J. STORER CLOUSTON
"IF IT wasn’t for lucky coincidence,” said Carrington, “many a gentleman in ginger and broad arrows would be a highly respected citizen. They’re done in again and again by the most infernal flukes. The most baffling mystery—yes, I really think I may call it absolutely the most insolublelooking that has ever come my way, was solved by what seemed like a mere series of extraordinary coincidences.”
“Do you mean they weren’t really coincidences?” somebody asked.
“There was one real coincidence. The rest was a curious, but not at all an unnatural, result of quite an ordinary affair —a county dinner— in fact.”
After that we simply had to get the story out of him.
I WAS asked as a guest to the Devorsetshire Association’s Annual Dinner in London (you can guess which county it really was for yourselves). There was nothing very remarkable in that, for I get asked out to all sorts of dinners. I had to reply to the toast of the guests, and there was nothing very remarkable in that either, for I’m always getting let in for afterdinner speaking—when they don’t want a very serious oration. In consequence everybody—or at all events most of the people there—discovered who I was; which was a very natural consequence.
Again, it was very natural that natives of Devorsetshire and people connected with the •county, who hadn’t seen each other for years, should happen to meet on such an occasion.
And if any one, or any two, or any three of them wanted advice in a ticklish matter, it was ■extremely natural that they should think of the eloquent gentleman who had replied for the guests.
If you bear all this in mind, you’ll see how things fell out, though on the surface it looked as though some capricious elf had taken over the duties of Destiny.
Well, to come to our muttons.
The next morning a card with the name of “Mr. R. C. Wickley” was handed in to me and in a moment Mr. Wickley himself walked into my room.
He had reddish hair, a somewhat receding forehead, curiously suspicious eyes, and a prize-fighting jowl. It doesn’t sound a very promising descrip-
Here is a thriller which will enthrall every lover of cleverly conceived mystery stories. If you are a man you will wonder what are the coincidences in life, and what are merely the logical results of your own actions. If you are a woman you will wonder if you would have the courage to bury, in the dark of night, the body of a presumably murdered man.
tion, and yet somehow or other the man was distinctly likeable. For one thing he had a pleasant smile, and for another, the look of one who has seen a good bit of trouble and yet hasn’t let his tail down; also he was unmistakably a gentleman.
I saw you last night at the Devorset dinner, Mr. Carrington,” he began, “and I thought you looked the sort of man who might help me, and who could be trusted.”
This was not merely pleasantly flattering, but it was said with an air of really meaning it and of badly wanting someone he could trust, that roused my interest at once.
“What I am going to tell you,”, he went on, “must be absolutely confidential. Your business is a purely private agency, isn’t it? You don’t give things away to the police?”
You may imagine that this roused my interest still more.
“If you come to me confidentially I give nothing away to anybody.”
“Not even murder?”
I tell you frankly I hesitated. I had never had such a question put to me before.
“It would depend on the circumstances,” I said.
He looked at me and thought for a moment.
“I’ll risk it,” he said, and plunged into this yarn.
“T’M A Devorset man origin-
1 ally,” said he, “but I’ve lived a lot abroad and had a pretty mixed career. I’m going to make no bones about anything and I may tell you candidly that there was one particular part of my life that I want to forget and don’t want other people to know. It isn’t the part I’m going to tell you about, but it partly accounts for it.
“Eleven years ago an old uncle of mine died and as he hadn’t left a will I came into his property in Devorset. It included an old manor house of the smaller type and quite a nice bit of mixed covert shooting —rough but good sport, and it suited me down to the ground. I came home, settled down on the place, and hoped my troubles were at an end. Being a hilly, wooded part of the county, I hadn’t many neighbors, in fact I couldn’t raise enough guns to shoot my coverts properly, but that was the only disadvantage. Things being as they had been, I didn’t like meeting too many
people, for fear someone should turn up who knew what I didn’t want known.”
“Were you married, by the way?” I asked.
“No. I’m not much of a ladies’ man and have never missed a wife. I was quite contented in fact till things began to go wrong, and I may tell you absolutely honestly, Mr. Carrington, that why they began to go wrong has always been an absolute mystery to me. In fact, as you’ll see presently, the whole thing has been more like a nightmare than a bit of ordinary life.
“My nearest neighbor was a man Spencer—‘Toddy Spencer’ they called him, a fellow with a handsoma wife but no children, pots of money, and quite a big country house. He was a wealthy stockbroker and had bought the place himself, largely for the shooting. As he was always keen for an extra gun and so was I, we struck up quite a friendship to begin with and I saw a good bit of them. The wife was a trifle too go-ahead for my own taste—though most men would probably have been keen about her, but Toddy Spencer himself seemed quite a nice fellow in spite of being rather a sulky looking chap, and obviously with a devil of a temper. Like a lot of fellows of his type, he did himself a little too well, both in the eating and drinking line; though I never saw him actually the worse for liquor.
“At first, the Spencers used to come down to Devorsetshire only for part of the year, and then they settled down there for good; though Toddy himself always spent at least two or three days in the week in London on business. He was one of several partners in a very big firm, I may mention.
