The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

Forty wedding rings on a cord! A strange clue with which to identify a murderer

FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS December 1 1927

The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

Forty wedding rings on a cord! A strange clue with which to identify a murderer

FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS December 1 1927

The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

Forty wedding rings on a cord! A strange clue with which to identify a murderer

FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS

AGAIN a movement ran through the tense audience. The coroner frowned and paused for a moment, then resumed:

“Do you know of any legitimate object—any legitimate object whatever—for which the cocaine might have been administered? Could it, for example, have been intended as a medicine or restorative?”

“I do not think so. In my opinion the drug could only have been administered in error, or with intent to kill.” “Do you consider that the deadly nature of cocaine is known to the public? I mean, is that knowledge not confined to those with some medical training?”

“I think the danger to a weak or diseased heart is pretty generally known. Most people are aware that deaths have occurred by its use, for example, by dentists, and that for this reason it is now seldom employed as an anaesthetic.”

The coroner slowly blotted his manuscript.

“Is there any other way in which they can be given?” “No.”

“Was such a syringe found in the present instance?” Dr. Lingard did not know. He had examined the body only, not the house in which the death had occurred. The coroner turned to another point.

“Now, Dr. Lingard, injections are administered with a hypodermic syringe, are they not?”

“Did the body show any sign of the injection having been forcibly administered?”

“No, but force sufficient to leave traces would not have been necessary.”

“Would death from this cause leave traces other than those ascertainable from a post-mortem?”

Dr. Lingard hesitated very slightly.

“I do not think so,” he answered. “If it did they would be very faint and it would be easy to overlook them.” “Was Dr. Emerson at the post-mortem?”

“He was.”

“Have you anything else to tell us, anything which you think might throw further light on this extraordinary affair?”

No, Dr. Lingard had nothing, and Dr. Emerson was recalled. He declared emphatically that he had never had any suspicion that the deceased might have been addicted to the cocaine habit.

“You have heard the evidence the previous witness gave as to the cause of the deceased’s death. Do you from your present knowledge agree with his conclusions?” “Completely,” Dr. Emerson answered. The man looked harassed and careworn, but his bearing remained dignified.

“Then how do you account for your certificate that death occurred from natural causes?”

Dr. Emerson made a gesture of helplessness.

“How can I account for it except in the one way?” he replied. “I was misled by the facts. I admit being in error, but I do not think that under the circumstances

any doctor in the world would have acted otherwise than as I did.”

“Now, Dr. Emerson,” the coroner leaned forward and looked keenly at his witness, “tell me this. Did you really examine the body at all after death?”

“I certainly examined it. And I examined it with reasonable care, and neither then nor at any time since, until I heard of this extraordinary development, had I the slightest doubt that my certificate was incorrect.” He paused, then, as the coroner did not speak, went on again. “You will admit that under the circumstances the idea of murder was the last that would occur to any one Five days earlier, Dr. Philpot had seen the man: he was then at the point of death. He told me he expected tc hear of his death at any moment. When I heard of it, 1 went out and examined the body. It had all the appear ance of death from myocarditis. Only a post-morten could have told the difference: only a post-portem did tel the difference. As you know, a post-mortem is seldon held unless there is suspicion of foul play. In this cas* there was none. I deeply regret that I was misled, but ! believe, in all honesty, that there is no one who woul* not have acted as I did under similar circumstances.”

The coroner bowed and turned to the jury.

“As Dr. Emerson has spoken so fully and frankly 01 this matter, I do not think that I am called upon to refe to it further. He, no doubt, realizes how regrettable i was, for, if suspicion had been aroused at the time, in stead of nine weeks later, it might have made all th difference in capturing the criminal. In saying this I ar not suggesting that blame attaches to him. Would an; one like to ask Dr. Emerson any further question befor he stands down?”

No one responded to the invitation, and Dr. Philpc was recalled. He deposed that he had never seen an indications of the cocaine habit about deceased, and 1

d:i c jc bc-'u ve that considering the state of his heart, he could have used it.

Sergeant Kent was then sworn. He said that on learning the result of the postmortem, he had proceeded to the deceased’s cottage and had there made a detailed search for cocaine or a hypodermic syringe, but without finding traces of either. The undertaker’s men, recalled, also declared that they had seen nothing of the kind while attending to the body.

There being no further * it nesses the coroner made a short businesslike statement summing up the evidence. As to the cause of death, he said, there could be no doubt.

The medical evidence was complete and undisputed.

Deceased had died as the result of an injection of cocaine, which his diseased heart was unable to stand. That injection might or might not have been self-administered.

The evidence of both doctors was that, in their opinion, the deceased was not a victim of the cocaine habit, and it was for the jury to consider the probability of his having used it in this instance. He would direct their attention to another point. Had the fatal dose been selfadministered, the syringe must have remained on or beside the bed. It had not been found. Who then had removed it and why?

