The Vicar's Crime
The extraordinary reason which caused an elderly clergyman to become a housebreaker is revealed by Inspector Ego
G. R. MALLOCH
YOU wished to see me, sir?" said Ego, "I do," said the assistant commissioner. "I am expecting a neighbor of yours and I thought it might
be as well for you to be present. Your local knowledge might be valuable.”
“I see, sir. May I ask which particular neighbor it is?”
“There is no occasion for nervousness, inspector. So far as I know, the gentleman is not coming to lay any complaint against you. It is Sir Cudworth Bumperby, of The Towers, Hamperton, whom I expect, and what his business is I have no notion.”
“Now, what has old Bumperby been up to?” asked Ego of the ceiling. “I suppose you want to know all about him? Chairman of our Council, prospective Conservative candidate, takes an active part in the public life of the neighborhood, is a leather merchant in the city, lives in one of our
few remaining mansions. The Towers, which is a delightfully situated and commodious residence standing in its own parklike grounds of some twenty acres and yet within six miles of Charing Cross. He’s a pompous old boy with no harm in him, I should say.”
“You know of no rumors or gossip about him?”
“He wears the white flower of a blameless life in his buttonhole, if any man ever did, sir.”
Before the assistant commissioner could make any comment, there was a knock at the door and a young constable appeared.
“Sir Cudworth Bumperby to see you, sir.”
Presently a stout and florid gentleman, attired in morning coat, striped trousers and white spats entered the room and removed a glossy silk hat from his silver hair.
“What can I do for you, Sir Cudworth?” the assistant commissioner asked with official geniality, a kind that was apt to damp the enthusiasm of troublesome visitors.
“I trust that I am not interrupting an important conference,” said Sir Cudworth as he sat down on the chair which Ego had held for him. “Why, it is my old friend, Inspector Ego! This couldn’t be better, sir,” he continued, turning to the assistant commissioner. “It was on my mind to ask you whether it would be possible to put the inspector on this case.”
“Indeed,” commented the assistant commissioner dryly.
“His local knowledge would be invaluable,” declared Sir Cudworth.
“May I suggest, sir, that before we go further into that, you should tell us what it is all about?”
“Of course, of course,” said Sir Cudworth hastily. “Well,
the fact is, there have been one or two attempts to burgle my house which, as you know, is at Hamperton.”
“Yes?” said the assistant commissioner patiently, wondering whether this old fellow thought the burgling of his absurd house a matter for Scotland Yard.
“The third attempt was made last night,” continued Sir Cudworth, “and I thought it time something was done about it.”
“So far, Sir Cudworth,” said the assistant commissioner in what Ego recognized as a dangerously smooth tone, "I have failed to gather why you have thought fit to consult us here. You have a very efficient police force in Hamperton Is it not a matter more within their province than mine?” “Oh, I’ve had them in, of course,” said Sir Cudworth. ‘They’ve done nothing practical; never expected they would. But I daresay you think I’ve come here to complain about them? Nothing of the sort. I know their difficulties well enough—no clues, nothing to go upon. No, the reason I came to headquarters was this:” Here he leaned forward impressively. “The third attempt took place last night, as I’ve said, and I saw the burglar!”
“Well. Sir Cudworth,” said the assistant commissioner, “what of it? Was it the Prime Minister?”
“No,” snapped Sir Cudworth triumphantly. “Funny you r .,.,uiild say that. It wasn’t the Prime Minister—but it was his cousin, the vicar of Hamperton !”
I THOUGHT his hobby was collecting stamps,” said Ego with a puzzled air.
“You can’t take me in, Mr. Ego,” said Sir Cudworth with a chuckle. “You’re as surprised as I was, I know. I was sitting up late in the library, with all the windows heavily curtained, when I heard a sound as if someone was trying to force one of them. I jumped up and pulled the curtains aside, but I made some noise, I suppose, and he heard me. I saw him just disappearing out of the shaft of light from the window; and, believe me or not, it was the vicar, and he had a thing like a jimmy in one hand. And there was the mark on the window where he had begun to force it.” *
The assistant commissioner sat up.
