The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
Another gripping chapter of one of the most baffling detective stories of the year
FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS
What has happened so far: A gloomy house in one of the most deserted spots of the Yorkshire moors is burned to the ground. Three bodies are found in the ruins, presumably those of the owner, Simon Averill, a miser, Roper, his attendant, and Roper’s wife. Ruth Averill, niece of the miser and the other member of the household, was visiting friends at the time of the tragedy. A small sum in gold sovereigns is found in Averill’s safe after the fire but the major portion of his fortune, known to have been in notes, is charred beyond recognition. One of the notes known to have been in the safe appears in circulation. Inspector French, of New Scotland Yard, is called in. He finds the contents of the safe to be charred newspapers, and learns that the mysterious note has been passed by Whymper, a young architect, who is in love with Ruth Averill. Whymper refuses to discuss the case but tells enough to send French to a village in France whither Whymper says he went on an errand for Averill. French finds nothing at the French village but subsequently discovers a confession in Roper’s safety deposit box, signed by Dr. Philpot, Averill’s physician, and stating that the latter had murdered his wife. This document French proves to be a forgery.
BUT even if the confession were forged, French felt that the circumstances were so extraordinary that he could not drop the matter. The whole affair smacked of blackmail, and if blackmail had been going on he thought it might in some way have a bearing on the Starvel tragedy. At all events, even though a forgery, the confession might state the truth. It seemed necessary therefore, to learn all he could about the affair and he went in and laid the whole matter before his Chief for that officer’s decision.
As a result of the interview French took the 11.40 sleeping car express from King’s Cross that night. He changed at Edinburgh next morning and, having breakfasted, continued his journey into Fifeshire in a stopping train. Eleven o’clock saw him at Cupar, the headquarters of the Kintilloch district, and fifteen minutes later he was seated in the office of the superintendent, explaining to that astonished officer the surprising development which had taken place.
“They told me from headquarters that you were not satisfied about the affair when it occurred,” French concluded. “I wondered if you would tell me why?”
“I will surely,” the other returned, leaning forward confidentially, “but you’ll understand that we hadn’t what you’d call an actual suspicion. The talk made us look into the affair, but we thought it was all right and we let it drop.”
“I suppose that other doctor—Ferguson, you called him—was quite satisfied by the accident theory?”
‘“Sergeant MacGregor asked him that, as a routine question. Yes, there was no doubt the blow on the temple killed her and in his opinion she might have received it by falling down the stairs.”
“And the servant girl had no suspicion?”
“Well, we didn’t exactly ask her that in so many words. But I’m satisfied she hadn’t. Besides, her story was all right. There was nothing to cause her suspicion—if she was telling the truth.”
“Is she still in the town?”
“I don’t know,” the superintendent returned. “I have an idea that she married shortly afterwards and left. But Sergeant MacGregor will know. Would you have time to go down to Kintilloch and see him? I could go with you to-morrow, but I’m sorry I’m engaged for the rest of to-day.”
“Thank you, I’d like to see the sergeant, but I shouldn't think of troubling you to come. I think indeed I shall have to see all concerned. It’s a matter of form really; I don’t expect to get anything more than your people did. But I’m afraid I shall have to see them to satisfy the Chief. You see, there may be some connection with this Starvel case that I’m on. You don’t mind?”
“Of course not. I'll give you a note to MacGregor. These country bumpkins become jealous easily.”
A short run in a local train brought French to Kintilloch and he was not long in finding the local police station and
introducing himself to Sergeant MacGregor. Tha\ worthy at first displayed a canny reserve, but on seeing his superintendent’s note became loquacious and informative. With the exception of two pieces of information, he had little to tell of which French was not already aware. Those two items, however, were important.
The first was that he had knowm John Roper well. Roper had been for six years an attendant at the Ransome Institute. He had been, the sergeant believed, directly under Dr. Philpot. At all events he and the doctor knew each other intimately. As to the man’s character; MacGregor knew nothing against him, but he had not liked him, nor indeed had many other people. Roper was an able man, clever and efficient, but he had a sneering, satirical manner and was unable to refrain from making caustic remarks which hurt people’s feelings and made him enemies. He left his job and the town some three or four years after Dr. Philpot as a result of trouble at the Institute, and so far as the sergeant could tell, no one was very sorry to see the last of him. The sergeant had supposed he had gone to Brazil, as he had applied for a passport for that country. He had informed thesergeant that he had a brother in Santos and was going out to him.
The second piece of news was that Flora Macfarlane, the Philpots’ maid, had been married a month orso after Mrs. Philpot’s death, and to no less a person than John Roper. The girl who had all but witnessed her mistress’ tragic death had herself five years later been a victim in that still more terrible tragedy at the old house in Starvel Hollow.
French’s interview with Dr. Ferguson was more disappointing. He asked first about Roper and received very much the same information that Sergeant MacGregor had given him. On two occasions at the Ransome he had been found giving troublesome patients unauthorized drugs to keep them quiet. The first case was not a bad one, and on promising amendment, he was let off with a caution. When the second case was discovered he was immediately dismissed. He had not asked for, nor been given, a discharge.
Anxious to see whether Roper’s handwriting contained any idiosyncrasies which had been reproduced in the
forged documente, French with some difficulty obtained some old forms which he had filled up. These he put in his pocket for future study.
He then turned the conversation to Philpot. But Ferguson told him nothing about Philpot that he had not known before. He asked and obtained permission to interrogate a number of the staff who remembered the two men. but from none of these did he learn anything new about either
He could see nothing for it, therefore, but to interview Philpot forthwith, and returning to the station, he caught the last train to Edinburgh. There he stayed the night, and next day took a train which brought him through the Border country to Carlisle and thence in due course to Hellifietd and Thirsby.
"PvOCTOR PHILPOT lived in a small detached house at the end of the High Street of the little town, dose enough to the centre of things to be convenient for patients, and far enough away to have a strip of garden round his house and to avoid being overlooked by his neighbors.
The reply to the letter he had written from ‘Charles Musgrave" about the mythical gardener told French that the doctor's consulting hours were from six to eight o'clock in the evening, and at two minutes to eight on'the day he had returned from Edinburgh French rang the doctor’s bell. The door was opened by an elderly woman who led the wav to the consulting room.