On the other hand, if the jury considered the dose had been given by some other person or persons, they must consider with what motive this had been done. If they believed a genuine error had been made they would return a verdict of death from misadventure, but if upon weighing all the circumstances they rejected the possibility of error they would return a verdict of wilful murder.

For nearly an hour the jury deliberated, and then they brought in the expected verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.

“You did that quite well,” Major Valentine assured French, as the two men walked to the former’s car after the inquiry. "If Roper is alive and reads your evidence— and he is certain to do that, if he is in the country—he will think he is safe and may start changing the notes. By the way, are you sure that Tarkington and that clerk of his won’t give you away about the numbers of the notes? Your evidence must have sounded peculiar to them.”

“I thought of that,” French answered, “and I saw them both and warned them. They’ll hold their tongues.”

“I suppose no one has been trying to get just that information out of them?”

"No sir. I asked them that first thing, but no one

had."

Before Major Valentine left he discussed with French the steps that he would take to try to find out whether any one had disappeared at the time of the fire. The inquiry had airead;.been made, but this time it was to be pressed much more energetically. At the same time, the watch for the stolen notes was to be redoubled, and French undertook to arrange that a general memorandum on the subject would be sent to all the banks in the country.

A third line of research was suggested by the medical evidence, and this French and the major agreed to work jointly. The most searching inquiries were to be made for any one who had obtained or tried to obtain cocaine or a hypodermic syringe during a period of sexreral weeks prior to the tragedy.

Ir. addition to these three there was, of course, the most important and hopeful line of all, a direct search for Roper. French undertook to organize this with as little

delay as possible.

After discussing the situation for nearly two hours, the two men parted, hopeful that their several efforts would, before long, place the key of the mystery in their hands.

AT THEN French settled down to consider how the

search for Roper could best be carried out he saw that he was up against a very much steeper proposition than had appeared at first sight.

There were two ways in which he could attack the

problem. He could attempt to trace the man’s movments from the night of the fire and go on step by step until he found him, or he could try to discover his present whereabouts, irrespective of how he had arrived there.

The first method was not very hopeful. Not only was there little to go on, but such trail as the man must have left was cold. It was now over two months since the tragedy, and while the passage of a wanted man during the week previous to an inquiry might be remembered by porters, taxi-men or others who came in contact with the public, few would recall having seen a stranger two months earlier.

Direct search, French thought, was much more promising. For this he had behind him the whole of the amazingly complete and far-reaching organization of the police. If Roper had not left the country he would find it hard to evade recognition by some one of the thousands of constables and detectives, who would be looking out for him.

French remembered that the Kintilloch sergeant had mentioned that Roper had applied for a passport to Brazil, and he began operations by writing to the Yard to send a man to the Passport Office to obtain a copy of the photograph lodged. Then he set to work to compile a description of Roper. He saw Oxley, Whymper, Ruth and one or two others and got down from them details of the man’s appearance. From these, he synthesised the following:

“Wanted for murder. John Roper. Age 34; height about 5 ft. 9 inches; slight build; thick, dark hair; dark eyes with a decided squint; heavy dark eyebrows; clean shaven; sallow complexion; small nose and mouth; pointed chin; small hands and feet; walks with a slight stoop and a quick step; speaks in a rather high-pitched voice with a slight Lowland Scotch accent.”

On the whole, French was pleased with the description. It was more complete than was usually obtainable from unofficial sources. It had not, of course, been volunteered by any of his informants, but had been gradually reached by persistent questions on each feature in turn. He sent it

to the Yard, asking that it be published in the next issue of the Police Gazette along with a copy of the photograph obtained from the Passport Office. This meant that within three or four days every police officer in the land would be applying it to newcomers of less than ten weeks’ standing. If Roper had not escaped abroad or was not lying hidden in the most populous district of some great town there was a very good chance that he might be found.

In his letter to the Yard French had also asked that systematic inquiries should be made at the various seaports and from steamship lines to try to find out if the man had left the country. He suggested concentrating on lines running to Brazil or calling at places from which other lines ran to Brazil. Air lines "to the Continent he included, as well as the ordinary cross-channel services, though from these he scarcely expected a result.

Next he determined to make, so far as he could, lists of the attendant’s friends, places where he had spent his holidays, and any other details of his life that could be ascer^ tained. Frequently he had found that such vague inquiries produced valuable results. It was a speculative move, of course, but he thought it would be worth a couple of days’ work.

As Kintilloch was the most likely place to pick up such information, he traveled for the second time to the little Fifeshire town. There he interviewed every one who, he thought, might help him, but entirely without result. Even when he visited the home of the late Flora Roper and discussed the affair with the unfortunate woman’s mother he learned nothing valuable.