“You telephoned to the local police, I suppose, and some sort of search was made?”
“No, sir; not that time. I thought to myself what a scandal it would make for the church and for the dear old vicar himself, a man we all love and respect. If he’s gone wrong in his head, I thought, there must be some way of arranging matters quietly. And above all, he’s a cousin of the Prime Minister. As a candidate, I don’t want my name mixed up with anything that would be unpleasant to him. It’s a thing that should be hushed up if possible. So I came to you, thinking you’d know best what should be done.” “You acted very prudently, Sir Cudworth. If you will allow me to say so, I am much obliged to you for coming here,” said the assistant commissioner gravely. “It would certainly lead to an unpleasant scandal both for the church and for the Prime Minister, if this thing got into the papers. Proceeding on the assumption that the reverend gentleman has lost his reason, the kindest thing to do would be to communicáte with his family and to inform his bishop of the circumstances. But we mustn’t jump to conclusions. For example, are you certain that the person you saw wasn’t somebody disguised as the vicar?”
“Absolutely. Ask Inspector Ego whether I could be mistaken.”
“I’m inclined to agree with Sir Cudworth,” said Ego. No amount of disguise could give anyone the face of a saint, which is what the face of the vicar is. He’s the most extraordinarily guileless old gentleman I’ve ever met. Won’t believe evil of anyone because he doesn’t know what it is himself. And his appearance is too striking for a mistake to be made.”
“You mean to say that he had attempted no disguise?” asked the assistant commissioner.
"Oh, yes, he had ! He was wearing an old cloth cap and a long dark coat of some kind. But it was no good. It was just the sort of footling disguise he would think of.”
“Do you know of any reason why he should try to break into your house?”
“There you have me beaten, sir. Why, if he wanted anything of mine I’d have given it to him gladly. The only explanation is that he’s mad.”
The assistant commissioner considered for a moment. “Well, Sir Cudworth, I think the best thing I can do at present is to adopt the suggestion you made a few moments back. I shall ask Inspector Ego, who knows the man and the neighborhood, to look into it. Meantime, I shall be glad if you will continue to preserve silence about the affair.”
Sir Cudworth rose. '
‘That’s all I want,” he said. “I wouldn’t have any harm or scandal come to the old man for anything. If Mr. Ego wants any help from me, I’ll be only too glad to give it.” “There’s just one thing, Sir Cudworth,” said Ego as he opened the door for the visitor. “Will you telephone when you get to your office, and tell your servants that I may want to see the library?”
“I’ll tell them to give you the run of the place,” said Sir Cudworth.
WHEN the door had closed upon Sir Cudworth’s rotund figure, the assistant commissioner groaned.
“It’s the first time.
Ego,” he said that I’ve had to take care of a mad vicar. However, we must be careful if the P. M.’s family is concerned.”
“Quite, sir,” agreed Ego. “But I’m not at all sure that the old gentleman’s mad.
In fact, I’m pretty sure he isn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“I know the vicar, sir.”
“Well, what do you propose to do?”
“I don’t know till I’ve seen him tonight.
I propose to lie in wait with Sir Cudworth and watch him.”
“He may not come again.”
“He’s been three times without getting what he wanted, whatever it is. I think he’ll come again tonight, because he’ll be told that the house will be empty.”
"I see. But the local force must have an eye on the place now and they may catch him, which is just what we don’t want.”
“They’ve missed him three times, sir, already. I don’t want to say anything to them unless it’s necessary.”
“Let me warn you, inspector,” said Ego’s superior with some acerbity, “that if the press gets hold of the fact that the Prime Minister has a cousin who is a vicar by day and a burglar by night, you may look for trouble from high quarters.”
THE TOWERS, Hamperton, was one of the few remaining country houses in that suburb. It was built by the present owner’s grandfather, and the family had clung to it while the proprietors of similar establishments had gone farther afield, and the red brick villas of suburbia had swallowed up the old parks and gardens, one by one.