There seemed to French a vaguely unprosperous air about the place. The garden was untended, the railing wanted paint and the house, while well enough furnished, looked neglected and dirty. French wondered if these were the outward and \ isible signs of the betting proclivities of their owner, of which the hotel landlord had taken so serious a view .
Dr. Philpot was seated at a writing table, but he rose on French's entry. His appearance was not exactly unprepossessing, but it suggested a lack of force or personality Physically he was frail, neither tall nor short,
and washed out as to coloring. His tired, dreamy-looking eyes were of light blue, his fair hair, thinning on the top, was flecked with gray and his complexion had an almost unhealthy pallor. He had well-formed, rather aristocratic features, but his expression was bored and dissatisfied. He struck French as a dreamer rather than a practical man of affairs. But his manner was polite enough as he wished his visitor good-evening and pointed to a chair.
“My name is French, and I have called, not as a patient, but to consult you on a small matter of business.” Dr. Philpot glanced at the clock on the marble chimney piece.
“It is just eight,” he answered, “I shall not have any more patients to-night. I am quite at your service.” French sat down and made a remark or two about the weather, while he watched the man opposite to him keenly but unobtrusively. He was playing for time in which to ascertain what manner of man this doctor really was, so that he might handle the interview in the way most likely to achieve its end. Philpot replied politely but shortly, evidently at a loss to know why his visitor could not come to the point. But French presently did so with surprising suddenness.
"I am sorry, Dr. Philpot, that I am here on very unpleasant business, and I must begin by telling you that I am a detective inspector from New Scotland Yard.”
As he spoke French made no secret of his keen scrutiny. His eyes never left the other’s face, and he felt the thrill of the hunter when he noticed a sudden change come over its expression. From inattentive and bored it now became watchful and wary, and the man’s figure seemed to stiffen as if he were bracing himself to meet a shock.
“I regret to say,” French proceeded, “that information has recently been received by the Yard which, if true, would indicate that you are guilty of a very serious crime, and I have to warn you that if you are unable to offer me a satisfactory explanation I may have to arrest you, in which case anything which you may now say may be used in evidence against you.”
French was deeply interested by the other’s reception
of this speech. Dr. Philpot’s face was showing extreme apprehension, not to say actual fear. This was not altogether unexpected—French had seen apprehension stamped on many a face under similar circumstances. But what was unexpected was that the doctor should show no surprise. He seemed indeed to take French’s statement for granted, as if a contingency which he had long expected had at last arisen. “He knows what is coming,” French thought, as he paused for the other to speak.
But Philpot did not speak. Instead he deliberately raised his eyebrows, and looking inquiringly at French, waited for him to continue. French remained silent for a moment or two, then leaning forward and staring into the other’s eyes, he said in a low tone: “Dr. Philpot, you are accused of murdering your wife, Edna Philpot, at your home at Braeside, Kintilloch, about 5.30 on the afternoon of the 15th May, 1921.”
The doctor started and paled. For a moment panic seemed about to overtake him, then he pulled himself together.
■’Ridiculous!” he declared coolly. “Your information must be capable of some other explanation. What does it consist of?”
“It purports to be the statement of an eyewitness,” French returned, continuing slowly: “It mentions—
among other things—it mentions—a cricket bat.”
Again Philpot’s start indicated that the shot had told, but he answered steadily:—
“A cricket bat? I don’t follow. What has a cricket bat to do with it?”
“Everything,” French said grimly: “if the information received is correct, of course.”
Philpot turned and faced him.
“Look here,” he said harshly, “will you say right out what you mean and be done with it? Are you accusing me of murdering my wife with a cricket bat, or what are you trying to get at?”
“I’ll tell you,” French rejoined. “The statement is
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t .At you arranged the—‘accident*—which befell your » <e. The ‘accident.’ however, did not kill her, as you hoped and intended, and you then struck her on the temple *ith a cricket bat, which did kill her. That, I say, i' trie statement. I have just been to Kintilloch and have been making inquiries. Now, Dr. Philpot, when I mentioned the cricket bat you started. You therefore realized its significance. Do you care to give me an explanation or would you prefer to reserve your statement until you have consulted a solicitor?”
Dr. Philpot grew still paler as he sat silent, lost in thought. "Do you mean that you will arrest me if I don’t answer your questions?”
“I shall have no alternative.”
Again the doctor considered while his eyes grew more sombre and his expression more hopeless. At last he seemed to come to a decision. He spoke in a low voice.
• Ask your questions and I’ll answer them if I can.” French nodded.
'Did you ever,” he said slowly, “admit to any one that you had committed this murder?”
Philpot looked at him in surprise.
"Never!” he declared emphatically.
"Then how, French went on, slapping the confession down on the table, “how did you come to write this?” Philpot stared at the document as if his eyes would start out of his head. His face expressed incredulous amazement, but here again French, who was observing him keenly, felt his suspicions grow. Philpot was surprised at the production of the paper; it was impossible to doubt the reality of his emotion. But he did not read it. He evidently recognized it and knew its contents. For a moment he gazed breathlessly, then he burst out with a bitter oath.
"The infernal scoundrel!” he cried furiously. “I knew he was bad, but this is more than I could have imagined! That —Roper is at the bottom of this, I’ll swear! It’s another of his hellish tricks!”
"What do you mean?” French asked. “Explain yourself.”
"\ou got that paper from Roper—somehow, didn’t you? ’ The man was speaking eagerly now. “Even after he's dead his evil genius remains.”
If after my warning you care to make a statement, I will hear it attentively, and you will have every chance to clear yourself. As I told you I have learned about the case from various sources. I retain that knowledge to check your statement.”
Philpot made a gesture as if casting prudence to the
"I 11 tell you everything; I have no option,” he said, and his manner grew more eager. “It means admitting actions which I hoped never to have to speak of again. But I can’t help myself. I don't know whether you’ll believe my story, but I will tell you everything exactly as it happened.”
“I am all attention, Dr. Philpot.”
The doctor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts, then still speaking eagerly though more calmly, he began:—
“As you have inquired into this terrible affair, you probably know a good deal of what I am going to tell you. However, lest you should not have heard all, I shall begin at the beginning.