“Well, after about two and a half years, during which we had been excellent neighbors, the first mystery began. For some unknown reason Spencer suddenly took a violent dislike to me. In fact, dislike is too mild a term. The man hated me.”
“How did he show it?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t shoot with me, stopped me and my tenants from using a path through his grounds, blackguarded me behind my back, and insulted me to my face. This low class swine of a stockbroker! A man without birth or breeding or any connection with the county before he bought the place! A damned nouveau richel”
It was quite evident that though Mr. Wickley didn’t look particularly aristocratic, he was a gentleman with very sensitive family pride. In fact, the mere recollection of Mr. Spencer’s behavior was making him boil afresh.
“I won’t trouble you with all the details, for his final performance made the rest seem almost nothing. I gave him a bit of my own mind, I may mention, which
HE PAUSED and licked his lips afresh.
“How long ago was this?”
“Eight years,” he said.
“Eight years!” I exclaimed. “But I never remember hearing—”
“Wait a bit,” said he. “The interesting part of the story hasn’t begun yet.”
I wondered what his idea of an n«interesting story was, but I said nothing, and he went on:
“I don’t mind confessing that I lost my head—or anyhow my nerve utterly. I remember I could only say one thing to myself—I didn’t know what I was doing!” I hurried home and made no attempt to seem cool. I got out my car, drove it myself at breakneck speed to the
finally put an end to all relations . . . .”
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
“What I thought,” he answered briefly, and I guessed that what Mr. Wicklow thought had probably made Mr. Spencer sit up pretty sharply. “Well, anyhow, things had gone like this for months and we were past speaking terms when one day I got a note from him. I can’t remember the exact words, for I threw the thing straight into the fire, but this was the gist of it. He had discovered the black mark against me and gave me the choice of exposure or leaving the county and selling my place to him.”
“One moment,” I interrupted, for I saw that my visitor wanted to hurry over this part. “I don’t want to press you to tell me anything you prefer not to, but in order to understand this extraordinary ultimatum I must ask you one or two questions. Was this ‘black mark’-—er—pretty serious?”
HE HESITATED for an instant, and I saw how suspicious those eyes of his could look. Then he answered, and I saw how doggedly that jowl of his could set.
“It was nothing I could actually suffer for —by the law, I mean. I had suffered already.
But it had an ugly name and I don’t suppose many people would have been keen to speak to me again. You don’t need to know the name, do you?”
“No,” I said. “In fact I had rather not.
I only wanted to be sure that it actually did give him the leverage he seems to have assumed it gave him. How did he find this out?”
Wickley shook his head.
“I don’t know. He could have found out in one or two ways if he set to work to find things out about me. And he obviously did.”
“Why did he want to buy your place?”
“Simply because he hated me and knew that was the way to hit me hardest. He didn’t want more land or an extra house.”
“I see,” I said. “Go ahead.”
“Well, after that note came I want you to understand, Mr. Carrington, that things happened right on end—one after the other without giving me time to cool down or think quietly. I had a lot of woodland on my
place and was rather keen about forestry. It was a hobby of Spencer’s and he had startedjme, and curiously enough the pruning knife I was carrying that afternoon was a present from him. He got one for himself and one for me. I picked it up and took it with me simply automatically, because I had been carrying it every day lately. But I was thinking of nothing but that note.
“Imagine what it meant for me! To hand over a place my family owned for four hundred years—hand it over to this unspeakable bounder, lose everything worth having, and clear out of the county—imagine what it meant! As to the other alternative, I felt I would rather shoot myself first. Perhaps I don’t express myself very
well, Mr. Carrington, but I daresay you can more or less understand.”
His words may have been restrained, but his face was working and his eyes blazing, just as they must have been when he set out on that walk. I did understand, and I told him so. He seemed pleased and for a moment almost smiled. And then his face set and he went on:
“Without thinking where I was going I wandered about the Lord knows where, but anyhow at last I headed for a certain wood where I had been doing some pruning before. It was just on the boundary of the two properties. In fact the stream that formed the boundary ran through it. It was a winter afternoon and growing a little dusky by this time. I entered the wood—all the time, mind you, without realizing where I was or what I was doing—and then about ten paces from the outer edge of it I pulled up dead. Spencer was standing, half leaning against a tree, with his back to me!”
Wickley stopped for an instant and looked at me hard. “I am trusting you with everything!” he said.
“I know you are.”
He moistened his lips and went on.
“The sound of the running water had drowned my footsteps. It still drowned them as I took three more steps and then let him have it in the broad of his back with the pruning knife. I remember striking sort of slanting and downwards so as to give the curved knife a chance. I’m pretty strong and it did give it a chance. It went in up to the handle and stopped there. He fell on hisface without a sound or a struggle. I had seen dead men before and I knew he was one. And then suddenly I realized what I had done.”
The Stockbroker’s Wife
the whole thing again in my mind. And then when I heard you were a private inquiry agent I suddenly decided to end the suspense and come to you. I want you to find out what happened—who that man was.”
I thought for a minute or two. “You have only mentioned three people,” I said. “It obviously was not yourself and it wasn’t Spencer. The third was his wife.”
