this: There have been several burglaries lately—skilful burglaries, and, as you know, the police have been completely at fault. Averill was universally believed to be wealthy—the legend of the safe was common property. Is it impossible that some of these burglars might have decided to make an attempt on Starvel? Remember the situation was one of the loneliest in England. Assume that they got in and that something unexpected happened
it---------------U„ D Tv,
rhe resulting disturbance Roper might easily have been killed-—possibly quite accidentally. The intruders would then be fighting for their lives as well as their fortunes. And in what better way could they do it than to murder the other members of the household, lay them on their beds and burn the house down?”
Mr. Oxley did not reply. The idea was chimerical, fantastic, absurd, and yet—it was certainly possible. All the same there wasn’t a shred of evidence that it had happened.
“But my dear fellow,” he said at last, “that’s all my eye! Very ingenious and all that, but you haven’t a scrap of evidence for it. Why invent a complicated, far-fetched explanation when you have a simple one ready to hand? Sounds as if you had been reading too many detective stories lately.”
Tarkington did not smile with his friend. He seemed far from satisfied. He threw away his cigarette and took another from the box, handling it delicately in his long thin fingers. He moved nervously in his chair and then said in a low voice:
“There’s a point which you and the coroner and the police and every one concerned seem to have overlooked,” he dropped his voice still further and became very impressive. “What about the papers that were burnt in the safe?”
. Mr. Oxley was surprised at his friend’s persistence.
“Well what in Heaven’s name about them? For the life of me I don’t see what you’re driving at.”
“Haven’t you ever been in Averill’s bedroom?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“Did you notice the safe?”
“Well, I’ve both been there and noticed it.” He bent forward, and his thin face seemed more hawklike than ever as he said impressively: “Oxley, that safe was fireproof!”
Mr. Oxley started.
“Good Heavens, Tarkington! Are you sure of that?” he queried sharply.
“Not absolutely,” the other replied. “It was certainly my strong opinion and if I had been asked before the fire I should have had no doubt. When I heard the evidence at the inquest I concluded I had made a mistake. But now this affair of the twenty pound note has reawakened all my suspicions.” He paused, but as Oxley did not reply, continued: “Perhaps I’ve got a bee in my bonnet as you said, but what do you think about it, Oxley? Ought I to tell the police of my suspicions?”
Mr. Oxley rose and began to pace the room. Then he went to the window and stood for some moments looking out. Finally he returned to his chair, and sat down again.
“I declare, Tarkington, I think you ought,” he said slowly. “When you first made your—I might perhaps say—your amazing suggestion I confess I thought it merely grotesque. But if you are right about the safe it certainly puts a different complexion on the whole business. I take it it’s not too late to ascertain? The safe is not too much damaged to trace the maker and find out from him?”
“I should think the police could find the maker quite easily.”
“Well, I think you should tell them. If you are wrong no harm is done. If not, there are murderers to be brought to justice and perhaps a fortune to be recovered for Ruth.’ Mr. Tarkington rose.
“I agree with you, Oxley. I’ll go down to the police station and tell Kent now.”
Mr. Oxley waved him back into his seat.
“Steady a moment,” he said. “Don’t be in such a hurry.” He drew slowly at his cigarette while the other sat down and waited expectantly.
“It seems to me,” went on Mr. Oxley, “that if your suspicions are correct the thing should be kept absolutely quiet. Nothing should be said or done to put the criminals on their guard. Now Kent, you know as well as I do, is just a bungling ass. My suggestion is that we both take the afternoon off and go see Valentine. I know him pretty well and we could ring him up and make an appointment.”
“Valentine, the chief constable of the county?”
“Yes. He’s as cute as they’re made and he’ll do the right thing.”
“Kent will never forgive us if we pass him over like that.”
“Kent be hanged,” Mr. Oxley rejoined. “Can you come in by the three-thirty?”
“Yes, I’ll manage it.”
“Right. Then I shall ring up Valentine.”