It was, however, a fine place, and once you were well within its twenty acres its immediate surroundings were deceptively rural, affording plenty of cover for burglars, amateur or professional. The carriage sweep in front was flanked by dense shrubberies; the servants’ quarters were at the back of the left wing, and the dining room and library windows opened on to a lawn on the right of the house. But it was possible, Ego noted, to approach the library by way of the shrubbery practically under cover till one had reached .the windows. In fact, the place seemed an ideal one for the practice of the burglar’s art. The windows themselves were of the Victorian wooden frame, up-and-down kind, easy to force if not protected by some burglar-proof device.
Ego was received by the butler.
"I was expecting you, sir, and was to show you the library. As Sir Cudworth impressed upon me it was a matter of secrecy, I have not mentioned your visit to the other ser-
“Very wise of you,” approved Ego as they crossed the hall. “Have you seen anything of this burglar who’s been about?”
“Nobody’s seen him actually, sir. I seem to have disturbed the intruder myself, on the first occasion. Sir Cudworth was away and I was late in locking up. I heard a scuffling at one of the dining room windows and rushed out at the front door with the idea of tackling the man. All I saw, sir, was a dark figure disappearing over the lawn. It was too dark to see clearly. I returned to the house and telephoned to the police.”
“You acted very pluckily and sensibly,” said Ego, to the butler’s manifest delight. “And what happened the second time?”
“On the second occasion, sir, he was seen by Constable Tomson, who was keeping an eye on the place. The officer blew his whistle and gave chase, and we all joined in searching the park and gardens, but we found no trace of him. He was outside this side of the house again. My theory, sir, is that he was after the silver.”
“Very likely, Johnson. But he won’t come again, at least not till the alarm has died down. I know these fellows: if they get a scare they give the place a wide berth. However, your master is naturally a little nervous and he asked me to have a look at his windows. Are there any burglar locks on them?”
“I’m afraid not, sir,” said the butler as they entered the library. “Just the usual catch, a very easy thing to force.” “I expected that,” said Ego as he ran his eyes around the
room. It was a long, rather narrow apartment, with two windows at J one end, a heavy old-fashioned fireplace on the left, and a glazed door at the other end. In the centre of the room, near the fire, stood a large flat-topped writing table. There were armchairs and bookshelves.
“Where does that door lead to?” asked Ego.
“It opens into what we call the lounge, sir. It was once a conservatory, but Sir Cudworth has had it converted into a sort of smoking room. And as this room was rather dark, he had that glazed door put in. He can draw those curtains across it if he wishes.”
Ego went to the windows and looked out.
“What’s the nearest house?”
“The vicarage, sir. That’s it you can see just through the trees.”
“There’s a wall around the park, isn’t there?”
“Yes, sir; only, of course, there’s a door from the vicarage garden. Sir Cudworth’s father and the vicar were great friends, so the door was made for convenience of visiting.”
“Where is Sir Cudworth’s safe?”
“Here, sir.” The butler pointed to a handsome Persian rug that hung on the wall where there was a gap in the bookshelves. “It works like a blind,” he continued. “The catch is behind here.”
He pressed something behind the rug and it ran up like a blind, revealing a built-in safe.
“Hm; fairly modern, I see, but not burglar proof by any means,” was Ego’s comment. “Well, I must advise Sir Cudworth to get new catches put on these windows.”
He pushed one of them up. In the wooden sill were marks of a jimmy very clumsily used. He closed the window again without calling Johnson’s attention to them.
"Is the gate to the vicarage kept locked?” he asked as he was leaving. “I want to see the vicar himself this morning about this hospital fête of his.”
“I don’t know, sir,” said the butler, “but it would save you a few steps. Do you think, sir, that the burglar might have used that gate?”
“That’s an idea, Johnson,” said Ego appreciatively.