"In the year 1913 I wa3 appointed assistant on the medical 3taff of the Ransome Institute. One of the attendants there was called Roper, John Roper: the John Roper who lost his life at Starvel some weeks ago. He was a sneering, cynical man with an outwardly correct manner, but when he wished to be nasty, with a very o:tensive turn of phrase. He was under my immediate supervision and we fell foul of each other almost at once.
"One day, turning a corner in one of the corridors I came on Roper with his arm3 round one of the nurses. "Whether she was encouraging him or not I could not tell, ut when he saw me he let her go and she instantly vanished. I spoke to him sharply and said I would report
him. I should have been warned by his look of hate, but he spoke civilly and quietly.
“'I have nothing to say about myself,’ he said, ‘but you 11 admit that Nurse Williams is a good nurse, and well conducted. I happen to know she is supporting her mother, and if she gets the sack it will be ruin to both.’
"I told him he should have considered that earlier, but when I thought over the affair I felt sorry for the girl. She was, as he had said, a thoroughly attentive, kindly girl, and a good nurse. Well, not to make too long a story, there I made my mistake. I showed weakness and I made no report.”
"In May, 1914, I married and set up house at Braeside. Then came the war and in ’15 I joined up. After two years I was invalided out and went back to Kintilloch. Roper, I should say, was exempted from service owing to a weak heart.
“On my return after that two years I was a different man. I am not pleading neurasthenia, though I suffered from shell-shock, but I had no longer the self-control of my former days. Though I still dearly loved my wife, I confess I felt strongly attracted to other women when in their company. Thus it happened—I don’t want to dwell on a painful subject—that I, in my turn became guilty of the very offence for which I had threatened to report Roper.” He spoke with an obvious effort. “There was a nurse there—I need not tell you her name: she’s not there now—but she was a pretty girl with a kindly manner. I met her accidentally in Edinburgh and on the spur of the moment asked her to lunch. From that our acquaintance ripened and at last, by Fate’s irony—well, Roper found her in my arms one evening in a deserted part of the institute shrubbery. I can never forget his satanic smile as he stood there looking at us. I sent the girl away and then he disclosed his terms. The price of his silence was ten shillings a week. If I would pay him ten shillings a week he would forget what he had seen. To ensure continued payment he must have a guarantee. The guarantee was to take the form of a statement written and signed by myself, stating—but I can remember its exact words. It was to say:—
“ T, Herbert Philpot, doctor of medicine and at present assistant on the staff of the Ransome Institute in this town, under compulsion and in the hope of avoiding exposure, hereby admit that I have been carrying on an intrigue with Nurse So-and-So of the same institution. I further admit unseemly conduct with her in the grounds of the Ransome Institute on the evening of this 2nd October, 1920, though I deny any serious impropriety.’ ”
“You can’t think less of me than I do of myself, Inspector, when I tell you that at last after a protest and a long argument I submitted even in this humiliation. I am not trying to justify myself, but I just couldn’t face the trouble. I wrote the statement. Roper took it, and thanking me civilly, said he would ksep it hidden as long as the money was paid. But if there was a failure to pay he would send it anonymously to the institute authorities.
“After that everything seemed to become normal again. Every Saturday I secretly handed Roper a tenshilling note and our relations otherwise went on as before. And then came that awful afternoon when my wife lost her life.
“I can never forget the horror of that time and I surely need not dwell on it? If you have made inquiries at Kintilloch you will know what took place. Every word I said then was the literal truth. I shall pass on to what happened afterwards, but if there is any question you want to ask I will try to answer it.”
“There is nothing so far.”
“One evening about a week after the funeral, Roper called at my house and asked for an interview. I brought him into my study and then he referred to the ten shillings a week and said that he was sure I would see that his knowledge had now become vastly more valuable, and what was I going to do about it? I said that on the contrary it was now almost worthless. My wife was dead and I didn’t care what became of myself. There was only the nurse to think of, and even about her I didn’t now mind so much, as she had gone to America. At the same same time for peace sake I would continue the payments. He need not, however, think he was going to get any more out of me.
“His answer dumbfounded me. It left me terribly shaken and upset. He said he expected I hadn’t known it, but the police suspected me of murdering my wife, and were making all sorts of inquiries about me. but they were prevented from taking action by the fact that they didn’t think they could show a strong enough motive to take the case into court. That, he said—and I shall never forget the devilish look in his eyes—that was where he came in. He had but to go forward and relate the incident in the shrubbery to complete their case. He explained that he could do it in a perfectly natural way. He would say that while the affair was only a mere intrigue he did not consider it his business to interfere, but when it came to murder it was a different thing. He did not wish to be virtually an accessory after the fact.
“His remarks came as a tremendous shock to me. The possibility of such a terrible suspicion had not occurred to me, but now I saw that there was indeed a good deal of circumstantial evidence against me. I need not labor the matter. The result of our long conversation is all you wish to hear. In the end I was guilty of the same weakness and folly that I had shown before; I asked him his price and agreed to pay it. Two pounds a week, he demanded, until further notice, and I gave way. But when he went on to say that as before he required a guarantee and must have a written confession of the crime, I felt he had passed the limit. I refused to avow a crime of which I was not guilty, and dared him to do his worst.
“But once again he proved himself one too many for me. With his cynical evil smile he took two photographs out of his pocket and handed me one. It was an extraordinarily clear copy of my confession of the intrigue with the nurse. Then he handed me the other photograph and at first I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a copy of this,” and Dr. Philpot picked up the note that French had found in Roper’s safe deposit.
“I asked him, of course, for an explanation and he admitted brazenly that he had forged the letter. He had spent the week since the accident making copy after copy until he had got it perfect. When I stormed at him and threatened him with arrest he just laughed and said the boot was on the other foot. He said I needn’t have the slightest uneasiness, that so long as the money was paid the letter would never see the light of day. Otherwise the document would be enclosed anonymously to the police. You may guess how it ended up. I promised to pay; and I paid.”
Dr. Philpot’s face looked gray and weary and his eyes took on a deeper sombreness as he said these words. He waited as if for French to speak, but French did not move and he resumed:
“After all that had happened, life at Kintilloch became inexpressibly painful for me and I began to look out for another job. Then I heard that the principal doctor of this little town was old and in failing health, and there
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was a possible opening for a newcomer. I resigned the Ransome job and set up my plate here. But every week I sent two treasury notes to Roper.