FIVE hours later the two friends found their way into the strangers’ room of the Junior Services Club in Leeds. There in a few moments Chief Constable Valentine joined them, and soon they were settled in a private room with whisky and soda at their elbows and three of the excellent cigars the chief constable favored between their lips.
Mr. Tarkington propounded his theory in detail, ex-
plaining that he was not sure enough of his facts even to
Continued on naae 65
Continued from page 22
put forward a definite suspicion, but that he and his friend Oxley agreed that Major Valentine ought to know what was in his mind. The major could then, if he thought fit, investigate the affair.
That the chief constable was impressed by the statement was obvious. He listened with the keenest interest, interjecting only an occasional “By Jove!” as Mr. Tarkington made his points. Then he thanked the two men for their information, and promised to institute inquiries into the whole matter without delay.
Two days later Mr. Tarkington received a letter from Major Valentine saying he thought it only fair to inform him in the strictest confidence that his belief that the safe was fireproof was well founded, that he, the chief constable, strongly suspected that more had taken place at Starvel on that tragic night than had come out in the inquest, and that as he considered the matter was rather outside the local men’s capacity he had applied to Scotland Yard for help in the investigation.
Mr. Tarkington, honoring the spirit rather than the letter of the chief constable’s communication, showed the note to Mr. Oxley, and the two men sat over the former’s study fire until late that night, discussing possible developments in the situation.
THE stone which Messrs. Tarkington and Oxley had thrown into the turbid waters of the British Police Administration produced ripples which, like other similar wave forms, spread slowly away from their point of disturbance. One of these ripples, penetrating into the grim fastness of the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard, had the effect of ringing the bell of a telephone on the desk of Detective Inspector Joseph French and of causing that zealous and efficient officer, when he had duly
applied his ear to the instrument, to leave his seat and proceed without loss of time to the room of his immediate superior.
“Ah, French,” Chief Inspector Mitchell remarked on his entry. “You should be about through with that Kensington case, I fancy?”
“Just finished with it, sir,” French answered. “I was putting the last of the papers in order when you rang.”
“Well, you’ve had a lot of trouble with it and I should have liked to have given you a breather. But I’m afraid I can’t.” “Something come in, sir?”
“A Yorkshire case. A place called Thirsby, up on the moors not far, I understand, from Hellifield. We’ve just had a request for a man and I can’t spare any one else at present. So it’s you for it.” “What is the case, sir?”
“Suspected murder, robbery and arson. The people there appear to know very little about it and the whole thing may turn out a mare’s nest. But they’re darned mysterious about it—say they don’t want it to be known that inquiries are being made and suggest our man might go to the Thirsdale Arms, the local hotel, in the guise of an angler or an artist. So, if you’re a fisherman, French, now’s your chance. You’re to call down at the police station after dark, when Sergeant Kent, who’s in charge, will give you the particulars.”
It was with mixed feelings that Inspector French received his instructions. He delighted in traveling and seeing new country, and the Yorkshire moors comprised a district which he had often heard spoken of enthusiastically, but had never visited. He was by no means averse, moreover, to getting away from town for a few days. It would be a welcome break in the monotony of the long winter. But on the other hand he loathed working away from headquarters, bereft of his
trained staff and of the immediate backing of the huge machine of which he was a cog. Local men, he conceded, were 'right enough,’ but they hadn’t the knowledge, the experience, the technique to be really helpful. And then the ‘Yard’ man in the country was usually up against jealousies and a more or less veiled obstruction, and to the worries of his ease he had to add the effort always to be tactful and to carry his professed helpers with him.
However, none of these considerations affected his course of action. He had his orders and he must carry them out. He completed the filing of the papers in the Kensington murder case, handed over one or two other matters to his immediate subordinate, and taking the large despatch case of apparatus without which he never traveled, went home to inform his wife of his change of plans and pack a suitcase with his modest personal requirements. Then he drove to St. Paneras and caught the 12.15 restaurant car express to the north.
