The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
Another thrilling instalment of an amazingly baffling mystery serial
FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS
IT WAS dull and rather cold, but a pleasant day for walking. French tramped along, enjoying the motion and the extended view offered by the wide, open spaces of the moor. Though, owing to the atmosphere, the coloring was neither so warm nor so rich as it had previously appeared, there was a fascination in the scenery which strongly appealed to him. He had found a similar though keener charm in Dartmoor, which he had once explored on the occasion of a visit to a cracksman doing time in the great prison at Princetown.
Indeed Dartmoor and Exmoor both figured on his list of places to be visited when time and money should permit.
Diverging from the Starvel road at the point where Ruth Averill and Mrs. Oxley had joined the deceased man’s funeral, French skirted the edge of the Hollow and in a few minutes reached the cottage. It was a tiny box of a place, but strongly built, with stone walls and slated roof. Its architecture was of the most rudimentary kind, a door and two windows in front and at the back being the only relieving features in the design.
The house stood a short distance back from the road in the middle of a patch of cultivated ground.
Behind \ as a row of wooden beehives.
French looked round him. As far as he could see he was the only living thing in all that stretch of country. The town, nestling in the valley up which he had come, was hidden from sight below the edge of the moor.
The three or four houses standing at wide intervals apart seemed deserted. No one appeared on the road or on the moor.
He walked up the little path to the door and busied himself with the lock. It was too large for his skeleton keys, but a few moments’ work with a bit of bent wire did the trick, and presently he was inside with the door closed behind him.
The house consisted of three rooms only, a sitting-room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. A narrow passage separated the last two of these, the front portion of which formed a porch and the back a pantry. The atmosphere was heavy and nauseating, and this was soon explained by the fact that everything seemed to have been left just where it was when Giles died. The clothes were still on the bed and there was mouldy and decaying food in the pantry. Dust was thick over everything; indeed it was a marvel to French where so much dust should have come from in the heart of the country.
He opened the doors to let the atmosphere clear and then began one of his meticulous examinations. He did not expect to find anything of interest, yet he searched as if the key to the whole mystery lay waiting to be discovered. But after an hour he had to admit failure. There was nothing in the place from which he could get the slightest help.
Reluctantly he locked the doors and started back to Thirsby. He walked slowly, scarcely conscious of his surroundings as he racked his brains in the hope of seeing some other clue which might bring him more result. At first he could think of nothing, then another line of investigation occurred to him which, though it seemed hopelessly unpromising, he thought he might pursue.
He had been thinking that if his main theory were correct Giles’ body must have been conveyed from his cottage to Starvel, probably during the darkness of that
tragic Wednesday night. How had this been done? He had noticed in the single outhouse of Starvel which remained unburnt a light handcart, and it had before occurred to him that this cart might have been used. He now thought he would go down to Starvel and have another look at the outhouse and this handcart. A miracle might have happened and some helpful clue been left.
He turned aside from the road, and crossing the lip of the Hollow, went down to the ruins in the centre. The outhouse was a small stone shed built up against the yard wall. Through the broken and cobweb-covered window he could see that it contained the handcart, a few gardening tools and some old broken crates and other rubbish. The door was secured with a rusty chain and padlock of which the key had disappeared.
A few seconds’ work with his bent wire unfastened the lock and he pushed open the door and entered. The place was unspeakably dirty and he moved gingerly about as he began to look over its contents. But he was just as meticulous and thorough in his examination as if it were the throne room of a palace.
He had completed his work and was about to retire disappointed when the presence of a small scrap of yellow clay which he had observed on entering, but to which he had given no attention, suddenly struck him as being
slightly puzzling. It was shaped like a half-moon, the inner edge showing a definite curve. Evidently it had caked round a man’s heel and had dropped off, possibly as the heel had become drier in the shed. French looked round and presently he saw two more pieces. One was stuck to the rim of the right wheel of the handcart as if the wheel had rolled over a clod and picked it up, the other was on the lift leg as if the leg had been put down on a similar clod which had stuck in the same way.
It was, of course, evident that the handcart had been not only wheeled over a place where there was yellow clay, but had been set down there. At first French saw nothing remarkable in this, but now it occurred to him that he had not noticed any clay of the color in the neighborhood. Where then had the pieces been picked up?
He had seen similar clay on the previous night, but not close by. The heap of stuff removed in opening the grave down in Thirsby was just that kind of material. He had noticed it particularly in the light of the acetylene lamp. It was of a characteristic light yellow and very stiff and compact like puddle. But he had seen nothing like ic up on the moor. The soil all about v as dark colored, almost peaty.
He cast his thoughts back to that scene in the graveyard, and then he recalled another point. He had looked down into the grave when the coffin was being raised, and he now remembered that the sides of the opening had shown black soil over the clay. A layer of some three feet six or four feet of dark, peaty soil had covered the yellow. French whistled softly as the possible inference struck him.
A worn but still serviceable looking spade stood in the corner of the shed. French picked it up, and going a few yards out on to the moor, began to dig. He was not particularly expert, and before he had worked for many minutes he was in bath of perspiration. But he persevered and the hole grew until at a depth of nearly three feet he found what he wanted. The spade brought up a considerably sized piece of hard, compact ciay of a light yellow color.