As he was leaving Kintilloch it occurred to him, as a last forlorn hope, that possibly Dr. Philpot might be able to assist. The address the doctor had given him was in Glasgow, and to return via Glasgow was but little out of his way. He decided he .would pay the call on chance.

About five o’clock that afternoon, therefore, he turned from Dumbarton Road into Kilgore Street and looked up No. 47. It was a rather decayed looking apartment house of a shabby-genteel type, and the landlady who answered his ring gave him the same impression of having fallen on evil days. Rather a comedown, French thought, for a man who had occupied a comfortable villa standing in its own grounds, to be reduced to this semi-slum lodginghouse. With a momentary feeling of pity he inquired if Dr. Philpot was at home.

“There’s no Dr. Philpot lives here,” the woman answered in complaining tones. “There’s a Mr. Philpot, if that’s who you mean.”

“He may not be a doctor; I’m not sure,” French returned. “The man I mean is fair-haired with a thin face, and could only have come to you within the last week.”

“Yes, that’s him all right. But he isn’t in.”

“When do you expect him?”

“He generally comes in about six or half-past.”

“Then I’ll come back.”

French strolled about the parks around Kelvinside until his watch warned him to return to Kilgore StreetPhilpot had just arrived. He seemed glad to see French and told him of his new life with an eagerness that, thelatter thought rather pathetic.

“I hated that place, Inspector,” he went on. “I didn't realize it while I was there, but now that I have left I am surprised how much I hated it. But I believe I'm going to like my new work. “I’ve got a job, you know.”

“Glad to hear it,” French returned cheerily. “I hope it’s a good one.”

“It’s too soon to say that. I’m now a commission agent. It is by the kindness of an old friend. He has let me have one of his side lines to see how I get on. It doesn’t sound a promising proposition, but I confess I’ve been surprised at its possibilities since I started. It concerns the marketing of inventions. My friend keeps in touch with the patent agents and 'approaches all the smaller patentees, then, if the thing looks good I try

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, {¿Bd a manufacturer or a market. 1 am to pay him a jrcentage of all my takings and already I’ve been in ueh with five inventions, all of which are doing very ell. If my luck holds I hope some day to be able to ¡uare all those people I now owe money to in Thirsby. hen my idea is to get across to the states and start

French offered his congratulations and, as soon as he asonabty could, switched the conversation over to oper. Philpot seemed considerably surprised, but he tilingly discussed the attendant and obviously did his ;st to satisfy his visitor. He gave a goed deal of informapiece seemed to French at all useful, isionally visited Peebles. What he ot did not know, but he believed his Roper had once referred to his tad had spoken of going to Peebles

be able to give you more help,” ten French, at last, showed signs of l suppose it would be indiscreet to

fter?”

He had avoided mentioning his theory to any one except Chief Inspector Mitchell and Major Valentine, and his working principle in such cases a as reticence. For a moment, he was tempted to confide in Philpot, then habit triumphed and he prevaricated.

er of the case is not complete without all the I can put into it. It is academic, of course, do things thoroughly. Gets you a reputation u know. One can't afford to sneeze at it.

'eü, doctor, I'm glad to have seen you and I hope the >od luck you have already experienced will continue.” It was evident that Phil-

pot realized that he had been put off, but he made no further reference to the subject, and his good-bye was cordial enough. French in his kindly way was pleased to see that the man had a chance of making good, and his congratulations and good wishes were

After some thought he determined to follow up the doctor’s clue and next morning he went to Peebles. There he had little difficulty in finding Roper’s mother. She kept a huckster’s shop in the poorer part of the town, but it was evident that she was getting too old for the work, and that business was not flourishing. She was suspicious at first, but under the genial influence of French’s manner she thawed and presently became garrulous. French was soon satisfied that she had no idea that her 3on might be alive. He pumped her with his usual skill, pretending he was a former acquaintance of Roper's, but in the end also he was unable to learn anything helpful.

He returned to Thirsby and began a series of inquiries at the nearby railway stations, posting establishments, inns and villages, in the hope of coming on some trace of the quarry.

ut the trail was too old.

or three days he worked early and late, but nowhere did he leam of any mysterious stranger who might prove to be the missing man. He was. indeed, about to give up in despair, when his labors were brought to an unexpected conclusion. Chief Inspector Mitchell wired an urgent recall to

It was by no means the first of such recalls that French had received, though it was not usual to interrupt an officer who was actual!;/' engaged in investigating a case. The incident always bred a slight

uneasiness. The possibility of having made some serious blunder was ever present. And French was aware that Ids most unhappy experiences had almost invariably followed periods of exaltation and self-satisfaction. Chief Inspector Mitchell was an exceedingly shrewd man and he had a perfectly uncanny way of delving to the bottom of problems and of seeing clues that other people missed. French earnestly hoped that it was-not so in the present instance.