'Some fifteen or sixteen months ago, when I had been here between three and four years. 1 had a letter from Roper saying that he had seen an advertisement for a man and w ife to act as servants to a Mr. Averill of Starvel m my neighborhood. As he had shortly before left the Ransome he w ished to apply. As a matter of fact, I found out later that he had been dismissed for drugging a patient. I forgot to say also that he had married my former serv ant. If, he went on, I would use my influence with Mr Averill to get him the job he would cease his demand for the two pounds a week and send me the note he had forged.
Mr. Averill was by this time my patient, and I mentioned Roper to htm. I could do so with a clear conscience for with all his faults Roper was an excellent attendant. His wife. Flora, also was a good servant and I =]J
believed they would suit Mr. Averill well.
At the same time I told Mr. Averill just why he had left the Ransome. But Mr.
Averill thought that for that very reason he could get them cheap and after some negotiations they were engaged.
The very same week Roper called on me and said I had kept my word in the past and he would keep his now. He said he was tired of crooked going and wished to live straight. He would blackmail me no longer. He handed me the forged note and watched me put it in the fire. I •eased paying him the money. From then to the day of his death he was civil when we met, and no unpleasant subjects were touched on. I began to believe his reformation w-as genuine, but now since you show me this I see he was unchanged. It is evident he must have made a copy of his forgery and kept one while he let me destroy the other. I wish you would tell me how you got it. What his motive can have been you may be able to guess, but I cannot.
"That, Inspector, is the whole truth of this unhappy affair. I had hoped never to hare to speak of it again, and now that I have told you of it I trust that the whole
miserable business may be decently buried and forgotten.”
French nodded gravely. He was puzzled by this long story of the doctor’s.
As he turned the matter over in his mind it seemed to French that the crucial point was the authenticity of the confession. If Philpot had written it, he had done so because he was guilty and because he, therefore, could not help himself. However terrible the putting of such a statement in black and white would be to him, it would be the lesser of two evils, the alternative being immediate betrayal. But if the confession were a forgery all this would be reversed. It could only have come into being in some such way as the doctor had described. In fact, in his case it would amount to a powerful confirmation of his story.
Now, upon this point there was no doubt. The confession definitely was a forgery. The Yard experts were unanimous, and their opinion under such circumstances might be taken for gospel. French might therefore start with a strong bias in favor of Philpot.
Philpot's admission that he had submitted to blackmail was actually in his favor. If he had intended to lie surely he would have invented a tale less damaging to himself. He had not hesitated to tell French about the nurse and so present him with the very motive for his wife’s murder which was lacking in the case against himself.
On the whole it seemed to French that the probabilities were on Philpot's side and he himself inclined to the view that he wa3 innocent. Whatever the truth, he saw that he had no case to bring into court. No jury would convict on 3uch evidence.
And if here was no evidence to convict the man of the murder of his wife, there was still less to associate him with the Starvel affair.
French had an uncomfortable feeling that he had been following will-o’-tfce-wisps both in thi3 affair and in Whymper'3.
No. he must get back to the facts. Who had stolen the money? That was what he had to find out. And he would not get it the way he was going. He must start again and work with more skill and vision. First, he must reassure this doctor, and then he must get away to some place wnere he could think without interruption.
"I am sorry, Dr. Philpot, to have had to give you the pain of reopening matters which I can well understand you wcuid have preferred to leave closed. It was neces-
ary, however, that my doubts on these matters should
either be confirmed or set at rest. I may say that I accept your story and am satisfied with the explanation you have given me. I hope it may be possible to let the affair drop and at the present time I see no reason to prevent it.” He arose. “I wish you good-night, doctor, and thank you for your confidence.”
rT'IIE next morning was fine and bright, with an 4 invigorating autumn nip in the air. The kind of day for a good walk, thought French, as he stood gazing into tlie main street from the window of the hotel coffeeroom. It occurred to him that for his explorations no time more propitious than the present was likely to offer. For the moment he was at a deadlock in his case. What better than study it out in solitude?
Ten minutes later saw him starting out with a stick in his hand and a packet of sandwiches in his pocket. He
turned in the Starvel direction, and climbing up the side of the valley, came out on the wide expanse of the moor.
For a time he tramped on, his mind occupied with his surroundings, but gradually it turned back to his case and he began reckoning up his progress, and considering how he could best attack what still remained to be done. And the more he thought of it, the less rosy the outlook seemed.
He let his mind rest once again on Philpot’s statement. If it were true, Roper showed up very badly. From every point of view he seemed a thorough-paced blackguard. Though this had come out more particularly from the doctor’s story it was fairly well-confirmed by what French had been told at Kintilloch. Neither Sergeant MacGregor nor Dr. Ferguson had a good word to say about the man. No one appeared to like him, and in the end he had been dismissed from the institute for a faule of a particularly serious nature.
But he was a clever rascal also. French was amazed when he considered how he had succeeded in worming himself into old Averill’s confidence. Even making allowances for the old man’s weak-minded senility, it was almost incredible that this shifty scoundrel should have been trusted with a secret which Whymper would risk a murder charge rather than reveal.
French tramped on, pondering over the matter in his careful, painstaking way. Yes, that was the point. Misers were proverbially suspicious, and Averill’s knowledge of Roper’s break at the Ransome would not tend to increase his trust in him. His confidence was certainly rather wonderful.
And then French suddenly stood stock still as an idea flashed into his mind. Was his confidence not too wonderful to be true? Had Roper really wormed his way thus far into old Averill’s confidence? He had not hesitated to blackmail Philpot; had he played some similar trick on Whymper?
As French considered the suggestion, a point which had before seemed immaterial now took on a sinister significance. Though Averill was represented as the moving spirit of the affair, his connection with it had never been directly proved. Roper, and Roper alone, had appeared. It was true that a note purporting to come from Averill had been produced, but in the light of Philpot’s revelation of Roper’s skill as a forger, who had written it? Was there any reason why Roper should not have engineered the whole thing?