French had grown keenly interested as he filled in the hole and removed the traces of his work. With a feeling of suppressed excitement he returned to the shed and carefully packed the half-moon shaped cake of clay in a matchbox. Then locking the door, he went out again on the moor and stood looking round him as he pondered the facts he had just learned.
The handcart had been recently set down in and wheeled across a patch of yellow clay. This almost certainly had been done on the last occasion it had been used, otherwise the clay would have been knocked off on subsequent journeys. For the same reason the place must have been close to Starvel. There was no exposed clay near Starvel, but it was to be found at a depth of some three feet below ground level.
From this it surely followed that some one had dug a hole near Starvel and wheeled the handcart to the edge before it was filled in.
French went a step farther. If he was correct that the body of Markham Giles had been brought to Starvel on that tragic night it was almost certain that the handcart had been used, as there was no other wray, so far as he could see, in which the terrible burden could have been carried. But so long a journey would have knocked the
clay off the wheel; therefore the journey to the hole had been made after that with the body. Further, the handcart could scarcely have been used since the fire: the tragedy was then over and the surviving actor had left
Did these considerations not suggest that Roper, having brought the man’s body to Starvel, had loaded up his booty on the handcart—possibly there were old silver or valuable ornaments as well as the bank notes—wheeled it out on the moor and buried it so as to hide it safely until he could come back and remove it?
French retailed his reasons for thinking that the booty might have been so hidden. Alt those notes— assuming there was nothing else—would have had a certain bulk. Probably a suitcase would have been necessary to carry them. A man with a suitcase is a more noticeable figure chan one without. Would it not have been wise for a criminal fleeing from justice to hide the stuff, provided he could find a safe place in which to do so? Moreover— and this was the strongest point—had Roper been arrested without the notes nothing could have been proved against him. He could say he had escaped from the fire by the merest piece of good fortune or he could simulate loss of memory from the shock. Or again he could explain that he had feared to come forward lest he should be suspected. N’o matter what might have been thought, he was safe. But let him be found with the notes in his possession arui he was as good as hanged.
French, looking round him there in the centre of the great Hollow, felt his spirits rising as he wondered if he were about to make the greatest coup of the whole case.
His question now was: Where would Roper make his cache.’ N'ot near the road where the disturbed earth would be visible to a chance passer by. Not near the house in case some of the crowds attracted by the fire should make an unexpected find. But not too far away from either lest he himself might have difficulty in locating the place.
French began to walk round the house in circles of ever increasing radius, scrutinizing the ground for traces of yellow clay. And so he searched until the evening began to draw -n and dusk approached.
And then, as he was coming to tn.e conclusion that it was getting too dark to carry on. he found what he wanted. Out on the open moor at the back of the house and at the bottom of a tiny hollowwere unmistakable traces of recent digging. The ground over a few square feet was marked with scraps of disintegrating yellow clay and the sods with which the hole was covered still showed cut edges.
French was overwhelmed with delight. That he had found something of value, most probably a cache containing the stolen money, he had no doubt. Scarcely couid he restrain his desire to open the hole again then and there. But it was getting dark and he had no lamp. He thought two witnesses would be desirable, so he curbed his ’.mpatience, noted carefully the position of the marks, and regretting the necessity for leaving it unguarded. set off on his return journey.
He called to see Sergeant Kent and arranged that he and a constable should meet him at the outhouse at eight o dock on the following morning. At the hotel he dined, and saying that he had to take the night train to Carlisle, asked for a packet of sandwiches. Then he left the town and walked out once more to Starvel.
His mind was not at rest until he had again visited the site of the hole and made sure it remained undisturbed. Then, determined to take no chances, he re-entered the outhouse, and seating himself at a window from which he could see the hollow in the light of the moon, lit his pipe and composed himself to watch.
rT'HAT night in the lonely shed beside the gaunt, ^ blackened w-alls of the old house, proved one of the longest French had ever spent. But there was no escape from the vigil. If Averill's hoard lay beneath the sods a îew yards away, the place must be watched. Roper might come for the swag at anytime and French could not run the risk of its being snatched at the last moment from his own eager clutches.
He pulled a couple of old boxes to the window, and sitting down, made himself as comfortable as he could. But time dragged leadenly. He watched while the moon crept slowly across the sky, he speculated over the tragic business or. which he was engaged and indulged in waking dreams of the time when he should be Chief Inspector French of the C.I.D., but nothing that he could do seemed to shorten the endless hours. He w-as cold, too, in spite of his heavy coat. He longed to go out and warm himself by a brisk walk, but he dared not risk betraying his presence. In the small hours he ate his sandwiches., and then he had to fight an overwhelming desire for sleep, intensified by the fact that he had been up a good part of the previous night. But his vigilance was unrewarded.
There was no sign of a marauder, and as the first faint glow of dawn began to show in the east, he saw that he had had all his trouble for nothing. Altogether he was not sorry when just before eight o’clock Sergeant Kent and the constable put in an appearance, and as he stepped out to meet them he heaved a sigh of heartfelt relief.