“It certainly wasn’t her. It was a man. Besides, she is still alive.” “Then I have absolutely nothing to start upon. What made you think it was Spencer?”
“I knew his overcoat and his felt hat.”
“That was all you had to go upon?”
“It was a man of the same height. Besides, who else would be in that spot wearing Spencer’s coat and hat?”
“Or a coat and hat like them.” “Identically the same! I can still see them quite distinctly.”
“You say it was getting dark?” “Dusky; but then I was within a yard of him.”
I was silent for a little longer, and then I said,
“I must think it over, Mr. Wickley. Leave me your address.” He left me thinking very hard, I can assure you.
there we were talking together in the hall of the Metropole as if nothing had happened at all.”
“What did you talk about?”
“The weather, I think, and we each made the pretty obvious remark that the other seemed to have come up from Devorsetshire. We exchanged about half a dozen sentences or so and then we each nodded and I went out.
“ ‘I’m not a murderer after all!’ was my first thought, and for half an hour I was happy as a boy.
“And then the whole thing began to come back to me —Spencer standing in the wood—the way he fell—everything. I simply couldn't have imagined it! And yet equally I couldn’t have imagined talking to Spencer in the Metropole. I stayed three days in London hesitating, and then I simply had to go back and see for myself.” Again he stopped abruptly and asked,
“Now what’s your impression so far, Mr. Carrington?” “That you were overwrought, and imagined—or else dreamt—the murder scene.”
Wickley’s voice sank.
“I went back to that wood, very cautiously and taking care that nobody was about—and there was a freshly filled in grave there! Someone had been buried, very roughly and hurriedly and not very deep. Who was it?”
I THOUGHT he was going to answer the question himself, but instead he waited for me to speak.
“Do you mean to say you never discovered?”
He shook his head.
“It’s an absolute mystery to me! Nobody in the neighborhood apparently was missing. Nothing was ever said or whispered or rumored of a murder. Nothing more ever happened. I couldn’t possibly live on in that place. I let the house, but not the shooting—-because I didn’t want people to be going through that wood, and I’ve been a wanderer for eight years. Last week I came to London and met a cousin who persuaded me to go to the Devorset dinner last night. And there I saw Spencer again, for the first time since we parted in the Metropole. That started
station and simply left it standing outside. I took the first train to London and made so little effort to hide what I was feeling that everybody who saw me, stared. I got to London late in the evening and wandered about the streets all night. In the morning I still kept wandering trying to avoid newspapers and posters. Then I suddenly got desperate and bought a paper. There was nothing about the murder in it. So I bought another and then another, till I had bought six papers, but still there was nothing. And then I got reckless. I went straight off to the Hotel Metropole in Northumberland Avenue, the place where both Spencer and I generally stayed when we wanted an hotel in London, ordered a room and went straight to bed.”
He paused for a moment again and I couldn’t help observing:
“Your story is interesting enough now, Mr. Wickley.”
“Wait!” he said, “I haven’t come to the interesting part yet.”
I really began to think the man was off his head.
“I slept almost all day,” he continued, “and when I woke up in the late afternoon my head was pretty clear again. And, Heavens! I was afraid now! I dressed very quickly, and then sat in my room waiting for someone to come for me. And then I suddenly got reckless again, walked out into the corridor and boldly went down by the lift. I stepped out of the lift and was crossing the hall when out of the corner of my eye I seemed to see someone I knew. I looked round, and as I’m a living sinner, Carrington, there was Toddy Spencer sitting in an armchair looking at me!”
He stopped abruptly and added:
“That's the interesting part.”
And I had to confess he was right.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Simply stared at him, just as he was staring at me, •only he wasn’t staring quite so hard. And then he sud•denly spoke to me in quite a friendly voice, almost nervously, in fact. I answered him in just the same tone, and
Z'"'1 ARRINGTON lit a fresh cigar^ ette and began the second part of his story:
Wickley left my office only a little before my usual lunch hour, and I sat on over my fire for some time, thinking—but not seeing a ray of light. That made me rather late in getting back after lunch and when I came in my clerk handed me a card and told me a gentleman was waiting in my room. On the card I read the name “Mr. A. D. Spencer.”
When I glanced up from it and caught my clerk’s eye, I could see that he evidently thought I had done myself a little too well at lunch. I suppose I had been standing for the whole of five minutes gazing at that card. The appearance of Mr. Spencer immediately on top of Mr. Wickley seemed a thing hardly in the course of nature. I began to wonder whether there was some sort of conspiracy between the two men. I tried to see in advance what line this man Spencer was going to take. And then I recovered my wits and walked into my room.
I found a heavy-looking man of rather above middleheight, clean-shaved, with a blue chin, baggy eyes and very black hair. He had the skin of a man who, as Wickley said, did himself a little too well, and I could also quite believe that he could be a sulky ill-tempered devil if things went wrong.
“We didn’t exactly meet last night, Mr. Carrington,” he began, and there was quite a dash of geniality about the man when he made the effort, “but I was at the Devorset dinner and heard you speak. I also came across an old acquaintance there. Meeting him set me worrying about an old problem, and seeing you put it into my head to come and consult you on the matter.”