He traveled up by the night train and early next morning reported at the Yard. There he found his fears were groundless. The Chief Inspector, so far from grumbling, was in a very good mood and almost complimented him on what he had done.

"Well, French, you’re up against it again, are you? What were you busy at, when you got my wire?”

French explained.

"You can do something better. Read that.”

It was the typewritten note of a telephone conversation. It appeared that at four o’clock on the previous evening the manager of the Northern Shires Bank in Throgmorton Avenue had rung up to say that two twenty-pound notes bearing numbers on the list supplied in connection with the Starvel Hollow crime had been passed into the bank that afternoon. The cashier had just at that moment made the discovery, but, unfortunately, he was unable to remember from whom he had received them.

“Byjove, sir!” French exclaimed. “Then Roper is in town!”

“It looks like it, if your theory is right,” the Chief Inspector admitted. “I sent Willis across at once and he saw the cashier. But the man couldn’t say where the notes had come from. Willis got him to prepare a list of

all the lodgments he had received that day, intending, if you didn’t turn up, to go round the people to-day with Roper’s description. You had better see him and find out what he has done. I want you to take over from him at once, as he is really on that Colchester burglary.”

“Very good, sir. Do you know if the notes were together: if they seemed to have come in from the same party?”

“Willis asked that. They were not near each other in the pile. Of course, the argument is not conclusive, but the suggestion is that they came in separately.”

“If that is so it looks as if Roper was changing them systematically.”

“Possibly. In that case we may expect more notes to come in. That’ll do, French. Go and see Willis and start right in.”

Inspector Willis was seated at the desk in his room, apparently trying to reduce to some sort of order the chaotic heap of papers which covered it.

“Hullo, French! Come in and take a pew,” he greeted his visitor. “I don’t know any one I’d be better pleased to see. If you hadn’t turned up within another ten minutes, I was going out about those blessed notes, but now I shall be able to get down to Colchester on the next train. I’m on that burglary at Brodrick’s, the jewellers. You heard about it?”

“The Chief mentioned it, but I have heard no details. Interesting case?”

“Nothing out of the way. The place was broken into from a lane at the back and the safe cut with anoxyacetylene jet. They got about six thousand pounds worth. It happened that Brodrick had just sent a lot of stuff to town, else they’d have cleared twice that.”

“Any line discovered on the men?”

“It was Hot Alf and the Mummer, I believe. It was their style, and Alf was seen in the town two days before. But I’ve not got anything definite yet. There’s a fearful muck of stuff about it: look at all this.” He indicated the

litter on the table.

“No fingerprints?” “Nope. But I’ll get them through the fences. I’ve only to sit tight and they’ll give themselves away. But what about your do? I’ve got it finished, thank the Lord! There it is.” He pointed to a little heap of papers apart from the others. “There’s more in it, the Chief hinted, than stolen notes, but he didn’t say what it was.”

“There’s pretty well everything in it so far as I can see,” French rejoined. “Murder — quadruple murder—theft, arson and body-snatching.”

“Body-snatching? Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “You don’t often hear of that nowadays.”

“You don’t,” French admitted, “but this was not ordinary body-snatching. You remember the case: a fire at Starvel in which the three occupants of the house were supposed to be burned? Well, one wasn’t. He burgled the place and escaped with the swag: those notes that you were on to to-day. But he had to have a body to represent himself, so he murdered a neighbor and burned him in the house.”

“Lord, French! That’s quite a tale. It would make a novel, that would. How did you get on to it?” French gave a somewhat sketchy resume of his activities and so led the conversation back to the notes. “The Chief said you would give me the details so as I could get ahead with it to-day.”

“Right-o. The Chief called me in about four yesterday afternoon and

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said he'd just Eiad a phone from the Northern Shires Bank that two of the Starvel notes had been paid in, and as you weren’t there, I’d better take over. So I went and saw the teller. He couldn’t say who had given him the notes, as it was only when he was balancing his cash after the bank closed that he recognized the numbers. I got him to make me a list of the lodgments during the day. That took a bit of time, but he had it at last. Then I went through it with him and we eliminated all the entries ¿t which he was sure that no twenty-pound note was handled. That left just under two hundred possibles. Then 1 brought the list home and went over it again, ticking off people or firms who do not usually take in cash from the public, like shipowners, manufacturers *nd wholesale dealers. Of course, these are possibles, but not so likely as the others. It was rough and ready, but l wanted to tackle the most probable first.”

**Of course. I should have done the same.”

T waited up until 1 had put the probables m location order, and here is the list.

•Jolly good. Willis. Sorry you had so much trouble. HI carry on and hope for the best.”

••You'll get it all right.” Willis opined as he settled down again to his work.