“You’re here before us,” Kent greeted him in surprise.
“That’s right, but I was too early. Now, sergeant, I asked you to come out here for
rather an unusual purpose: in fact, so that we might dig a hole. Here is a spade and we’ll go and begin at once.” The sergeant looked as if he wondered whether French hadn’t gone off his head, but he controlled his feelings and with his satellite followed the other’s lead.
“I want you,” went on French when they had reached the site of his discovery, “to see just why I wish to dig this hole at this place,” and he showed him the traces of the yellow clay and the cut sods. “You see, some one has buried something here, and I want to find out what it is.” Kent in a non-committal silence seizedthe spade and began digging. The constable then tried his hand, and when he had had enough, French relieved him. So they took it in turns while the hole deepened and the heap of soil beside it grew.
Suddenly the spade encountered something soft and yielding which yet resisted its pressure. Kent, who was using it, stopped digging and began to clear away the surrounding soil, while the others watched, French breathlessly, the constable with the bovine impassiveness which he had exhibited throughout.
“It’s a blanket, this is,” the sergeant ^announced presently. “Something rolled up in a blanket.”
“Go on,” said French. “Open it up.”
Kent resumed his digging. For some minutes he worked, and then he straightened himself and looked at French wonderingly. _ (
“Lord save us!” he exclaimed in awed tones. It s uncommon like a human corpse.” ( t
“Nonsense!” French answered sharply. ‘ It couldn t be anything of the kind. Get on and open it and then you’ll know.”
The sergeant hesitated, then climbed heavily out of the hole.
“Well, look yourself, sir,” he invited.
French jumped down, and as he gazed on the outline of the blanket-covered object, his eyes grew round and something like consternation filled his mind. The sergeant was right! There was no mistaking that shape. This was a grave that they were opening, and the blanket was a shroud.
French swore, then,^with"difficulty, controlled himself
and having formed a decision, turned to the sergeant.
“You’re right, Kent. It’s a body sure enough. Clear away the soil round it while the constable and I get that shed door off its hinges.”
The task of raising the uncoffined and decaying remains on to the improvised stretcher was one which French could never afterwards think of without a qualm of sick loathing, but eventually it was done and the men slowly carried the shrouded horror to the shed. There the door was placed upon a couple of boxes and French, clenching his teeth, turned back the blanket from the face.
In spite of the terrible ravages of time both Kent and the constable immediately recognized the distorted features. The body was that of Markham Giles!
'THE discovery left French almost speechless. If Markham Giles’ body was here, whose was the third body at Starvel. Was the whole of his case tumbling about his ears? Once again he swore bitterly and once again pulled himself together to deal with the next step.
“This means an inquest,” he said to Kent. “You and I had better get back to Thirsby and notify the coroner and so forth, and this man of yours can stay here and keep watch.”
They walked down to the little town almost in silence, French too full of his new problem to indulge in conversation, and the sergeant not liking to break in upon his companion’s thoughts. On arrival Kent got in touch with the coroner while French rang up Major Valentine.
“No, sir, I don’t know what to make of it,” he admitted in answer to the major’s sharp question. “It certainly-does look as if the man I suspected was dead after all. But I would rather not discuss it over the ’phone. Could I see you, sir, if I went down to Leeds?”
“No, I’ll go to Thirsby. I’d like to look into the matter on the spot. There will be an inquest, of course?”
“Yes, sir. Sergeant Kent is arranging it with the coroner. We shall want an autopsy also. One of the things I wanted to know is whom you think I should have to make it. But you can tell me that when you come.”
Major Valentine replied that he would drive over in his car and would pick up French at the police station at two p.m. on his way out to Starvel.
It was now getting on towards midday, but French decided that he would havç time to make an inquiry and get lunch before the chief constable’s arrival. He, therefore, turned into the High Street and walked to Pullaris, the largest shoe shop of the town.
“Mr. Pullar in?” he asked pleasantly. He had met the man in the bar of the Thirsdale Arms and there was a nodding acquaintance between the two.
“I suppose you haven’t heard of our discovery, Mr. Pullar?” French began when he was seated in the proprietor’s office. The whole business was bound to come out at the inquest, so he might as well enlist the other's goodwill by telling him confidentially something about it.
Mr. Pullar cautiously admitted he hadn’t heard anything unusual.
“This is unusual enough for any one,” French assured him, and he told of the finding of the grave on the moor, though making no mention of his doubts about Roper.
Mr. Pullar was duly impressed and repeatedly begged that his soul might be blessed. When he had absorbed the news French turned to the real object of his call.
“I thought that maybe you could give me a bit of help, Mr. Pullar. You’d perhaps be interested to know how I got on to the thing. Well, it was in this way.” He took from the matchbox the piece of clay he had found on the floor of the shed.
“I picked this up in the shed, and as that sort of clay is covered everywhere here with three feet of dark soil, it followed that some one had dug a hole more than three feet deep.”
Mr. Pullar expressed his admiration of the other's perspicacity with the same pious wish as before.