If he were right Roper’s motive in the Whymper incident became clear as day. If Roper had stolen thousands of pounds worth of notes he must find out whether it was safe to pass them. Were the numbers of the notes known? This was a matter of vital importance, and it was one on which he could not possibly ask for information. If suspicion became aroused, to have made inquiries on the point would be fatal. He must, therefore, arrange for some one else to pass a number of the notes, and preferably a number of those most recently acquired by Averill. Moreover, this person must not, if suspected, be able to account satisfactorily for their possession. Given the knowledge of Whymper’s feeling for Ruth and some acquaintance with Averill’s family affairs, a clever and unscrupulous man like Roper could easily have invented a story to make Whymper his dupe.
If Roper had stolen the notes and put burnt newspapers in the safe, he must have intended to burn the house. The motive was clear. In no other way could he so conveniently get rid of Averill’s body and the traces of his crime.
But just here was a snag. Could so able a man as Roper have bungled so hideously as to have allowed himself and his wife to be caught in the trap he had arranged for Averill? Or had he intended to murder Mrs. Roper also? There was certainly no evidence for suspecting this. But whether or not, what terrible nemesis could have overtaken Roper?
French gazed out over the wide expanse of the moor with unseeing eyes as he dreamily puffed at his pipe and wrestled with the problem. And then a further point occurred to him. Did not this theory of the guilt of Roper throw some light on Ruth Aver ill’s visit to York? French had noted it as a curious coincidence that she should have left the house on the day before the tragedy. But now he wondered if it was a coincidence. Had her absence been arranged; arranged by Roper?
French was so much impressed by his new theory that he determined to go into it without loss of time in the hope that further research would lead to a definite conclusion.
He ate his sandwiches, then leaving his seat in the lee of the rock, walked back to Thirsby. Among his papers was the letter which Roper had given to Whymper, and this he once again compared with the samples of old Mr. Averill’s handwriting he had obtained from Tarkington.
Possibly because of the doubt now existing in his mind, this time he felt less certain of its authenticity. After some study he thought that some further samples of the genuine handwriting might be helpful, and walking down to Oxley’s office, he asked if the solicitor could oblige him with them. Oxley handed him four letters, and when French had critically examined these he found his suspicions strengthened. While by no means positive, he was now inclined to believe Whymper’s was a forgery. He therefore sent the lot to the Yard, asking for an expert opinion to be wired to him.
In the meantime he decided he would concentrate on a point which he felt would be even more conclusive than forged letters; the matter of Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s invitation to Ruth. If Roper had got rid of Ruth so that the coast might be clear for the robbery, he had provided the invitation. He had either written it himself or he had arranged the circumstances which caused Mrs. PalmerGore to do so. If he had done either of these things he was pretty certain to be guilty.
The only way to learn the truth was to interview Mrs. Palmer-Gore. French, therefore, took the evening train to York, and nine o’clock found him at Oakdean, Ashton Drive, asking if the lady of the house could see him.
Mrs. Palmer-Gore was a big, rather untidy, kindlylooking woman of about fifty. French rapidly sizing her up, introduced himself in his real character, apologized for his late call and begged her kind offices. If she would not mind his not giving her the reason of his inquiry for the moment, he should like to ask a question. Would she tell him just why she had asked Miss Ruth Averill to Continued on page 34
One of the most powerful tales of pioneer life in Lforthern Ontario ever written,
‘L5he Root House’
By Leslie McFarlane
Its a MacLean prize story— one of those stories you cant forget
J\[ovember 1: “Z3he Root House’
Continued from page 24
visit York some eight weeks previously?
Mrs. Palmer-Gore was naturally surprised at the inquiry, but when she understood that the matter was serious she answered readily.
“Why, 1 could scarcely have done anything else. Mr. Averill’s note was phrased in a way which would have made it difficult to refuse.”
“Mr. Averill’s note? I didn’t know he had written.”
“Yes, he wrote to say that he hoped he was not presuming on an old friendship in asking me whether I would invite Ruth to spend a day or two. He explained that she had recently been rather run down and depressed, and that the one thing she wanted—a day or two of cheerful society —was just the thing he couldn’t give her. If I would condone a liberty and take pity on her he did not think I would regret my action. He went on to say Ruth was greatly interested in roses, and as he was sure I was going to the flower show, he wondered if I would add to my kindness by allowing her to accompany me. He said that Ruth was longing to see it, but that he had no way of arranging for her to go.”
“I’m quite interested to hear that,” French returned. “It rather falls in with a theory I have formed. Had you often had Miss Ruth to stay with you?”
“Never before. In fact I had only seen her three or four times.” Some twelve years ago I spent a day at Starvel and she was there. Besides that I met her with Mr. Averill a couple of times in Leeds.” “But you were pretty intimate with Mr. Averill surely? I don’t want to be personal, but I want to know whether your intimacy was such that you might reasonably expect him to ask you to put his niece up?”
Mrs. Palmer-Gore seemed more and more surprised at the line the conversation was taking.
“It’s a curious thing that you should have asked that,” she declared. “As a matter of fact, I was amazed when I read Mr. Averill’s letter. He and I were friendly enough at one time, though I don’t know that you could ever have called us intimate. But we had drifted apart. I suppose we hadn’t met for five or six years and we never corresponded except perhaps for an exchange of greetings at Christmas. His letter was totally unexpected.”
“You thought his asking for the invitation peculiar?”
“I certainly did. I thought it decidedly cool. So much so, indeed, that I considered replying that I was sorry that my house was full. Then when I thought what a terrible life that poor girl must have led I relented and sent the invitation.”
“It was a kind thing to do.”
“Oh, I don’t know. At all events I am glad I did it. Ruth is a sweet girl and it was a pleasure to have her here and to let my daughters meet her. I would have given her as good a time as I could if she had not been called away.”
“You haven’t kept Mr. Averill’s letter?”
“I’m afraid not. I always destroy answered letters.”
“You recognized Mr. Averill’s handwriting, of course?”
“Oh, yes. I knew it quite well.”
“Now, Mrs. Palmer-Gore, I am going to ask you a strange question. Did you ever suspect that that letter might be a forgery?”
The lady looked at him with increasing interest.