Ail that day and the next French, armed with the list and with Roper’s photograph and description, went from place to place interviewing managers and assistants in shops and business firms. But all to no purpose. Nowhere could he obtain any trace of the elusive twenty-pound notes, nor had any man answering to the description been seen. And then ro his amazement he was taken off the inquiry.

Like other officers of the C.I.D., it was his habit to keep in as close touch with headquarters as possible while pursuing his investigations. At intervals, therefore, during these two days he called up the Yard and reported his whereabouts. It was during one of these communications that for the second time in two days he received an urgent recall.

In this case it was a summons which he could obey promptly, and twenty minutes after receiving the message he was knocking at the door of Chief Inspector Mitchell's room.

One glance at the Chief s face showed him that at least there was no trouble brewing,

Mitchell greeting him with a half smile.

-•Sit down. French, he said, and listen to me. I want to tell you a story."

After glancing at a few papers which he took from a drawer, he began to speak.

THIS morning about 10.30,” said the Chief Inspector, “We had a 'phone from Inspector Marshall of the Whitechapel District. He wanted to know whether we had had any recent reports of thefts of small jewellery, as he had come across some in connection with a scrap between two lightermen. It seems that about ten o clock last night a constable on patrol heard cries coming from an entree off Cable Street, as if some one was being murdered. ’ He ran down and found a man on the ground with another belaboring him furiously with his fists. The constable pulled the victor off, to find his opponent was little the worse. The fellow was really more frightened than hurt. The constable would have dismissed the affair with a good-humored caution to both, had it not been that in the heat of the explanations the cause of the quarrel came out. The men had obtained some jewellery which both claimed, and when vhe constable saw the stuff he didn't wait for further discussion, but marched them both off to Divisional Headquarters. Marshall questioned them and reported their statements with his inquiry.

■'The whole thing, so far, was purely commonplace, and if the jewellery had consisted of ordinary trinkets, I should have thought no more about it. But the nature of the stuff tickled my fancy and I grew interested. You would hardly guess what they had. Wedding rings!”

T certainly shouldn’t have guessed that, sir.”

T don’t suppose you would. Well, that s what they had. Thirty-nine wedding rings on a cord. They were all much of the same size and value. And there was not another ring. They were searched, but nothing else was found on them.”

“Marshall, of course, asked them where they got them, and their answer was more interesting still. It appeared that the victor, .James Gray, was the skipper of a Thames lighter and the vanquished, William Fülle?, was his ■ -;7ew.' A third man was on board who looked after the engine, but he didn’t come into the affair. Gray stated that about 8.30 that same evening they were working emorr down the river. They had left a cargo of Belgian coal at an up-river works and were running down to their moorings for the night. ■ They usually stopped about six. but trouble with their engine had delayed them on this occasion. It was rather a dirty night, raining and very dark and blowing a little. Gray, the skipper, was at the helm and Fuller was forward acting as look-out.

The third man was below at the engines. Just as they began to emerge from beneath the Tower Bridge Fuller heard a smack on the deck beside him. He looked down and in the light of some of the shore lamps saw some bright objects rolling about on the planks. On picking one up he was astonished to find it was a wedding ring. He began to search and found several others, but the skipper swore at him for not minding his job, and he had to let the remainder lie. When they reached their moorings he tried again, but Gray was curious.and came forward and found a ring himself. Then they liad a proper look with lanterns and recovered the thirty-nine. Immediately, as might be expected, a row broke out. Both men wanted the rings. Fuller said they had fallen beside him and he had found all but one or two, but Gray held that he was skipper and that anything that came on the ship was his. They had to bury the hatchet, temporarily, so as not to give" away the secret to their engineer, but the quarrel

broke out again ashore, Fuller’s cries attracting our man. What do you think' of that, French?’ A good story, isn’t it?”

“Like a book, sir. Just a bit humorous, too, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

There was a twinkle in Chief Inspector Mitchell’s eye as he continued:

“Oh, you think so, dp you? Well, anyhow, as I say, I was interested. The men’s mentality I found quite intriguing. I wondered how much imagination they had between them. Marshall described them as slow, unintelligent, bovine fellows. Now, such men could never have invented a tale like that. If they had been máking it up, they would have said they found a bag of rings in the street. The idea of wedding rings having been thrown over the parapet of the Tower Bridge just as they were passing beneath would occur only to men of imagination, and to have got all the details right would have involved a very considerable gift of invention as well. Do you see what I’m getting at, French? Their story shows too much imagination for their intelligences as described by Marshall and therefore I am disposed to accept it.”

Chief Inspector Mitchell paused and looked at French as if expecting a comment.

“I follow you all right, sir, and what you say sounds reasonable to me. And yet it’s not very likely that any one would throw thirty-nine wedding rings into the Thames, off the Tower Bridge, for I take it it was into the river and not on to the boat they were intended to go.”