“Now you see,” French continued, “this clay was sticking to a shoe. It probably got a bit dry in the shed and dropped or got knocked off. Now, Mr. Pullar, can you tell me what kind of a shoe it was?” -
Mr. Pullar shook his head. With every wish to assist, he was doubtful if he could answer the question. He picked up the piece of clay and turned it over gingerly in his fingers.
“Well,” he said presently, pointing to the hollow curve, “that’s been sticking round the outside of a heel, that has. If it had been a toe it would have been squeezed flatter. But that’s the square-edged mark of a heel.” He looked interrogatively at French, who hastened to interject: “Just what I thought, Mr. Pullar. A man’s heel.”
“Yes, a man’s heel I would think: though, mind you, it’s not easy to tell the difference between a man’s and some of these flat heeled shoes women wear now.”
“I thought it was a man’s from the size.”
“No: it might be either a big woman or a small man. Sevens, I should say.” He got up and put his head through the office door. “Here, John! Bring me three pairs of gents’ black Fitwells: a six and a half, a seven and an eight: medium weight.”
When the shoes came Mr. Pullar attempted to fit the circle of clay to the curve of each heel. French was delighted with the thorough and systematic way he set about it. He tried with all three sizes, then roared out for a pair of sixes and a pair of nines.
“It’s no good, Mr. French,” he said, when he had tested these also. “Look for yourself. It’s smaller than a nine, but you can’t tell any more than that. It might be a six or a seven or an eight. It isn’t sharp enough to say.”
French looked for himself, but he had to admit the other’s conclusion was correct. The prints presumably had been made by a man with rather small feet, and that was all that could be said.
French was disappointed. He had hoped for something more definite. Roper admittedly had rather small feet, but the same was true of numbers of other men.
He bade Mr. Pullar good day and returned to the hotel for lunch. But he soon learned that the worthy shoe merchant had made the most of his opportunities. Scarcely had he sat down when the reporter of the local paper hurried into the coffee room and excitedly demanded details of the great find. And behind him appeared the hotel proprietor and a number of clients
who had been supporting British industries in the bar.
French saw there was nothing for it but capitulation. Good-humoredly he told his story, merely stipulating that after his statement to the reporter he should not be troubled further until he had finished his lunch. This was agreed to, but it is sad to relate that French did not entirely play the game. His repast ended, he slipped out through the yard, and by devious ways reached the police station unnoticed. Major Valentine drove up as he arrived and in a few seconds the two men were whirling out along the Starvel road, while French told his story in detail.
“It’s really an extraordinary development,” the chief constable commented. “You assumed that Giles had been murdered in order to obtain his body for the Starvel fraud. If you were correct it followed that his coffin would be empty. You opened his coffin and it was empty. A more complete vindication of ycur line of reasoning it would be hard to imagine. And now it turns out that the body was not used for the Starvel fraud; therefore the whole of your reasoning falls to the ground. If you had not made a mistake and acted on false premises you would not have discovered the truth. Peculiar, isn’t it?”
“Peculiar enough, sir. But I wish I could agree with you that I had discovered the truth. It seems to me I am farther away from it than ever.”
“No; the correction of an error is always progress. But I’m not denying,” Major Valentine went on with a whimsical smile, “that there is still something left to be cleared up.”
French laughed unhappily.
“I don’t like to think of it,” he said. “But the postmortem may tell us something. According to my previous theory this man was murdered. Now this discovery raises a certain doubt, though personally I have very little. But in any case we have no proof. Therefore I thought we should want a post-mortem.”
“Undoubtedly. We’ll get Dr. Lingard of Hellifield. This the shed?”
“Yes, sir. The body’s inside.”
A few minutes sufficed to put the chief constable in possession of all the available information and the two men returned to the car.
“You know,” the major declared as he restarted his engine, “if this man was murdered it doesn’t say a great deal for that Dr. Emerson. He gave a certificate of death from natural causes, didn’t he?”
“If you ask my opinion,” French answered gloomily, “he didn’t examine the body at all. I saw him about it. It seems the man had been suffering from heart disease for years. He also had a touch of influenza some days before his death which might have caused heart failure. Dr. Emerson practically admitted he had assumed this had happened. He also admitted that anyhow only a post-mortem could have made gure.”
“Careless and reprehensible, no doubt. Eut, French, I wonder whether we shouldn’t all have done the same in his circumstances. The idea of foul play in such a case would never enter any one’s head.”
“That’s what he said, sir. Until I told him about the empty coffin he scouted the suggestion. When I mentioned that he didn’t know what to say.”
“He’ll be required at the inquest?”
“Of course, sir. And the other doctor, Philpot. He attended the man during his illness.”
They ran rapidly into the town and pulled up at the police station. Kent, recognizing his visitor, hurried obsequiously to meet them.
“Good-evening, Kent,” the major greeted him. “Inspector French has just been telling me of this affair. Have you heard from the coroner?”
“Yes, sir, I saw him about it. To-morrow at eleven he’s fixed for the inquest.”
“At the courthouse. He asked that the remains might be brought in before that.”