And then I realized that there was no conspiracy at all, nor even any very extraordinary coincidence, but, as I told you at the start, just a series of quite natural events that had produced this startling result. My second thought was—“What a bit of luck! The solution of the insoluble problem walks into my office!” However, you’ll see how far out I was there.
“Of course, you’ll understand that this is strictly confidential,” said he.
“Naturally,” I said, and I noted that though he was evidently keen on secrecy, he didn’t show the same extreme anxiety as Wickley.
WELL,” he said, “I’ll begin my story eleven years back. Or perhaps I should first mention that some years before that I had purchased an estate in Devorset. I’m a stockbroker, by the way; Spencer, Spencer, and Luderman is my firm, and I’m the senior partner. Eleven years ago an old fellow in the neighbor-
her temper cooled, and tried to unsay it and back out. Besides the little things on which I had based my suspicions had convinced me already. And now I had her word for it!”
Spencer was quite carried away by his own story by this time and I could judge exactly the kind of dangerous, revengeful man he was.
“The only question was, who was the man? And there couldn’t be any question about that either. Wickley was the only possibility!”
“Ah!” I exclaimed, and he looked at me sharply. “Go on,” I said, “I begin to see the position now.”
I saw it a lot clearer than he had any notion of. This of course accounted for Wickley’s first mystery—the sudden hatred of Spencer for his neighbor.
“There could be no doubt about it,” said he. “He was the only man in the neighborhood of our own position in life whom we knew in the very least intimately. And he lived inside of two miles from us. Six miles away there was a fat fellow of fifty with a wife and large family—a dull bore of a fellow. Seven miles away were two maiden ladies. Nine miles away was an invalid of seventy. Those were the only alternatives, and we scarcely ever saw any of them. Besides, I had grown more and more convinced that Wickley had something shady in the background. I knew him now to be a blackguard!”
“Knew?” I repeated. “But had you any proof?”
“When there are no possible alternatives, that’s proof enough! Besides, I soon got proof of his character. I made enquiries about him—set an agency on to his track and I discovered—•” he paused and hesitated for an instant, “well, I need only say that he would never have been received in any decent society if people knew what I found out. It had happened abroad—he had done ti—” Again he broke off and the scowl lifted a littlefrom
hood called Wickley died and his nephew came into the property and settled down next door to me.
By next door I mean rather under a couple of miles away ; but we had no other neighbors—of that class, I mean—within six or seven miles, and we didn’t know them either. Consequently Wickley and I saw a lot of one another and became very friendly.”
“What sort of a fellow was he?”
I enquired with my most truthseeking expression.
“I wish you had noticed him at dinner last night,” said he, “and you’d have understood better what kind of a proposition he was.
A reddish-haired, heavy-chinned sort of fellow, with queer eyes, and the word ‘past’ stamped all over him.”
“What do you mean exactly?”
“Well, I mean that he had a past and I soon began to guess as much from his very appearance and manner, though at first I only felt vaguely that there was something unusual about him. I may mention that he isn’t the kind of person one would natúrally suspect of a shady record, for the Wickleys are a very good old Devorset family, and if family pride would keep people straight, well, it ought to have kept him.
He didn’t show that feature either to begin with, but you’ll see in a minute the sort of too-good-for-adamned-stockbroker gentleman he was. My place was about twice the size of his, I may add, and he was deuced glad to have as many days shooting with me as he could get.
Some rotten days he gave me in exchange; but of course, shooting with a two-penny halfpenny squire was always an honor!”
This speech naturally didn’t prejudice me much in favor of Mr. Spencer. Little though he realized it, he was making me look at things more and more from Wickley’s point of view—bad hat though Mr. W. may have been, and respectable as Mr. ^S. no doubt was.
“I am coming to a very painful part of my story now, Mr. Carrington,” he continued. “In fact it’s so infernally unpleasant that it has kept me from telling the facts to a living soul up to this moment. I had a wife, in fact she’s legally my wife still, and I was very fond of her. I can assure you on that point—I was desperately fond of her! She was an uncommonly beautiful girl. She was on the stage at one time, I may say, and might have gone very far on her looks alone, but I married her and took her away from it. She was a lady by birth but she hadn’t a penny and it was a love marriage pure and simple—love marriage on my part at least, for I don’t believe she ever really loved me. We had no children either, and that was a fatal mistake.”
HE PAUSED and stared moodily at my fire. I was much more in sympathy with Mr. Spencer now. “Well, to get over an unpleasant business as quickly as possible, we began to drift apart pretty fast. I still loved her to distraction—in a way; but we both had tempers and she led me the devil of a dance, and it was cat and dog half the time. When I bought this place in Devorset she kicked at living there permanently—too slow for her. She’d stay for some months and we’d have house parties and so on, and then back to town again. And then all of a sudden she quite changed round. Perfectly agreeable to living all the year in the country, she became now, so we gave up our flat in town and settled in Devorset; even though it meant her being quite a good bit by herself, for I generally had to spend part of my week in town for business reasons.