He was neither an artist nor an angler, and in any case he considered the month of November was scarcely a propitious time for worthies of either type to be abroad. Therefore, beyond dressing in a more countrified style than he would have affected in town, he attempted no disguise.
He changed at Hellifield and took the branch line which wound up in a northeasterly direction into the bleak hills and moors of western Yorkshire. Six o’clock had just struck when he reached the diminutive terminus of Thirsby.
A porter bearing the legend ‘Thirsdale Arms’ on his cap was at the station, and having surrendered his baggage, French followed the man on foot down the main street of the little town to a low, straggling, old-fashioned building with halftimbered gables and a real old swinging sign.
While he did not intend to hide the fact of his visit to Sergeant Kent, he had no wish to draw attention thereto. He believed that in a small town such things invariably get out, and to shroud them in an air of mystery was only to invite publicity. He therefore did not ask for a direction, but instead strolled through the streets until he saw the police station. Walking quietly but openly to the door, he knocked. Two minutes later he was shaking hands with the sergeant in the latter’s room.
“I’m sure I’m grateful to you for giving me the chance of a change from London,” French began in his pleasant, cheery way as he took the chair the other pulled forward to the fire. “Will you join me in a cigar, or do you object to smoking in the office?”
The sergeant dourly helped himself from French’s case, and gruffly admitted he was not above the use of tobacco after office hours.
At French’s request he gave him a detailed account of the tragedy together with a copy of the depositions taken at the inquest, and then went on to describe the bomb which Mr. Tarkington had dropped when he mentioned his theories to Major Valentine.
“Chief Constable, he told me to find out what kind of safe it was in the house,” the sergeant went on. “I knew, for I had seen it at the time, but I went out again to make sure. It was made by Carter & Stephenson of Leeds, number—” he referred to a well-thumbed notebook— “12,473. I went down to Leeds, and saw the makers, and they said the safe was twenty years old, but it was the best fireproof safe of its day. I asked them would the notes have burned up in it, and they said they wouldn’t scarcely be browned, not no matter how fierce the fire might be.”
“And what exactly was in the safe?”
“Just paper ashes and sovereigns. No whole papers, all was burned to ashes.”
“Could I see those ashes? Are any of them left?”
“I think so. We took out the sovereigns
and left the rest. The safe is lying in the rubbish where we found it.”
French nodded, and for some minutes sat silent, drawing slowly at his cigar while he turned over in his mind the details he had learned. Finally, he turned to Kent.
“Your statement, sergeant, has been so very complete that I do not believe there is anything left for me to ask you. But I think I should understand the affair even better if I went and had a look at the house. I’ll do that to-morrow. But, much as I should like your company, I cannot ask you to come with me. I entirely agree with and admire your wisdom in keeping the affair secret, and if we were seen together the cat would be out of the bag. I will give out that I am a representative from the insurance companies and I think no suspicion will be aroused. If now you will kindly tell me where the place lies, I think that’s all we can do in the meantime.”
Five minutes later French turned from the main street into the door of the Thirsdale Arms. The landlord was standing in the hall and French stopped in a leisurely way, as if ready for a chat. They discussed the weather for some moments and then French asked the other if he would join him in a drink.
It was not long before they were seated before a glowing fire in the private bar, when French proceeded to account for himself.
“I like your country,” he began, “what I’ve seen of it. I’ve been a bit run down lately, and though it’s not the time one would choose for a holiday, my doctor thought I should take a week or two’s rest. So, as I had a bit of business here I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and do my business and take my holiday at the same time. And about that business I thougth that if you would be good enough you could maybe give me some help.”
The landlord, evidently curious, was anxious to do anything in his power and French, following out his theory that where absolute truth is inadmissable, deviations therefrom should be as slight as possible, went on confidentially:—
“It’s about a place called Starvel where there was a big fire recently. Y ou know all about it, of course.” The landlord nodded eagerly. “Well, I may tell you strictly between ourselves that I am a detective. A fire unaccounted for is a very disturbing matter to insurance companies, and I have been sent down to try to find the cause of the outbreak. I’ve seen the police sergeant, and he has very kindly promised to show me his notes of the inquest, but I should like more general information than that. I wondered if you could, perhaps, tell me something about the affair; about the people who live! in Starvel, and so on?”