“It’s not allowing much time for the post-mortem. Better see the coroner again, Kent, and get him to take
evidence of identification and adjourn for a week. I’ll arrange with Dr. Lingard about the post-mortem at once, and wilt you, French, get in touch with the local doctors. Meanw hile as we’re here let us settle about the
Kent led the way to his room and there a discussion took place on the procedure to be adopted at the inquest. A list of the witnesses was drawn up with a note of the testimony w hich was to be* expected from each. Certain facts, it was considered, should be kept in the background, and Kent was instructed to see the coroner and ask him to arrange this also, ft hen the business was complete the major rose.
Trien 1 shall see you at the adjourned inquest, Kent. French, if you'll copie along I”! give you a lift as far as your hotel. As a matter of fact l‘d like to have a chat with you. he went on, when they had left the police station. "This new development is certainly very puzilmg and I d like to discuss it in detail. Have you a private sittingrootn?’'
Not all the time. I've had one once or twice for an evening wnen 1 had work to do, but ordinary times 1 do'! c have it. ft e can get it all right now though.”
fteit. you arrange it while I see to the car. And order some tea. You'll join me irt a cup. won’t you?”
" Thank you. [ should like to."
T N A few minutes a fire of logs was crackling in the A rather^ dismal private sittingroom of the Thirsdale Arms. I nti! tea w as over the major chatted of men and things apart from the case, but when the waiter had disappeared with trie tray and the two men had settled tnemselves with cigars before the fire he came to business.
Í admit, French, that I am not only tremendously interested in this case, but also extremely puzzled. From w hat you say. that s your position also. Now just to run over two or three points. I take it there is no doubt as to motive?"
No, sir. we may take it as gospel that Mr. Averill’s thirty thousand pounds were stolen and that that’s the key of the whole affair.”
A DU suspected Whymper at first?”
\ es. at first sight things looked bad for him. I neecin t go over the details: he had some of the stolen money in his possession and had been to the house on the mgnt of the tragedy and so on. But I went into the thing thoroughly and I was satisfied that Roper had made him his dupe, ft hymper s all right, sir. We shall get nothing there.”
I hear he and Miss Averill are to be married.”
So I heard, in fact he told me himself. He wanted to propose and then this affair made him hold back. But as soon as I told him I was not going to arrest him he went straight to the lady and told her the circumstances and assed her to marry him. She accepted him and the wedding is to take place soon.”
I know his father in Leeds and I’m glad to hear that 5 definitely out of trouble. Then you suspected Philpot?”
T suspected Philpot because of his connection with Roper, though there was nothing directly connecting him w?tn the Starvel crime. But I soon saw that I was on the w-ong track there, too. He accounted for everything trat seemed suspicious, and what was more, any points of his statement which in the nature of the case could be corroborated, were corroborated by other witnesses. Besides, he w-as ill at the time: there was the evidence of h:s houseseeper and others as well as Dr. Emerson’s testimony that he was unable to leave his bed. And there was his failure. If he had just obtained £30,000 he would not have allowed the bailiff in.”
Might not that have been a trick to put people off the SC“it?"
No. sir. I don’t think so. If he had been guilty.he w .uidn t have shown sudden evidence of wealth, bubile wculdn t have gone bankrupt either—just for fear it might be taken as a trick. Of course, sir, I’m aware that none of tris is absolutely conclusive. There wTas absence of evidence of guilt, but not proof of innocence, and, of course, illness can be faked and so on. But the thing that ■-a,,y cleared Pnilpot in my mind was the conduct of Roper. It s impossible to consider this case without considering Roper’s conduct.”
"I know, and I really agree with you. Still let us exhaust the possibilities. You thought of other people, I suppose?”
''I thought of every one else in the place almost. Oxley. Tarkington, Emerson and several others; even Kent I considered. But there wasn’t a shred of evidence against any of them. The only other real alternative to Roper is the burglars—the gang who have been operating for some months past. But here again Roper’s conduct comes in. If Roper wasn’t guilty he wouldn’t have acted as he did.”
i ne chief constable smoked in silence for some moments.
I thini-: all you say is very sound. Now just run over the case against Roper and I shall try to pick holes.” First, sir, there was the man's character; -vindictive, unscrupulous, a blackmailer, and as well as that a skilful
forger. Admittedly this description came from Philpot, but all that could be known to outsiders was confirmed by the sergeant and many others at Kintilloch. Roper was the only person we know of, other than the burglar gang, who had the character and the ability to commit the crime.”
“Not convincing, but go on.”
"Not convincing alone, no doubt; but it does not stand alone. Secondly, there was the getting of Miss Averill out of the way; thirdly, there was the Whymper episode and fourthly, the matter of Giles’ funeral.” "That’s all right except that when we find Giles’ body was not burned the whole case falls to the ground.” French threw the stub of his cigar into the fire.
“Don’t you believe it, sir. None of what I have been saying falls to the ground. Though I admit the motive of this Giles business is not clear, the facts remain and their significance remains. I don’t now follow all Roper’s scheme, but I still believe he is our man.”
Major Valentine nodded decisively.
"So do I, French, and we shall get him all right. Then you’ve no theory of where the third body came from?”