“I should say undoubtedly.” Mitchell sat for a moment drumming with his fingers on his desk and looking thoughtfully out of the window. “You think the whole thing’s unlikely, do you? Perhaps you are right. And yet I don’t know. I think I can imagine circumstances in which a man might be very anxious to get rid of thirtynine wedding rings. And what’s more, to throw them over the parapet of the Tower Bridge at 8.80 in the evening seems to me a jolly good way of getting rid of them. How would you have done it, French?”

French glanced at his superior in some surprise. He could not understand the other’s interest in this commonplace story of stolen rings. Still less could he understand why he had been interrupted in his useful and important work to come and listen to it. However, he realized that it would be tactless to say so.

“I don’t know, sir,” he answered slowly. “I suppose to throw ’em in the river would be the best way. But he should have seen there was nothing passing underneath.” “Ah, now that is an interesting point also. But first, does anything else strike you?”

French looked wary.

“Just in what way, sir?”

“This. Suppose you want to throw a package into the river and you want to do it absolutely unobserved. Where will you do it?”

“I see what you mean, sir. That bridge at that time of night is about as deserted as any of the London bridges.”

“Exactly, that’s what I mean. There is evidence there of selection which would never strike a man like these bargees. But you say he ought to have seen the boat. Why should our unknown not have looked out for passing boats? I’ll tell you, I think. Though the bridge is comparatively deserted, it is not deserted. To look over the parapet far enough to see the water below would have attracted attention. A suicide might have been feared. Some officious person might have come forward. No, the unknown would simply chuck his parcel over without even turning his head, secure in the belief that even if by some miracle it was found, the contents would never be traced to him. Do you agree?”

“Seems quite sound, sir.”

“It may be sound or it may not,” Mitchell returned. “All that I have been saying to you may be the merest nonsense. But it shows, I think, that the story these men told may be true. The chances of its being true are sufficiently great to warrant investigation before they are charged with theft. You agree with that?”

This time French felt no doubt.

“Oh, yes, sir, I agree with that certainly. The men could not be convicted without going into their story.”

The Chief Inspector nodded as if he had at last reached the goal for which he had so long been aiming.

“That’s it, French. Now will you start in and do it?”

French stared.

“Me, sir?” he exclaimed as if unable to believe his ears. “Do you wish me to take it up?”

The other smiled satirically.

“I don’t know any one who could do it better.”

“And drop my present case?”

“Only temporarily,” the Chief assured him. A day or so will make little difference to your own affair, and I have no one else to send on this one. Look into it and try and find out if any one dropped those rings off the bridge, and if so, who he was and why he did it. When you have done that, you can go ahead with the Starvel affair.”

French was completely puzzled. This was very unlike the line the Chief usually took.

“Of course, sir, it’s what you say; but do you not think it is very urgent that this bank-note business be followed up while the trail is warm? Every day that passes will make it more difficult to get the truth.”

“That applies even more strongly to this other affair. But it has the advantage of probably being a shorter inquiry. With luck you can finish it off to-morrow, and if so, that will delay the larger case only very slightly.” French saw that whatever might be the Chief’s motive, he had made up his mind. ' .

“Very good, sir,” he returned. “I’ll go down to Whitechapel at once and get started.”

“Right, I wish you would.”

FRENCH was conscious of not a little exasperation as he walked to Charing Cross and there took an eastward bound train. A few hours might make all the difference between success and failure in the Starvel case, and here he was turned on to this other business during the very period when it was most important he should be on his own job. He could not understand what was at the back of the Chief Inspector’s mind. Apparently he suspected a crime, though what crime he had in view French could not imagine. Marshall could ha\e dealt with ordinary petty theft. But, if Mr. Mitchell suspected a serious crime and if, as he said, no other officer was available to investigate the affair, his attitude would be explained.

But whether it were explained or not orders were orders, and French with an effort switched his_ mind off John Roper and on to lightermen and wedding rings. On arrival at Divisional Headquarters he saw Inspector Marshall and heard his account of the affair, which was almost word for word that of the Chief Inspector’s.

“I don’t know what the Chief’s got in his mind, French grumbled. “Here was I on the Starxel case and

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The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

Continued from page 24

on a hot scent too, and why he should switch me off on to this affair I can’t see. He’s got some bee in his bonnet about it. He believes these fellows’ yarn and he wants me to find the man who threw the rings over.”

Marshall made noises indicative of surprise and sympathy. “I shouldn’t have thought the Chief Inspector would have stood for that dope,” he remarked. “What are you going to do about it?”

French didn’t exactly know. He supposed he had better hear the men’s story for himself, though, of course, after his colleague had examined them his doing so would be only a matter of form to satisfy the Chief. Then he would think over the affair and try to plan his next move.