“Then, like a thunderclap, came the suspicion that there was something behind this change of tune. One needn’t go into all the details, but several little things made me morally certain that Elise was being unfaithful to me. We were having worse rows than usual at that time and in one shindy I charged her with it. In order to hit me back hard she actually admitted it!”
“In order to hit you hard?” I interrupted. “Are you sure she meant it?”
“Perfectly, because she got in a funk afterwards, when
T MUST confess that Í had scarcely given Mr. Wickley credit for such powers of invective, and I realized now to what a pitch of fury the two of them had roused one another.
“As I was saying,” he went on, “I was quite beside myself with rage by this time, and I did a damned silly thing. I wrote to him threatening to show him up if he didn’t clear out of the place. I even went the length of telling him he must sell me his property. That was simply to crush his pride, of course.”
“You called it ‘silly’,” I said. “That seems hardly the adjective.”
“Wait a bit and you’ll see why,” said he. “I must tell you first that I was trying hard to catch my wife all this time. Having to go up to town two or three days a week and leave her to play the devil with that fellow nearly drove me demented. On the other hand it gave me a chance of catching her napping. One of my servants was watching her for me, but I think Elise must have suspected him.. .!” “ ‘Him’?” I said. “Do you mean your butler?”
“It was my chauffeur as a matter of fact; a smart young fellow. He came to me one day and told me he suspected what was up and offered to watch her. I paid him well for it, but though he said Wickley was often hanging round my place he never found anything definite against my wife. I tried my own hand at it, too, by coming back from town when she didn’t expect me, but they were cunning as Satan. I never caught them.
“But to come to the climax of the affair; I wrote that letter to Wickley from my London office, and then the sudden thought struck me that I would come straight home myself. He wouldn’t expect me, seeing the address on the letter, and he would probably see my wife at once about it. That’s how I argued. When I got home my wife was out, nobody knew where. My suspicions became a practical certainty. I took my gun and I set out in the direction of his house. I’m telling you everything quite candidly, Mr. Carrington. I was just approaching the boundary of the two properties when I saw him coming towards me, as I thought. I slipped behind a tree and watched him. He turned into a wood that lies just on the boundary and I stood for a short while like a man in Hell!”
Mr. Spencer took out his handkerchief and passed it across his face. As for me, I never was more fascinated in my life. To think of hearing the other half of Wickley’s story like this! In a moment Spencer went on,
“I yielded to temptation, Mr. Carrington. I felt sure that he and my wife were in that wood and I meant to kill one or both— Wickley certainly. I made a little detour, entered the wood, crossed a stream that forms the boundary, and suddenly I saw him. He was lying dead on his face, with a huge blood stain all over his back!”
“Wickley was?” I exclaimed.
“I had just seen him go into the wood. Who else could it be? But I didn’t go near the body. I simply turned tail and hurried home as fast as I could walk. It took me all my time to keep at a walk and not to run! And now do you see what a silly performance that threatening letter was? It had come on top of other foolishness, for I had used my tongue pretty freely about the fellow. And now
his face. “But the man had suffered for his sins and it had really nothing to do with my story except that it gave me a hold over him. I was mad with anger and I determined to use it.”
“Had nothing else passed between you?” I ventured to ask, for I remembered Wickley’s version and I suspected Spencer was skipping a bit.
‘Oh, well,” he admitted, “I may as well allow that I had shown him pretty plainly that I didn’t want to have anything more to do with him. We had one open row and that was when he showed me what a damned, high and mighty aristocratic snob he was. ‘Gentlemen aren’t grown in two days out of dirty stockbroking mushrooms!’ Those wrere his actual words!”
he was lying murdered and I had been seen leaving my house with a gun and probably had been seen going in that very direction! Also, I knew in my heart I had meant to kill him. Lord, what a shock I got! You may think me a fool to have felt like that ...”
“I don’t in the very least,” I assured him in all sincerity.
‘‘Well, that’s how I did feel. I may add as some excuse for my next performance that this trouble had been leading me to drink a bit too much and my nerve wasn’t at its best. Anyhow when I got home I didn't wait in the house longer than to order the car; and then as a finishing touch, the chauffeur couldn’t be found and so I couldn’t get to the station in time to catch the last train that evening! I had hired from the station when I arrived, so as to give no warning of my coming, but the car had gone back, and there I was landed. However, I didn’t wait in my house—I simply couldn’t do it. I tramped off to a little local pub, slept the night there, and went back to town in the morning. And now comes a bit of the story that you probably won’t believe, Mr. Carrington.”
“I believe everything you tell me,” I said.
“I had a room at the Hotel Metropole at that time. On the same afternoon, soon after I had got back to London, I was sitting in the hall with a bundle of evening papers, looking for some news of Wickley’s murder, when what do you think? Wickley himself stepped out of the lift and walked across the hall under my nose!”
He looked at me expectantly and I tried to seem dumbfounded. I must have succeeded pretty well for he seemed quite satisfied.