Continued on page 40
The Vicar’s Crime
Continued from page 13
The original proprietor of The Towers had surrounded his domain with a high brick wall, topped with broken glass. In this wall, which at one point bordered the extensive grounds of the vicarage, Ego found the door described by the butler. The lock had been oiled recently, and a key was in it on the other side.
“Poor old chap,” mused Ego as he made his way to the main gates of the park. “Why didn’t he write his name on the windows of the library and be done with it?”
Ten minutes later he was being ushered into the vicarage study. A tall, stooping man with finely cut face in which asceticism seemed to struggle with benevolence, achieving a result that was singularly moving and attractive, rose from a desk littered with papers and books, and held out his hand with a gentle smile.
“Mr. Ego,” he said as they shook hands. “We don’t often have the pleasure of seeing you in daylight hours.”
“It was about the hospital fête and the police band that I wanted to see you,” said Ego.
For some time they discussed business, Ego watching his companion closely all the time. He saw that there were heavy lines of care on the vicar’s face, and that sometimes he relapsed into absent-mindedness and had to be recalled to the matter in hand. He looked older and had an air of apprehensiveness that was quite foreign to him. There was a tragic look in his fine eyes.
“He is afraid of something and he’s all strung up,” thought Ego. As he rose to go, the detective paused a moment at the window.
“You have a lovely garden, sir,” he said, but his interest was not in the garden but in the figures of a young man and a girl on the tennis court.
The vicar followed his gaze.
"I am very fortunate in that,” he said with a sigh. “You see, I have some young people with me today—my nephew and his fiancée, the daughter of General Strivens.”
“Indeed,” said Ego. “A fine young man, if I may say so, sir, and a good tennis player.”
“His happiness is very dear to me,” said the vicar gently. “A fine young fellow, indeed—and a very charming girl. It does an old man good,” he added more brightly, “to have young folk about the place.”
“I agree with you there, sir,” said Ego cordially. “I am a bachelor, like you, sir.”
“Yes, yes,” said the vicar gently. His eyes strayed to his desk, and Ego felt that he was in the w'ay and that his host did not wish to discuss the state of bachelordom.
The vicar accompanied him to the door with old-fashioned politeness, and as they reached the hall the tw-o young people were entering the house. Ego stared a little at the youth, a tall, fine-looking boy, in whom the family features were clearly distinguish-
“This is my friend, Mr. Ego,” he heard the vicar saying. “Miss Strivens; my nephew, Captain Ardley.”
A few polite words were exchanged and the young people vanished.
“Your nephew is in the army?” Ego
“Yes,” said the vicar absently, as he held out his hand with his gentle, crooked smile. “One side of his mouth always goes up higher than the other,” thought Ego. “A distinctive feature very awkward for criminals.”
“By the way, sir,” he said as if he had remembered it at the last moment, “I shan’t be able to discuss the fête business with Sir Cudworth till tomorrow. He is away for the
The vicar nodded vaguely.
“Indeed, indeed,” he said. “You are quite sure?”
As Ego walked down the drive, thinking of the vicar and his nephew, he paused suddenly, staring at the ground.
“By jove!” he said aloud. “By jove! This gets interesting.”
T THINK,” said Ego, as he and Sir Cud■*worth stood in the library at ten o’clock that night, “that we might leave a window open for him. He’s an old gentleman and we ought to save him unnecessary exertion.” “Good idea,” said the knight. “He’s got a weak heart, so they say. Funny job for you, Ego, to be smoothing the way for a burglar.” “It’s not the first time, I’m sorry to say,” responded Ego. “Would you switch the lights off for a minute, sir, while I do it?” The room was plunged in darkness. Ego drew one of the heavy curtains and opened the window a couple of inches.
“It’s an ideal night for a burglary,” he remarked as he rearranged the heavy curtain to prevent any ray of light from escaping.
Sir Cudworth switched on the lights again. He walked over to the fire and stood with his back to it, a fine, imposing figure in his dinner suit. His face wore a puzzled frown. “D’ye think he’ll come, then?”