But rather to his own surprise, French found himself considerably impressed by the two men’s personalities and the way

they told their story. Both were heavy and slow witted and, French judged, without any imagination at all, and both seemed reasonably honest. After he had questioned them he felt very much inclined to accept his Chief’s view and to believe the tale.

“You say you found the rings by the light of a hand lamp,” he went on presently. “Very good. Come along down with me to this boat of yours and we’ll have another look by daylight. Perhaps you missed a few.”

The men didn’t think so, but they were very willing to do anything which got them out of the police station. They led the two inspectors to the dirtiest wharf that French had ever seen, and there hailing a man in a wherry, the four were put aboard the Thames lighter Fickle Jane.

She was a long, low craft, more like a canal boat than a lighter. Nine-tenths of

her was hold, but at one end there was a tiny fo’e’sle and at the other an equally diminutive engine-room. She was steered by a small wheel aft.

"Now,” French said to the “crew,” "go and stand just where you were when the rings came down.”

Fuller moved to the fo’c’sle andtookup a position on the port side of the companion.

"And where did the rings strike?”

"Couldn’t just say to a foot, guv’nor,” the man answered, “but abaht that there bolt ’ead or maybe a bit for’a’d.”

The point lie indicated was starboard of the companion and midway between it and the side of the boat. French saw that objects falling at that point might scatter in any direction, and he began a careful search for further rings.

In less than a minute he found one. It had rolled down along the strip of deck at the side of the hold and jammed itself in a crack of the coaming timbers.

This discovery seemed to French to prove the men’s story completely. He took their addresses and told them they were free and that if the owner of the rings could not be found they would be returned to them. He wanted them, however, to come up with him to the Tower Bridge and show him the exact point at which the incident had occurred, but for this they would be paid.

He was frankly puzzled as he stood looking over the parapet of the bridge after Gray and Fuller had gone. As far as he could see there was absolutely nothing in the nature of a clue to the person he sought. The rings were probably stolen, but not, he imagined, from a jeweller. Rather, he pictured some street row in which a hawker had been relieved of his stock-in-trade. Though, if this had been done, he could not imagine why the stock should have been thrown away.

There were, of course, some obvious steps to be taken, but French hesitated over them, because he did not think any of them could bring in useful information. However, he couldn’t stand there all day, and he might as well get on with all the lines of inquiry that suggested themselves.

First, he called at the Yard and arranged that any constables who had ! been on patrol duty on or near the Tower j Bridge, at 8.30 the previous evening,

1 should be found and sent to him for I interrogation. Then, with the rings in his pocket, he went to a small jeweller’s shop in the Strand, of which he knew the : proprietor.

“I want your help, Mr. Alderdice,” he I said as they shook hands in the little j private room at the back of the shop.

“I’m trying to find some one who amuses ! himself by throwing wedding rings into i the Thames,” and he told his story, conj eluding: “Now, I wondered if you could ; tell me anything about these rings which I would help me. Have you heard of any j thefts of rings? Is there any way of identi; fying or tracing these? Might they be sold by a hawker, or would they be more Í probably from a jeweller’s shop? Any in! formation that you could give me would ^ be most gratefully received.”

Mr. Alderdice, a precise, dried-up, little man, rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“Well, you know, Mr. French,” he said, “I don’t believe that I can think of anything in my trade about which I can give you less help. There are, as you know, millions of wedding rings in this city alone, and they are all more or less alike. In fact, sir, you might as well try to identify a given nail in an ironmonger’s bin. I don’t think it’s possible. Needless to say though, I’ll do what I can. Let me see the rings.”

He took the bunch, nattily untied the j knot on the cord which held them, and taking the rings one by one, examined each carefully.

“They are all of eighteen carat gold,” he said in the manner of an expert pronouncing a deliberate judgment. “They 1 are fairly well the same size and thickness and would sell from thirty to thirty-five ( shillings each, according to weight. I do

not know much about the hawkers you refer to, but I should imagine that they would content themselves with a rather inferior article, and that these rings were sold by reputable jewellers. I have not heard of any cases of robbery of such rings. I do not see how you or any one else could trace their sales, but, of course, that is speaking from my point of view: you gentlemen from the Yard have a wonderful way of finding out things.”

French made a grimace. “I’m afraid my job’s not very hopeful,” he bewailed as he thanked his friend and took his leave.

He walked slowly back to the Yard, thinking intently. This was one of those hateful jobs in which you had to work from the general; to deal with the whole of the possible sources of information concerned. He would now have to apply to all the jewellers’ shops in London—a tremendous job. How much he preferred working from the particular! In that case, to complete the parallel, he would get a clue which would lead to the one shop or group of shops he required. But, here, the situation was reversed. He would have to deal with all jewellers, and he did not know exactly what he was to ask them.