"I believe Roper enticed some other poor devil to the house and murdered him also. I think, sir, we’ll have to try again to find out if any one disappeared about that time.”
“I 11 see to it, but I’m not hopeful of doing better than before.”
Major Valentine showed signs of breaking up the conference, but French raised his hand.
"A moment, sir, if you please. I was thinking that this inquest gives us a chance that perhaps we should take advantage of. No more of those notes have come through. What, sir, would you say was the reason for that?”
“Well, if we’re right about Roper being alive, I suppose because he’s afraid.”
‘‘That’s what I think. And this business will make him still more afraid. Now I wonder if we couldn’t set his mind at ease for him.”
“I don’t quite follow.”
“'Why, this way. Suppose that I was very frank in my evidence—very frank and open and comprehensive. Suppose that I should tell about the notes; about their numbers having been taken, and about the one turning up in London, and robbery being thereby suspected and my being sent down to investigate. Suppose I explained that I had succeeded in tracing that note and had found that it had been given by Mr. Averill himself to a friend, and that the whole transaction was perfectly in order. But suppose I conveyed that only the numbers of the last batch of notes—say, twenty twenties—were known. Wouldn’t that do the trick?”
“You mean that if the numbers of only twenty notes were known, Roper would feel safe in changing the others?”
“Quite so. Furthermore, if nothing was said about the ashes being newspaper he would think that the suspicion of robbery had been dispelled by the discovery that the note passed in London was all right.”
“It’s worth trying. If he rises to it you’ll get him.” “Right, sir. Then I’ll advise the coroner beforehand. Or perhaps you would do so?”
“I’ll do it. Well, I must be getting home. I’m glad to have had this talk and I hope your scheme will meet with success.”
Next morning the inquest opened and formal evidence? of identification of the remains of the late Markham Giles was taken. The proceedings were then adjourned for seven days to enable the police to prosecute inquiries.
'“PHAT day week was a red letter day in the history of Thirsby. The story of, French’s discoveries, by this time common property,, had created an absolute furore in the little town. Never had such a series of tragedies and thrills disturbed its placid existence. Never had interest risen to such fever heat. It was, therefore, not surprising that every available seat in the courthouse was occupied long before the hour of the adjourned inquest, and that a queue of eager, pushing people, unable to gain admittance, stretched away in a long column from its door. . But the police had seen to it that all who were particularly interested in the tragedy had obtained places. In the row usually reserved for barristers sat Oxley with Ruth Averill, who had been summoned to attend as a witness, and Mrs. Oxjey, who looked on the girl as her charge and insisted on accompanying her. Whymper, now an accepted lover, sat next Ruth, and behind were Tarkington, Bloxham, Emerson, Philpot and the police do.ctor, Lingard. . Major Valentine and French were together in the seat usually occupied by the clerk of the Crown, while Kent, looking harrassed and anxious, was standing in the body of the court, fumbling with a sheaf of papers and whispering to his subordinates.
The coroner was that same Dr. Lonsdale who had acted in a similar capacity some nine weeks earlier when the inquiry into the-death of the three victims of the Starvel fire had taken place. He also seemed worried, as if he feared the elucidation of thesemysterious happenings might try his powers beyond their capacity.
The preliminaries having been gone through already, the coroner began to take evidence immediately, and Dr. Emerson was called.
“You attended the late Mr. Markham Giles?” the coroner asked when he had obtained the other’s name and qualifications.
“I attended him up to five years ago, when Dr. Philpot took the case over. Owing to Dr. Philpot’s being ill at the time of his death I was again called in.”
“For what complaint did you formerly attend the deceased?”
“Myocarditis. It was a disease of some years’ standing.”
“Myocarditis is heart disease, isn’t it? Was the deceased badly affected?”
“Five years ago, fairly badly. I have no doubt that at the time of his death he was much worse, as the disease is incurable and progressive.”
“We can no doubt get that from Dr. Philpot. When did you hear of Mr. Giles’s death, Dr. Emerson?”
“On Wednesday morning, 15th September.”
“Who told you of it?”
“John Roper, the Starvel man-servant.”
“Did you go out to Starvel and examine the body?” “Yes, I did, after first consulting Dr. Philpot on the case.”
“Oh, you saw Dr. Philpot. And what was the result of your consultation?”
“Dr. Philpot told me that Mr. Giles had developed influenza, and that he had seen him on Thursday. He was very weak and Dr. Philpot did not expect him to get over it.”
“Then you examined the body?”
“Yes, I went out to Starvel immediately.”
“And what opinion did you then form as to the cause of death?”
“I believed it to be myocarditis.”
“And you gave a certificate to that effect?”
“Did you make any specific examination of the remains on which you based your opinion?”
“Yes, so far as it was possible without a post-mortem.” “And you were quite satisfied that you had made no mistake?”
“I was quite satisfied.”
“That will do in the meantime. Please do not go away, Dr. Emerson, as I may have some further questions to put to you later.”