With this beginning, and the help of whiskies and sodas and two more of his cigars French was soon in possession of all the landlord knew and surmised about the Starvel Hollow tragedy. But he learned nothing helpful. The man’s story agreed with that of Sergeant Kent, though it was obvious that the idea of foul play had never entered his mind.
THE next day was Sunday, and after a late breakfast and a leisurely pipe, French asked for some sandwiches, saying he was going out for a long tramp over the moor. Having thus explained himself he strolled off and presently, by a circuitous route, reached the lip of Starvel Hollow.
In spite of the fact that his professional and critical interests were aroused, French could not help feeling impressed by the isolation of the ruins and the morbid, not to say sinister atmosphere which seemed to brood over the entire place. Around him were the wild rolling spaces of the moor, forbidding and desolate, rising here into rounded hills, dropping there into shallow valleys. The coloring was drab, in the foreground the dull greens of rushes and sedgy grass, the
browns of heather and at intervals a darker smudge where stone outcropped, on the horizon the hazy blues of distance. Scarcely a tree or a shrub was to be seen in the bare country, and the two or three widely separated cottages, crouching low as if for protection from the winds, seemed only to intensify the loneliness of the outlook.
At French’s feet lay the Hollow, a curious, saucer-like depression in the moor, some quarter of a mile or more across. Its rim looked continuous, the valley through which it was drained being winding and not apparent at first sight. In the centre was the group of pines which had surrounded the old house, stunted, leaning one way from the prevailing wind, melancholy and depressing. Of the walls of the house from this point of view there was no sign.
French walked down toward the ruins, marveling at the choice which would bring a man of means to such a locality. He could understand now why on that night some five weeks earlier a building of the size of this old house could be burned down without attracting more attention. The Hollow accounted for it. Even flames soaring up from such a conflagration would not surmount the lip of the saucer. Truly a place also, as Tarkington had pointed out, where burglars could work their will unseen and undisturbed.
French had seen the remains of many a fire, but as he gazed on the wreckage of Starvel he felt he had never seen anything quite so catastrophic and complete. He felt a growing awe as he began to examine the place in detail.
The walls were built of stone, and except these walls and the small outhouse at the opposite side of the yard, nothing remained standing. The house was two storied and ‘L’ shaped, with the remains of a single story porch in the angle of the two wings. French compared the ruins with the sketch plan given him by Kent and identified the places where the bodies had been found. Then after a general survey he stepped through the gaping hole that had evidently been the front door and ploughed his way across the débris to the safe.
It was red with fire and rust, but the maker’s name and number, in raised letters on a cast iron plate were still legible. The safe had been lifted upright and fixed on a roughly built pile of stones, as the town officer of Thirsby had deposed at the inquest. The doors were now shut, but with some difficulty owing to the rusty hinges French was able to swing them open. Inside, as he had been told, was a mass of paper ash.
Fortunately it was a calm day or the heap might have whirled away in dust. As it was, French sat down on a stone, and putting his head into the safe, began to examine the ash in detail. ;
The greater part had been ground to dust, doubtless by the fall of the safe from the second story, and the churning of the sovereigns, though there still remained a number of small flakes of burnt paper. These French began to turn over with a pair of forceps, examining them at the same time with a lens.
He was delighted to find that on nearly all he could distinguish marks of printing. But, as he turned over piece after piece he became conscious of growing astonishment. For this printing was not the printing of bank notes. Rather it seemed to him like newspaper type. Wrapping paper, he supposed. But why should the contents of the safe have been wrapped up in newspapers? More important still, why should portions of the newspapers rather than of the notes have been preserved?
His interest keenly aroused, he set to work in his careful, methodical way to check over all the fragments he could find. As he did so, something very like excitement took possession of him. There were no fragments of notes! Every single piece that bore any marking was newspaper!
To be Continued