“It is absolute gospel truth,” he said. “Just as he was passing, he spotted me, and do you know, the extraordinary thing was that all signs of enmity seemed to have left the man! As for me, I was so thankful to see him alive, I could have embraced him. We exchanged a few ordinary remarks in a perfectly friendly way and then he walked out of the hotel. I haven’t seen him from that moment till last night at the dinner, and it was meeting him again that tuned me up to doing what of course I always should have done. I want this mystery cleared up,
Mr. Carrington. I want to know who that man was I saw lying dead in the wood.”
He stopped, and I realized with a shock that Spencer’s story had done absolutely nothing to solve Wickley’s mystery. I had counted confidently on its cracking the nut, but instead it simply presented me with the same mystery over again.
“You never discovered who it was?”
He shook his head.
“Never to this day. I can only tell you that nobody is known to have been murdered, or even missing, in Devorset at that time. But I’m afraid that won’t help you very much.”
“Tell me what you did, and your wife did, immediately afterwards.”
“I funked going back for three or four days. My nerves were utterly rattled. When I got home, my wife had left, cleared right out, and we have never lived together again since. Before leaving she told our housekeeper that she sacked Martin, the chauffeur—no, Marwell, that was his name. Presumably she sacked him because she had discovered he had been spying on her. Of course she had no business to do it on her own account, but I didn’t care by that time. In fact, I was rather glad to be rid of him. He knew too much about the miserable business.
She left a short note for me, only a line or two. I can remember it by heart. ‘This is
absolutely the end of it. We must never meet again. I have done my best for you. Be grateful to me for that’.” “What did she mean?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“I haven’t the least idea. A woman’s way of getting in the last word and claiming to be in the right, I suppose.” “And have you ever met again?”
I fell very thoughtful. Dim ideas were beginning to float across my mind, but very mistily and tentatively. “Have you lived there at all since then?”
“No. I let the place at once. And Wickley let his, too. Neither of us have lived in Devorset since.”
“Did you by any chance lose an overcoat about that time?”
Spencer stared at me very hard.
“Lose an overcoat?” he repeated. “No—or rather, yes, now I come to think of it. I used to have rather a nice Burberry which must have disappeared just about that time. I remember wondering what had become of it; though such trifles didn’t worry me much then.”
“And a felt hat?”
He stared again and then thought again.
“Possibly, but I had several felt hats and one might have gone astray without my noticing it, especially in the state of mind I was in. Why do you ask?”
“Just a vague idea I had. It was getting towards dusk, you say, when you saw the body in the wood?”
“I don’t think I said so, but it was.”
“Well, I’ll think over the whole story,” I told him, and Mr. Spencer shook hands and walked off.
NOW,” said Carrington, “we come to the one really remarkable coincidence. There was present at that Devorset dinner a man with an unsolved riddle lying on a dusty shelf at the back of his memory, and he wasn’t a Devorset man, either, but a guest, like myself. He was a fellow, Tuke, a London solicitor; he knew the man who was acting as my own host that night, and so I made his acquaintance at the dinner and had quite a yarn with him. Furthermore, Tuke’s host knew Spencer and introduced Tuke to him. It was Tuke’s two meetings with Spencer and myself that brought him to my office a couple of days later, and one can trace cause and effect just as in the cases of Wickley’s and of Spencer’s visits to me. But it was an extraordinary chance that Tuke, with that riddle on the dusty shelf, should have happened to be at the dinner at all. Here you get the work of the sprite who seemed to be acting for Destiny.
HE WAS a nice, gentlemanly, solid-looking man, was Tuke, and didn’t suggest anything very exciting when he sat down and told me he had come to see me professionally. But when he said that it was the meeting with Spencer which had reminded him of an unsolved, half-forgotten mystery, I assure you I pricked up my ears.
“ ‘About nine years ago,’ he began, ‘a poor girl came to me with a very queer story and a very sad story, too, it was. She was a Mrs. Borham, or thought she was, a pretty slender young thing of barely twenty-one, full of pluck, but with the marks of pain and worry stamped too clearly on her face for anyone with any observation to miss. And this was the story she told me:
“ ‘She was the daughter of an impecunious half-pay naval officer and was staying with some relatives at Dover when she met Reginald Borham, if that was his real name, which I should think is very doubtful. He was a man of about 25 or 26, a mechanical engineer by profession, remarkably goodlooking, with the manners and address of a gentleman and a most romantic tale of highborn relations who had disowned him owing to his refusal to marry an heiress whom he didn’t love. It was a cock and bull story, if ever there was one, but as he professed to have fallen in love with this poor girl, and as she certainly fell in love with him, she swallowed it whole, and, to make a long story short, married him.
“ ‘Reading between the lines of her story and interpreting it by what I was able to pick up about the man, he seems to have married her simply because she wouldn’t succumb to his advances otherwise. She was unusually attractive and he was evidently carried away by her for the moment very completely, for it wasn’t his usual procedure with women by any means.
“ ‘As a rule he specialized in married ladies and lived either on their bounty or on blackmail. In fact, he was the worst type of animal that goes about on two legs, a creature vicious to the core, without a rag of honor to cover him or an ounce of compunction in his heart. Such animals ought to be shot at sight.