He made several drafts, and, at last, produced a circular which he considered satisfactory. In it he said that the Yard desired to trace a person who had got rid of forty wedding rings on the night of Monday, 6th December, of which the particulars were as followed, and that he would be obliged for any information which might help. In particular, he wished to know whether any wedding rings had disappeared or been stolen recently. Failing that he would be grateful for the description as far as it could be ascertained, of all persons, who had bought wedding rings within the previous four days, with the date and approximate hour of the purchase. Replies, which would be treated as entirely confidential, were to be sent to Inspector French at New Scotland Yard.

He set some men to work with directories to find out the addresses of jewellers in London, and made arrangements to have the necessary copies of his circular prepared and delivered. Then, he organized a staff to deal with the replies when they came in. Finally, having cleared his conscience with regard to the rings episode, he returned to his work on the bank-note case, picking up the thread at the point at which he had left off.

By next morning, several hundred answers to his circular had been received and others were arriving continuously. Reluctantly, he gave up the bank-note question and went to his office to have a look over them.

In accordance with his instructions, his staff had prepared a statement to which they added the information given in each reply. One column they had headed ‘Robberies and Disappearance of Rings,’ and a glance down this showed French that none such had occurred. In a number of other columns they had put information about purchasers. These columns were headed with certain details of appearance, such as estimated age—over or under thirty, forty-five and sixty; tall, medium and short, dark and fair, with and without glasses, and so on. By this means it became possible to determine whether the same person might have dealt in more than one shop.

There were a great many columns and comparatively few entries in each, and of those in the same column nearly all were distinguished by differences in other columns. Of course, the vast number of the descriptions were vague and incomplete and most of the shops recorded purchases in connection with which the assistants could recall nothing of the purchaser. But this was only to be expected, and French worked with such results as he could get.

Of the 631 replies entered up, French gradually eliminated 625. Jhe remaining six he examined more careMlly, whistling gently as he did so. They were all under

the general divisions. “Homburg hat,” “fawn coat,” “dark,” “with moustache,” and “with glasses.” But this, in itself, conveyed little. It merely indicated a possibility. Bqt when he found that four of the six shops were in the same street and that the purchases in all four had been made on the same day and at almost the same hour, his interest suddenly quickened. French considered that the matter was worth a personal call, and leaving the Yard, he drove to the first of the six and asked to see the manager.

“We’re very sorry to have given you all this trouble,” he began as he produced the reply they had sent in, “but the matter is really important. This may be possibly the man we want. Could I see the assistant who attended to him?”

In a few seconds a Mr. Stanley was produced and French asked him to repeat his description of his customer.

“I remember the man quite clearly, sir,’ Stanley answered. “He had very dark hair and a thick, dark moustache and dark glasses. He wore a soft, gray Homburg hat and a fawn-colored coat.”

“It is a pleasure to deal with you, Mr. Stanley,” French smiled. “You are certainly very observant. Now tell me, how do you remember the man so clearly?”

“I don’t think there was any special reason, sir. Unless it was that I happened to look out of the window and saw him get out of a taxi, and that sort of fixed my attention on him. The taxi waited while he was in the shop and he got into it again and drove off when he had bought the ring.”

This was very satisfactory. If the customer was really the man French wanted, here was a clue and a valuable one. To find the taxi which had stopped at the shop at a given time on the previous day should not be difficult. He continued his questions.

“At what hour was that?”

“About half-past eleven,” the salesman said after some thought. “I couldn’t say for sure, but it was about an hour before I went for dinner and that was at half-past twelve.”

“He didn’t seem at all agitated, I suppose?”

“No, sir. Not more than most of them.” Stanley smiled knowingly, and French felt that only for the sobering presence of the manager a wink would have conveyed the man’s thought. “Most of them are a bit, shall we say, nervous. But this man was just the same as the rest. He gave a size and said he wanted a medium weight, and that was all that passed.”

French nodded, and reverting to the description, tried for some further details with which to augment it.

“And there was nothing in the slightest degree out of the ordinary in the whole transaction, no matter how trivial?” he had asked as a sort of general finale to his catechism, more as a matter of form than because he hoped to gain any information, and it was in reply that the assistant, after saying: “No, sir, I don’t think so,” had pronounced the priceless words: “Unless you would call changing a large note out of the ordinary. The man hadn’t enough loose change to make up the thirty-five shillings and he asked me to change a twenty-pound note.”

“What!” roared French with a delighted oath, springing to his feet in his excitement. So that was it! He saw it all now! Like a flash this whole mysterious business of the wedding rings became as clear as day. And the Chief had guessed! Moreover the Chief had given him a broad hint and he, like the ass that was, had missed its meaning! He sat down and wiped his forehead.

To be concluded