“I think so; otherwise I’ve spoiled your nice glass door for nothing, Sir Cudworth.” “Oh, that,” said Sir Cudworth, glancing at the door from the lounge, from which Ego had dexterously removed one of the square panes of glass, so that, hidden on the other side of it, they could hear as well as see what went on in the library. “That’s of no account. Well, are we all ready?”
“Yes,” said Ego, looking around. “As I’ve got the curtain arranged on the glass door, he won’t notice the missing panel and he won’t see us behind it.”
“One moment.” said Sir Cudworth. “I’ve just thought of something. Why not find out whether it’s money he’s after? He may have got into some devil of a mess that’s half turned his brain.”
As he spoke. Sir Cudworth went to the safe and took from it a small jewel case and a little bundle of notes which he placed in conspicuous positions.
“That case contains a necklace that belonged to my poor sister,” he said. “We’ll see whether he pockets that and the notes.” Sir Cudworth switched the lights off and they passed through the glass door into the dark lounge, where they found two comfortable chairs.
They waited for a long time, conversing in low tones. Presently the church clock chimed eleven. Nothing happened. The quarter and the half-hour struck, and Sir Cudworth grew impatient.
“Don’t believe he’s coming at all,” he said. "Steady, sir; here he is!” whispered Ego.
T_TE POINTED, and Sir Cudworth saw a 4 dark shape like a shadow passing outside the conseivatory. It disappeared, going toward the front of the house. The two men rose and stole silently to the door leading to the library.
For a moment all was silent, then there came a distinct sound from the window. It was being cautiously pushed up. The heavy curtain bellowed out in the draught. They could hear someone climbing very quietly into the room. The curtain moved again and a hand appeared on the edge of. it. It was a very white hand.
Presently a little pencil of light began to move about the room, and the intruder, growing bolder, stepped from behind the curtain. In the darkness it was difficult to distinguish anything but those parts of the figure occasionally illuminated by the moving torch as he swayed it from side to
Then a strange thing happened. The torch was put down upon a chair, without taking the precaution of extinguishing it. There was a slight shuffling sound and suddenly, right in the beam of light appeared a pair of clasped hands and the finely cut face of the vicar of Hamperton. The two watchers drew their breath sharply. They realized that the man before them was kneeling in prayer. They could see his lips moving in some whispered petition.
Sir Cudworth gripped Ego’s shoulder fiercely.
“I can’t bear this,” he whispered. But Ego motioned him to silence.
Presently the vicar got on his feet again. They had seen that he wore a dark cloak of some kind and had a cap pulled down over his eyes, but the disguise was ludicrously inefficient. He began to move about the room, examining every article of furniture. He shone his torch on the jewel case, picked it up and opened it. Sir Cudworth pressed Ego’s arm. The vicar had opened the case and taken from it a small necklace of pearls. He ran the string through his fingers, examining it intently ; then he sighed deeply, pressed the pearls to his lips and replaced them in the case. He put it back on the table and turned away.
“Mad as a hatter,” whispered Sir Cudworth.
The vicar came to the desk and the light fell full on the bundle of notes. He did not touch them. He opened the drawers, examined the contents and replaced them. Then he came to the safe.
“Ah !” They heard the stifled exclamation. In a moment he was on his knees in front of the safe. He tried the handle, but it would not move. Then he took from a pocket one of those iron case-openers which are as often used as jimmies as for their professional purpose. With this he began to make ludicrous attempts to force the door of the safe. Had there not been something tragic about the spectacle, Ego would have laughed aloud. The only result was a few scratches on the paintwork.
Something at that moment made Ego tum his head—an almost inaudible sound in the conservatory. But it came from outside. Against the glass wall he saw the dark shadow of a man creeping slowly and quietly along, flattening himself against the glass. The shadow wore a policeman’s helmet.
Ego tugged at his companion, who swung around and saw what was happening. With a presence of mind that astonished his companion, the worthy leather merchant began marking time with his feet on the tiled floor. The occupant of the library sprang to his feet, extinguished the torch and disappeared. They saw a gleam of faint grey light where the curtains parted and a dark figure climbing out of the window. The policeman was still stealing along the glass wall.