“ ‘He actually had an engineer’s training, plenty of brains and considerable aptitude for mechanical work, and at the moment was conaected with some admiralty job at Continued en paçe 52
Continued, from page 13
Dover, but within three months of his marriage he deserted his work and his wife and vanished into space. I traced another woman in connection with his flight, but she lost sight of him, too, and as his employers strongly suspected his honesty, they didn’t make any effort to trace him. In fact, every man he has been connected with has been thankful to see the last of him, and every woman has bitterly regretted she ever met him.
“The poor young wife came up to London and determined to make her own living. She had no money, her people had strongly disapproved of the marriage, and things weren’t pleasant at home. Having no business training of any kind and being passionately fond of children, she took on the job of nursemaid in the house of some people she knew, and there she was in a dark blue uniform and bonnet, wheeling a perambulator about the park and the streets of Bayswater, when I made her acquaintance.
“ ‘Well, now I’m coming to the part where I want your detective mind to follow me very closely, Mr. Carrington. Just ask any questions you like if things don’t seem clear. It was about a year after her marriage and she had been nearly nine months on this job, when she was wheeling her pram one day along a quiet street in the neighborhood of Edgeware road. Suddenly on the opposite pavement she spied her husband walking rather quickly in the opposite direction, with a lady at his side! They never glanced across the street, and, of course, it would never have entered the blackguard’s head to suspect that a nursemaid, wheeling a pram, could be his wife, but she, on the other hand, studied them carefully and described them to me exactly.
BORHAM himself was got up immaculately as the young man about town—silk hat, fashionably tilted backwards, morning coat, black-and-white striped trousers, patent boots with yellow tops, and all the rest of it. The lady had extremely golden hair, a face which even her rival admitted was remarkably pretty, with long eyelashes and very red lips, decidedly of the actress type, Mrs. Borham described her; and as for her dress and hat, she portrayed these so exactly that we were able to identify the lady afterwards through them alone. Of course, I can’t remember a single item but, anyhow, she was very smartly and extremely expensively rigged out.
“ ‘Mrs. Borham stopped short on the opposite pavement and bent over her charge, as a nurse might naturally do, but her eyes were following the couple across the way, and she was prepared to wheel round and follow them when they were safely past. However, they didn’t go very much farther. There was a quiet hotel in this street, one of that type which probably does a pretty mixed sort of business, but with a very large, smart-looking motor car standing in front of it. She was struck at once, she said, with the contrast between the car and the hotel. Borham and the lady glanced over their shoulders as if to see that the coast was clear, and then turned into the hotel.
“ ‘Imagine the poor girl’s feelings as she watched this performance! Fortunately, she had heaps of pluck and resource and she determined to see the affair through, so she crossed the street and paced backwards and forwards for about half an hour; taking care never to come near enough to the hotel to be seen from the windows. Unfortunately, she was just about at the further end of her beat when the lady reappeared, and she didn’t even see her actually come out of the hotel. In fact, when Mrs. Borham looked around, the lady was on the pavement, just about to get into the car that was standing by the curb, and the only person with her was the chauffeur, who was just at her back. He opened the door of the car, she got in, and then off they went.”
“ ‘And Borham himself?” I asked.
“ ‘Never came out at all. His wife waited and waited in that street, but there was not a sign of him.’
“ ‘Could he have come out before the lady, while his wife happened to be walking away from the hotel?’
“ ‘She declared it was quite impossible, for she kept constantly glancing over her shoulder. No; for some reason or other
he must have remained in the hotel till she went away. Conceivably, he had spotted her.’
“ ‘Just before leaving Mrs. Borham wheeled her pram right past the hotel, and when she was passing the door her eye was caught by an envelope lying in the gutter immediately opposite. On the off chance that the lady had dropped it while getting into the car, she picked it up. It turned out to be empty, but on the outside was written “Mr. J. Marwell, Care A. D. Spencer, Esq.,” and then followed an address at some well-known Kensington flats. Next morning she came to me with her story and the envelope.’
“ ‘Dropped by thechauffeur,Isuppose?’
“ ‘By Jove! you’re quite right! I put the matter into the hands of an inquiry agent and found that Mrs. Spencer corresponded to the account of the mysterious lady, and one of her costumes tallied exactly with Mrs. Borham’s description. Also Spencer’s chauffeur was named Marwell.’
“ ‘And Borham?’
“ ‘Ah, now we come to the most mysterious and extraordinary part of the whole business. Not a single trace was ever heard or seen of Borham again! I admit there were difficulties in the way of tracing him. There was obviously no use in tackling Mrs. Spencer direct, for she would simply have denied everything. We might have threatened her with exposure, but Mrs. Borham wouldn’t hear of a public scandal, for in all probability exposure would have meant the divorce court for Mrs. Spencer, with Borham’s name and history brought into the business. The people at the hotel denied all knowledge of the whole affair. It was that sort of an hotel, you see. My agent tried Marwell but he was like a clam.
“As a final and complete checkmate, the Spencers very shortly afterwards gave up their flat in town and settled down on an estate he had purchased in Devorset. Our only remaining chance of getting at Borham had been by watching Mrs. Spencer, and now, of course, that was gone.”
“Has Mrs. Borham never heard anything of her husband again?”