Dr. Philpot was then called. He corroborated the evidence of the last witness in so far as it concerned himself. He hád attended Mr. Giles during the past five years. Deceased was suffering from myocarditis, .which had become worse and of which he might have died at any moment. On the Thursday prior to his death witness had been informed by Roper, Mr. Averill’s man-servant, that deceased seemed rather seriously ill, and he went out to see him. Deceased was feeble and witness believed that he was very near his end. Witness did not think he could Jive more than three or four days. When he heard of his • death it was only wliat he had expected., .
Ruth Averill was the next witness. s? She was nervous, but the sergeant was deferential to her and the coroner fatherly and kind. Her evidence was soon over. In answer to a number of questions she-deposed that she had lcnown Mr. Giles fairly well and had been to sit with him on different occasions during his illness. On the Tuesday of that tragic week she had left Starvel to pay a short visit to York, and on her way into Thirsby she had called to see him. He had seemed very weak and frail. He could scarcely speak. Ruth had spent about ten minutes with him and had then driven on to Thirsby. She had never seen him again.-?
A number of persons were then called relative to the funeral. The clerk from the town hall who dealt with interments, the caretaker of the new cemetery, the undertaker and such of his men as had assisted, gave evidence in turn. The coroner was extremely detailed in his questions, and when he had finished the whole history of the sad affair stood revealed, with the exception of one point.
This was Roper’s false statement to the undertaker that the body required to be confined without delay. It had been decided that nothing must leak out connecting the death of Giles with Starvel, and it spoke volumes for the coroner’s skill that he was able to obtain the other details of the interment while keeping Roper’s duplicity ■ secret.
From the united testimony given it seemed that Markham Giles had died at some time during the Tuesday night. Roper had stated to more than one witness that Mrs. Roper had gone out to see him about eight o’clock on that evening, when she found him weak, but fairly easy and showing no sign of any early collapse. About nine the next morning, Wednesday, she went over again to find that the man had been dead for some hours. Mr. Giles was lying in the same position as he had occupied on the previous evening, and from the peaceful expression on his face it looked as if he had passed away painlessly. Mrs. Roper had gone back for her husband,
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who had returned with her to the cottage. There they had done what they could, and Roper had then gone into Thirsby and made arrangements for the funeral. First he had reported the death to Dr. Emerson. Then he had called at the Town flail and purchased a grave, going on to the new cemetery to see the site. Lastly, he had visited the undertaker, arranging the details of the funeral.
The undertaker had known Mr. Giles, and later on that day, the Wednesday, he had sent out two men with a coffin which he believed would be of the right size. His estimate liad proved correct and the men had placed the remains in the coffin, screwing down the lid and leaving all ready for the funeral.
On the second day, the Friday, the interment took place. The same men who had coffined the remains lifted the coffin into the hearse, and they declared that they saw no signs of the screws having been tampered with or of the presence of any person in the house during their absence. The funeral was conducted in the customary manner, and when the grave had been filled none of those who luid been present imagined that anything out of the common had taken place. Roper had paid all the bills in advance, saying that the deceased had had a premonition of his death and had handed him the sum of fifteen pounds to meet the expenses.
French was the next witness. The coroner had been carefully primed as to his evidence also, and asked only general questions.
“Now, Mr. French, you made some unexpected discoveries about this matter?”
“I did, sir.”
“Will you please tell the jury in your own words the nature of these discoveries and how you came to make them.”
This was French’s opportunity. Speaking respectfully and with an air of the utmost candor, he told very nearly the truth. Deliberately he slightly colored the facts, colored them with the object and in the hope that somewhere Roper would read what he had said—and be deceived into coming into the open.
“I was sent here,” he explained, “on a matter arising out of the fire at Starvel. I made certain inquiries and leceived certain information. As to the truth of the information I cannot of course bear testimony, but I cannot explain the steps I took unless I mention it. With the object of accounting for my actions, sir, is it your wish that I do so?”
“If you please, Mr. French. We quite understand that your actual evidence is confined to matters which came under your own observation. That does not prevent you introducing explanatory matter as to how you got your results.”
“Very good, sir. According to my information the following was the state of affairs which had obtained prior to my being sent down here. The late Mr. Averill had a sum of money amounting to several thousand pounds stored in a safe in his bedroom. This was given in evidence at the inquest on the victims of the Starvel tragedy. It was not then mentioned, but it was the fact—always according to my information—that that money had consisted largely of twentypound notes. Mr. Averill was in the habit of sending to the bank the various cheques, dividends and so forth by which he received his income. By his instruction these were cashed and the money was returned to Starvel in the form of twentypound notes, which the old gentleman placed with the others in his safe. All these notes were believed to have been destroyed in the fire. But it so happened that the numbers of the last consignment —ten notes, for £200—were taken by the bank teller before the notes were sent out to Starvel, and these notes were reported
to the bank’s headquarters as being destroyed.
While French w:as speaking the proverbial pin could have been heard, had any one tried the experiment of dropping it in the courthouse. He had, to put it mildly, the ear of his audience. Every one listened, literally, with bated breath. Though it was vaguely known that he was a detective working on the Starvel case, the story that he himself had circulated had been generally accepted; that he was employed on behalf of certain insurance companies to ascertain the cause of the outbreak. To find that the pleasantspoken, easygoing stranger whom the townspeople had almost begun to accept as one of themselves, was none other than a full-fledged inspector from Scotland Yard, investigating what had been at first suspected to be a triple murder of an unusually terrible and sinister kind, was a discovery so thrilling as completely to absorb the attention of all.