“Never,” she answered promptly. “And even now when you suggest it I don’t see how it could have been. But, of course, it would explain a great deal. I confess I can hardly imagine Mr. Averill writing the note. He was a proud man and the request was not in accordance with my estimate of his character.”
“That is just what I wanted to get at,” French answered as he rose to take his leave.
What he had learned was extraordinarily satisfactory. It looked very much as though his theory about Roper was correct. The great snag in that theory had been Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s invitation, and now it was evident that Roper could have arranged for it to be given. Some remark of Mr. Averill’s had probably given the man Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s name, and by skilful questions he could have learned enough about her to enable him to construct his plot.
As French sat in the smoking room of his hotel, not far from the great west front of the minster, he suddenly saw a way by which he could establish the point. The letter Mrs. Palmer-Gore had received had stated that Ruth was longing to see the flower show. Was she? If she was, the letter might be genuine enough. If not, Averill could scarcely have written it, and if Averill had not written it no one but Roper could have done so.
It was with impatience at the slowness of the journey that French returned next morning to Thirsby to apply the final test. He was lucky enough to catch Ruth as she was going out and she took him into the drawing room.
“I was talking to a friend of yours a. liitle while ago, Miss Averill,” French said when they had exchanged a few remarks: “Mrs. Palmer-Gore, of York.” “Oh, yes?” Ruth answered, her face brightening up. “How is she? She was so kind to me, especially when the terrible news came. I can never forget her goodness.”
“I am sure of it. In the short time I was with her I thought she seemed most attractive. You went to York to see the flower show?”
“That was the ostensible reason for her asking me. But, of course, show or no show, I should have been delighted to go.” ‘T dare say; most people like to visit York. You hadn’t then been looking forward to the show?”
“I never even heard of it until Mrs. Palmer-Gore mentioned it in her letter. But naturally I was all the more pleased.” “Naturally. You’re a skilful gardener, aren’t you, Miss Averill?”
She smiled again and shook her head. “Oh, no! But I’m fond of it.”
French, in his turn, smiled his pleasant, kindly smile.
“Oh, come now, I’m sure you are not doing yourself justice. Mr. Averill thought a lot of your gardening, didn’t he?”
“My uncle? Oh, no. I don’t think he knew anything about it. You remember he was an invalid. He hadn’t been in the garden for years.”
“But do you mean that you never discussed gardening with him? I should have thought, for example, you would have talked to him of this York flower show.”
“But I thought I explained I didn’t know about that until Mrs. PalmerGore’s letter came, and after it came my uncle was too ill to speak about anything.” Here was the proof French had hoped for!
With some difficulty keeping the satisfaction out of his voice, he continued his inquiries.
“Of course I remember you told me that. But I must get on to business. I’m sorry to have to trouble you again, Miss Averill, but there are one or two other questions I have thought of since our last meeting. Do you mind if I ask them now?”
“Of course not.”
French leaned forward and looked grave.
“I want to know what kind of terms Roper was on \yith his wife. ou have seen Continued on page 36
Continued from page 34 them together a good deal. Can you. tell me?”
Ruth’s face clouded.
“I hate to say anything when the two poor people are dead, but if I must tell the truth, I’m afraid they were not on good terms at all.”
‘T can understand what you feel, but I assure you my questions are necessary. Now please tell me what exactly was the trouble between those two?”
“Well,” Ruth said slowly, and an expression almost of pain showed on her face, “they had, I think—what is the phrase?—incompatibility of temperament. Mrs. Roper had a very sharp tongue and she was always nagging at Roper. He used to answer her in a soft tone with the nastiest and most cutting remarks you ever heard. Oh, itwas horrible! Roper really was not a nice man. though he was always kind enough to me.”
This was really all that French wanted, but he still persisted.
“Can you by any chance tell me—I’m sorry for asking this question—but can you tell me whether Roper was attached to any other woman? Or if you don’t know that, have you ever heard his wife mention another woman’s name in anger? Just try to think.”
"No, I never heard that.”
“Have you ever heard them quarrelling?”
“Once I did,” Ruth answered reluctantly. “It was dreadful! Roper said,
‘By-he used a terrible curse—Til
do you in some day if I swing for it!’ And then Mrs. Roper answered so mockingly and bitterly that I had to put my hands over my ears.”
“But she didn’t make any definite accusation?”
“No, but wasn’t it dreadful? The poor people to have felt like that to one another! It must have been a terrible existence for them.”
French agreed gravely as he thanked Ruth for her information, but inwardly he was chuckling with delight. He believed his theory was proved, and once it was established, his case was over. If the murderer lost his life in the fire Scotland Yard would no longer be interested in the affair and he, French, could go back to town with one more 1 success added to the long list which ! already stood to his credit.
He returned to the Thirsdale Arms, and getting a fire lighted in his room, settled down to put on paper the data he had amassed.
BY THE time French had completed bis notes the theory he had formed had i become cut and dry and detailed. He was ' immensely delighted with it and with himself for having evolved it.
In the nature of the case French saw ! that it necessarily was speculative.
There was still a snag. Or rather two snags, for the one did not entirely I include the other. The first was: What 1 had happened to Roper? The second: Where was the money?
The more French puzzled over the first of these problems the more he came to doubt his first impression that some quite ' simple explanation would account for it. He could not see so astute a man as Roper making a blunder so colossal as to j cost him his life. French could think of I no theory which seemed satisfactory.
Nor could he imagine where the money 1 might be. Was it burned after all? Had the receptacle in which it had been packed been left in the house and had its contents I been destroyed? Or had Roper hidden it outside? Here again the matter was purely speculative, but French inclined I to the former theory. All the same he determined that before he left the district he would make a thorough search in the neighborhood of the house.
There was still the matter of the Whymper episode to be fully cleared up, and French thought that with the help of his new theory he might now be able to
get the truth out of the young man. Accordingly he left the hotel and walked up the picturesque old stre et to the church. Whymper was busily engaged with a steel tape in giving positions for a series of new steps which were to lead up to the altar and French, interested in the operation, stood watching until it was complete. Then the young fellow conducted him for the second time to the vestry room, and seating himself, pointed to a chair.