“Not from that day to this. I heard from her about six months ago. Apparently, some other man was wanting to marry her, but that .vanished blackguard Borham, stood in theway. She asked what I should advise. Well, I gave her the best advice I could, but I had to confess that che man had beaten us completely. And now, Mr. Carrington, can you suggest any possible step that might be taken?”
“I thought for a minute or two and then I said:
YOU can tell Mrs. Borham that her husband has been dead for eight years.”
Tuke stared at me very hard indeed.
“But—how do you know?” he exclaimed.
“ ‘Borham was Marwell,’ I said, and Marwell met the fate he deserved—very suddenly.”
“After Tuke left me I made certain other inquiries, and here’s the true history of the vanished Borham, alias Marwell, from the time he went down to Devorset with the Spencers.
“Mrs. Spencer was infatuated with the scoundrel, and the scoundrel had Mrs. Spencer under his thumb. His latest enterprise just before he first met her had been in connection with a fraudulent motor company. You’ll remember, of course, that he was a useful engineer and he was a man who would stoop to anything and stick at nothing. He applied for the job of Spencer’s chauffeur and Mrs. S. saw that he got the billet, without raising the faintest suspicion in her husband’s mind. Then he started this double life of young blood and chauffeur, always changing clothes at that hotel.
“The next thing was the warning given them by the efforts of Tuke’s agent (who must have been a bit of an ass) to bribe Marwell to give away Borham! Hence the move to Devorset, where they thought they would have an absolutely free hand, and in a very short time the scoundrel found himself in clover. Mrs. Spencer had her scene with her husband and knew he suspected Wickley. She told Marwell, alias Borham, whereupon the man— without telling her—hit upon the ingenious device of going to Spencer and offering to shadow his wife. He thus had three sources of income—his pay as
chauffeur, together with various perquisites that he didn’t stop at picking (honestly or otherwise); his payments from Spencer for acting as spy and any amount of odd sums from the infatuated woman. Also, he lived in comfort and had a beautiful woman devoted to him. And with Spencer’s suspicions all directed at the wrong man (and Marwell assisted in this), the game seemed safe as houses.
AFTER a time, however, one small fly got into the ointment; though it seemed only a trifle. Under yet a third name he started an intrigue with the daughter of a respectable farmer some miles away, and then began to get in a funk of driving his mistress about in the car more than he could help. He belonged to that class of man who seems able to tell an infatuated woman anything without breaking the spell, and he actually had the audacity to tell her this and suggest meetings in the woods about the place instead of taking her afield. She provided him with a coat and hat of her husband’s so that he might pass as Spencer himself if anyone caught a glimpse of them; for Spencer was known to come and go constantly between London and his country house, and was also known to be often wandering about his woods when he was at home. And now Destiny prepared at last to clear the earth of this pest.”
Carrington rose and planted himself before the fire, looking down upon the three of us who were listening to him, and suddenly and very impressively came to the denouement of his tale.
“One evening at dusk she came a little late to a rendezvous in a certain wood. It was just across the boundary, so as to add to the chances of not being interrupted— Destiny had seen to that. There she found him, stark dead, on his face, with the handle of a pruning knife sticking out of his back. She had thought her husband was in town, but guessed instantly he had come back—and guessed rightly. She thought she recognized his pruning knife (he had bought two and given one to Wickley, you’ll remember)— and this time she guessed wrong.
“She hurried back to the house, half demented, and found her husband had actually been home and now had fled. And then she was quite certain who had done the deed. What should she do? Hide her own shame, save her husband’s neck and smother the scandal! That woman actually took a spade and in the dark in that lonely wood, found a bit of loose soil and got the body hidden, somehow. The next evening she had the nerve to go again and pile more earth on top, and meanwhile, she told the housekeeper that Marwell had been sacked. Nobody else in the house had liked him and nobody worried what had become of him. And then she wrote that note to her husband —T have done my best for you. Be grateful to me for that’—and left the house and him forever.”
“How did you find out all those details?” we asked.
“Well, to begin by giving myself a little pat on the back, I came to a pretty correct conclusion at thé end of Spencer’s story. One man alone had disappeared from the neighborhood, and that was the chauffeur, Marwell. He was said to have been sacked within the next day or two, but he couldn’t be found immediately after the murder, when his master wanted the car. I judged him to be an obvious rascal from his offer to spy upon the wife. Also, I knew that there was nobody in her own station of life who could possibly have been Mrs. Spencer’s lover. Finally, I had learned that one of Spencer’s coats had been abstracted, which not only accounted for the unknown victim being mistaken for Spencer, but pointed to his having been a member of the household. I suspected something very like the truth, but, of course, one needed more facts.
“Then came Tuke with his story, which confirmed my suspicion and told me almost everything. And, finally, I hunted down Mrs. Spencer and made her tell me the rest of the story.”
“And did you tell any of them the whole truth?”
“Only Wickley. I couldn’t give his secret away to anybody else. But I told him everything. Whether it consoled the poor devil or not I don’t know, but I assured him he was simply the instrument selected by Fate to rid the world of an unspeakable blackguard.”