“While engaged in clearing up the Starvel affair,” French went on, “a hint was conveyed to me that I was working on the wrong case: that if I wanted a real mystery I should drop what I was at and turn my attention to the death and burial, particularly the burial, of Mr. Giles. With your permission, sir, I do not feel at liberty to mention the source from which this hint came. It was very vague, but we men from the Yard are taught to pick up vague hints. I thought over the matter for some days before I guessed what might be meant. Could Mr. Giles’ coffin have been used as a hiding place for stolen goods? I knew, of course, of the many burglaries which had taken place in the surrounding country during the last six months. I knew also that if burglars wished to hide their swag, no better place could be devised than a coffin. There it would be safe until the hue and cry had died down and from there it could be recovered when desired. If this theory were true, the gang of burglars would either have heard of Mr. Giles’ death and used the circumstances to their advantage or they would have arranged the circumstance by murdering him. In either case they would have taken the remains from the coffin, buried them somewhere close by, and replaced them with the stolen articles.”
French paused and a wave of movement swept over the crowded assembly as its members changed their cramped positions. Seldom had the public had such a treat and they were not going to miss any of it. There was an instantaneous stiffening to concèntrated attention as French resumed:—
“After careful consideration I thought the matter serious enough to warrant action. I, therefore, obtained an order to open the grave, and there I found that my suspicions were well founded. There was no body in the coffin, but on the other hand there was no swag. The coffin was half-full of earth. But this did not, of course, invalidate the theory I have outlined. It only meant that if that theory were true we were late; that at some time within the past nine weeks the burglars had visited the churchyard and removed the stuff. This might or might not have happened.”
Again French paused and this time the coroner remarked quietly:—
“And then, Mr. French?”
“Then, sir, I returned to the gentleman’s cottage and made a further investigation. Eventually I found traces of yellow clay lying about. All the soil in the district is dark, but at the grave I had noticed that a layer of dark soil covered a bed of similar yellow clay. So I dug a hole and found, as I expected, that this bed of clay extended under the moor also. It, therefore, seemed certain that some one had dug a hole in the vicinity, and on searching the moor I
found the place. I took Sergeant Kent and a constable out, and the three of us re-opened the hole and found the body just as these gentlemen”—indicating the jury with a gesture—“have seen it.”
The police made no attempt to subdue the buzz of repressed, though excited, conversation which arose as French ceased speaking. The coroner was still laboriously writing down French’s statement, but he soon laid his pen down and spoke.
“You have made such a complete statement, Mr. French, that I have but little to ask you. There are just one or two small points upon which I should like further information,” and he went on to put his questions.
The coroner was a clever man and he played up well to the request of the police. To the public he continued to give the impression of a careful, painstaking official, laboriously trying to obtain all the facts in a difficult and complicated matter; in reality his questions were futile in every respect except that they directed attention away from the features of the case which the authorities wished kept secret. The result was that when he had finished and asked if any one else desired to put a question, all were convinced that there was no more to be learned and embarrassing topics were avoided.
“Dr. Reginald Lingard!”
The tall, thin, ascetic looking man seated beside Philpot rose and went into the box. He deposed that he practised at Hellifield and was the police surgeon for the district.
“Now, Dr. Lingard,” began the coroner, “at the request of the authorities did you make a post-mortem examination of the remains of the late Mr. Markham Giles, upon which this inquest is being held?”
“That is so.”
“And did you ascertain the cause of death?”
“Will you tell the jury what that was.” “The man died from shock following a large injection of cocaine.”
“But an injection of cocaine is surely not fatal?”
“Not under ordinary circumstances. But to a person suffering from myocarditis a large injection is inevitably so.”
Though the evidence of French ought to have prepared every one for such a denouement, there was a gasp of surprise at this cold, precise statement. It was only a few minutes since Dr. Emerson had been heard to testify that he had given a certificate of death from heart disease without mention of cocaine, and that he had no doubt as to the correctness of his diagnosis. What, every one wondered, would Emerson say to this?
“I suppose, doctor, you have no doubt as to your conclusion?”
“Could this cocaine have been selfadministered?”
“Undoubtedly it could.”
“With what object?”
Dr. Lingard gave a slight shrug.
“It is universal knowledge that many persons are addicted to the drug. They take it because of its enjoyable temporary effects. It might have been taken with that motive in this instance, or it might have been taken with the knowledge that it would cause death.”
“You mean that Mr. Giles might have committed suicide?”
“From the medical point of view, yes.” “Might it also have been administered by some other person?” “Unquestionably.”
“With what object, Dr. Lingard?”
“It is not easy to say. Possibly in ignorance or through error or with a mistaken desire to give the patient ease, or possibly with the object of causing his death.”
“You mean that the action might have been wilful murder?”
“Yes, that is what I mean."
To be Continued