“As no doubt you can guess, I’ve come on the same business as before,” French explained in his pleasant, courteous tones. “The fact is, I’ve learned a good deal more about this Starvel business since I last saw you, and I want to hear what you think of a theory I have evolved. But first, will you tell me everything that you can of your relations with Roper?”
“I really hadn’t any relations with Roper except what I have already mentioned,” Whymper returned. “Of course I had seen him on different occasions, but the first time I spoke to him was the first time I called on Miss Averill. He opened the door and showed me into the drawingroom. The next time I went we spoke about the weather and so on, but I had no actual relations with him until the night of the tragedy, when he gave me Mr. Averill’s message at the church gate.” “It never occurred to you to doubt that the message did come from Mr. Averill,I suppose?”
“Of course not,” Whymper answered promptly. “You forget the note Mr. Averill sent me when I got to Starvel.”
“I don’t forget the note. But suppose I were to suggest that Roper had forged the note and that Mr. Averill knew nothing whatever about it? I should tell you that it has been established that Roper was a very skilful forger.”
“Such an idea never occurred to me. Even if Roper was a skilful forger I don’t see why you should think he forged this note. What possible motive could he have had?”
“Well, I think we possibly might find a motive. But let that pass for the moment. Go over the circumstances again in your mind and let me know if you see any reason why Roper should not have arranged the whole business himself.” Whymper did not at once reply. French, anxious not to hurry him, remained silent also, idly admiring the pilasters and mouldings of the octagonal chamber and the groining of the old stone roof.
“I don’t see how Roper could have done it,” he said presently. “There’s the money to be considered. The $500 couldn’t have been forged.”
“No. But it could have been stolen, and I have no doubt it was.”
“Surely not! You don’t really believe Roper was a thief?”
“At least he might have been. No, Mr. Whymper, you haven’t convinced me so far. Does anything further occur to you?” “Yes,” said Whymper: “the story he told me. No one could have known it but Mr. Averill.”
French leaned forward and his face took on an expression of keener interest.
“Ah, now we’re coming to it,” he exclaimed. “I suggest that that whole story was a pure invention of Roper’s and that it had no foundation in fact. Now tell me this.” He raised his hand as Whymper would have spoken. “If the story were true would you not have expected to hear something of M. Prosper Giraud and Mme Madeleine Blancquart at Talloires?”
Whymper seemed absolutely dumbfounded at the extent of the other’s knowledge.
“Why,” he stammered with all the appearance of acute dismay, “how do you know about that? I never mentioned it.”
“You did,” French declared. “To the police at Talloires. I traced you there and found out about your inquiries. It was perfectly simple. If the story had been true would you not have had an answer to your inquiries?”
Continued on page 38
Continued from page 36 A sudden eagerness appeared in the young man’s face. He leaned forward and cried excitedly:—
“My Heavens, I never thought of that! I supposed Roper had made a mistake about the address. Oh, if it could only be so!” lie paused for a moment, then hurst out again: “You may be right! You may be right! Tell me why you thought it might be Roper’s invention. I must know!”
“In the strictest confidence I’ll tell you everything,” French answered and he began to recount, not indeed everything, but a good many of the reasons which had led him to believe in Roper’s guilt. Whymper listened with painful intensity, and when the other had finished he seemed almost unable to contain his excitement.
“I must know if you are right,” he cried, springing from his chair and beginning to pace the room. “I must know! How can I be sure, Inspector? You have found out so much; can’t you find out a little more?”
“That’s what I came down for, Mr. Whymper,” French said gravely. “I must know, too. And there’s only one way out of it. You’ve got to tell me the story. I’ll not use it unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I’ll test it and get to know definitely whether it’s fact or fiction.” Whymper paused irresolutely. “Suppose,” he said at length, “suppose, telling you the story involved letting you know of a crime which had been committed—not recently: many, many years ago. Suppose the criminal had escaped, but my story told you where you could find him. Would you give me your word of honor not to move in the matter?” French glanced at him sharply.
“Of course not, Mr. Whymper. You know it is foolish of you to talk like that. Neither you nor I could have knowledge of that kind and remain silent. If you learn of a crime and shield the criminal, you become an accessory after the fact. You must know that.”
“In that case,” Whymper answered, “I can’t tell you.”
French became once more suave, even coaxing.
“Now, Mr. Whymper, that is quite an impossible line for you to take up. Just consider your own position. I have ample evidence to justify me in arresting you for the theft of Mr. Averill’s money. If I do so, this story that you are trying to keep to yourself will come out: not privately to me, but in open court. Every one will know it then. By keeping silent now you will defeat the very object you are striving for. Attention will be forced on to the very person you are trying to shield. And when it comes out you will be charged as an accessory. On the other hand, if you tell me the whole thing here and in private you will ease your mind of a burden and may clear yourself of suspicion of the theft. And with regard to the other crime we may find that it is a pure invention and that no such thing ever took place. Now, Mr. Whymper, you’ve got to take the lesser risk. You’ve got to tell me. As I say, I’ll not use your evidence unless I must.’”
Whymper made no reply and French, recalling his theory that the secret concerned Ruth’s parentage, decided on a bluff.
“Well,” said French, sharply for him. “If you won’t speak I shall have to get the information from Miss Averill. I shall be sorry to have to force her confidence about her parents, but you leave me no option.”
The bluff worked better than French could have hoped. Whymper started forward with consternation on his face.
“What?” he cried. “Then you know?” Then realizing what he had said, he swore. “Confound you. Inspector, that was a caddish trick! But you won’t get any more out of me in spite of it.”
French tried his bluff again.
“Nonsense,” he answered. "It would be far better for Miss Averill that you
should tell me than that she should. But that’s a matter for you. If you like to tell me, well; if not, I shall go straight to her. Look here,” he leaned forward and tapped the other’s arm, “do you imagine that you can keep the affair secret? I’ve only got to trace Mr. Simon Averill’s history and go into the matter of Miss Ruth’s parentage and the whole thing will come out. It’s silly of you.” He waited for a moment then got up. “Well, if you won’t, you won’t. You’ll come along to the station first and then I’ll go to Miss Averill.” Whymper looked startled.
“Are you going to arrest me?”
“What else can I do?” French returned. Whymper wrung his hands as if in despair, then motioned the Inspector to sit down again.
“Wait a minute,” he said brokenly. “I’ll tell you. I see I can’t help myself. It is not that I am afraid for myself, but I see from all you say that I have no alternative. But I trust your word not to use the information if you can avoid it.”
“I give you my word.”
“Well, I suppose that is as much as I can expect.” He paused to collect his thoughts, then went on: “I have already explained to you about Roper meeting me when I reached Starvel and his saying that Mr. Averill was too ill to see me, and you have seen the letter that I took to be from Mr. Averill, stating that he did not wish to put the matter in question in writing, that Roper was his confidential attendant, that he understood the affair in question and had been authorized to explain it to me. Of course on receipt of that letter I was prepared to believe whatever I heard, and I did believe it.” “Quite natural,” French admitted suavely.
“Roper began by saying that his part in the affair was very distasteful to him, that he felt he was intruding into a family and very private matter, but that he had no alternative but to carry it through as Mr. Averill had given him definite instructions to do so. He added that he was particularly sorry about it, as the matter was bound to be very painful to me. It was about Miss Averill.”
Whymper was evidently very reluctant to proceed, but he overcame his distaste afte a moment’s hesitation and in a lower voice, continued:—
“He went on to ask me, again with apologies, whether Mr. Averill was correct in believing I wished to marry Miss Averill. If I did not, he said the information would be of no interest to me and he need not proceed with the matter. But if I did wish to marry her there was something I should know.
“As a matter of fact, I wanted the marriage more than anything else on earth, and when I said so to Roper he gave me the message. He told me that, a few days before, Mr Averill had received a letter which upset him very much and, Roper thought, had brought on his illness. But before I could appreciate the significance of the letter he would have to explain some family matters.
“Mr. Simon Averill had a brother named Theodore—I shall call them Simon and Theodore to distinguish them. As a young man Theodore had all the promise of a brilliant career. He had gone into business in London and held a very good position as French representative of his firm. He had married a French lady of old family and great beauty. One child was born, a daughter, Ruth.
“But unfortunately he was not steady, and as time passed he grew wilder and wilder and his relations with his wife became more and more strained. At last when Ruth was four years old and they were living in London, there was some fearful trouble which finished him up.
“Roper did not know the details, but it was a scandal in some illicit gambling rooms in London. Theodore was caught cheating. They were all half drunk and in the row that followed a man was killed. It was never known who actually fired the shot, but Theodore was suspected. At all Continued on page 40
Continued from page 38 events he disappeared and was never heard of again. It was the last straw for his wife and she collapsed altogether. She brought Ruth, a child of four, to Simon, begged him to look after her, and then committed suicide.
“Nothing more was heard of Theodore Averill and every one concerned believed him dead. Simon’s surprise may be imagined then, when during the last two or three days he received a letter from him. This was the letter which I told you had upset him so much.
“I didn’t see the letter, but Roper told me it said that Theodore was living under the name of Prosper Giraud at Talloires in Savoy. He had escaped from London to Morocco and after wandering about for a year or two had entered the French Foreign Legion. After serving several years he left that and went to Talloires, where he supported himself by writing short stories for the magazines. He did fairly well, and was comfortable enough, but recently a disastrous thing had happened to him. He had been in poor health for some time and had begun to talk in his sleep. His old housekeeper, Mme. Madeleine Blancquart, must have listened and heard something which gave his secret away, for one morning she came to him and said she had discovered all, and asked what he was going to pay to have the matter kept from the English police. He was unable to give what she demanded and for the sake of his family he prayed his brother Simon to help him. If Simon wouldn’t do so, nothing could save him. He would be brought to England and perhaps executed, and Simon and Ruth would have to bear the shame.”
The recital of these facts was evidently very painful to Whymper, but he went on doggedly with his statement.
“Simon in his delicate state of health was much upset by the whole thing, so Roper said. If the story was true he was willing to make some allowance, both because he didn’t wish to have his brother come to such an end and also for his own and Ruth’s sake. He had, therefore, replied, sending twenty pounds, and saying that he would either go over himself to Talloires or send a representative within a month to discuss the situation.
“He found he was too feeble to go himself and for the same reason he could not well spare Roper, so he cast round for some one who could do it for him, and he thought of me. He thought that if I wanted to marry Miss Averill the secret would be safe with me and also I should
be just as anxious to have the matter . settled as he was.
“Of course I agreed to go. You can understand that I really hadn’t any option, though as far as I was concerned myself 1 didn’t care two pins what Theodore had done or hadn’t done. Roper said Simon would be extremely relieved to hear my decision. He said also that Simon did not wish me to go for about three weeks, lest it would look too eager and Mme. Blancquart would think she had frightened us.
"Roper went on to say that Simon was giving me $500. Out of this I was to take my expenses and the balance was to buy off Mme. Blancquart. He did not want me to give her a lump sum, but to arrange a monthly payment which she would know she would lose if she informed. I was to find some one in Talloires who would take the money and dole it out for a percentage. The cure possibly might do it, or I could employ a solicitor. He left the arrangements to my judgment. In any case I was to make the best bargain I ¡could with the woman.
“That was all on the Wednesday night before the fire started. Then came the tragedy. With Simon dead I didn’t know what on earth to do. Of course I saw that I must carry out my promise just the same, and go out to Talloires and try to arrange for Theodore’s safety, but I thought that if Simon’s money went to Ruth, Theodore might try to make trouble with her. However, I could do nothing until I saw him and Mme. Blancquart, and I arranged to go to Talloires at the end of the three weeks as Simon had asked me.
“You can guess the rest. I took the money and went to Talloires. But as you know, I could find no trace either of Prosper Giraud or Mme. Blancquart.
“I was in a difficulty then. I had no doubt that the message was really Simon’s It never occurred to me that Roper could invent the story or steal the money, and when I failed to find the people I simply thought he had made a mistake in the address. I was pretty bothered, I can tell you. I was expecting every day to read of Theodore’s arrest, and I could do nothing to prevent it.” The young man was very earnest as he added: “I swear to you that what I have told you is the literal truth. I don’t know whether you will believe me, but whether or not, I am glad I’ve told you. It is a tremendous weight off my mind, and if you can prove that the story was only Roper’s invention I’ll be ten thousand times more relieved.”
To be continued