Sir Cudworth groaned aloud.
“I’m getting too old for this sort of thing,” he said. “Come along to the dining room and have a drink. That’s Tomson, the constable on the beat, and we can’t disguise the fact that there’s been someone in, can we?”
“No,” said Ego; “we’4better let him have the credit of the discovery.”
They made their way to the dining room from the conservatory, and helped themselves to whisky and soda while they waited for developments.
“I hope he doesn’t catch the poor old boy,” said Sir Cudworth with genuine concern, as the minutes passed.
“Touch and go,” said Ego. “But I hope
T)RESENTLY there was a loud knocking 4 at the hall door. They went into the hall, switching the lights on, and Sir Cudworth undid the bolts which it was the butler’s custom to secure before retiring. On the wide steps stood Constable Tomson, and, to the intense relief of both men, he was alone. But from one hand, suspended by a piece of string, hung an electric torch.
“Sorry to trouble you, sir,” said Tomson, “but there’s been another attempt to break in.”
“Bless my soul !” exclaimed Sir Cudworth. “Are you sure, officer?”
“I saw him. sir,” said Tomson. “But I had to make a detour myself not to run the risk of being seen crossing the grass. I thought that in any case I was sure to get him once he got inside; and just as I got round the end of the conservatory, sir, he jumped from the window and made off. Too quick for me, he was.”
“You mean to say he’s been in the library?” demanded Sir Cudworth with wellfeigned astonishment.
“He was, sir, I’m afraid. Didn’t either of you gentlemen hear nothing?”
“Not a sound,” said Ego. “What’s that you’ve got on the string?”
“The burglar, I hope, sir,” said Tomson with some pride. “Dropped it in his flight, he did. You'll observe, sir, that I didn’t pick it up in my fingers—tied a bit of string on it—and if that rubberoid handle doesn’t show a crop of fingerprints I’ll be surprised.”
“That was smart of you, constable,” said Ego. “Look here. I’ll take it up to the Yard myself, shall I?”
“That would be the best, sir, no doubt,” said the constable, handing it over, verywell pleased to have earned the approval of the great Ego. “And now, sir, shall we have a look at the library?”
Constable Tomson surveyed the scene with satisfaction.
“Looks as if I had just come in time, gentlemen,” he said, pointing to the notes on the table.
Sir Cudworth thanked him, and explained that he had been working at his desk till the arrival of Inspector Ego and had left the money there to be put away later. Tomson then made his examination of the room and the window for his report, missing in his excitement the curtained glass door from which Ego had removed a pane, after which there was an adjournment to the dining room. In time he departed, assuring Sir Cudworth that a special patrol would be put on and that he might sleep in peace.
When he returned from seeing the constable out. Sir Cudworth found Ego polishing the electric torch with a silk handkerchief. He nodded approvingly.
“Thought you’d do that,” he said.
“After all,” said Ego, “most burglars wear gloves, and there will be nothing surprising in the fact that this torch won’t yield any fingerprints.”
“I suppose you realize what you are doing?” asked Sir Cudworth, laughing. “Aiding and abetting a burglar to rob me
“I’m afraid it is so, sir,” Ego said, “but I don’t expect you will give me away. Now, sir,” he added, laying the torch aside, "I wonder if you’d have any objection to telling me just what is in that safe of yours? You saw how he left everything and settled down to that.”
“I’ve no secrets concealed there, inspector,” said Sir Cudworth. “Let’s open it and see.”
There was some money, cases of jewellery, books of accounts, and a sealed envelope marked "Ardley.”
Ego stared at it for a moment and then held it out to Sir Cudworth.
“This is it,” he said simply.
The knight gaped at him.
“That?” he exclaimed. “Impossible!”
“Do you mind if I ask what it contains?” asked Ego gravely. “I am certain that is what he was after.”
Sir Cudworth sank into a chair. His face was troubled and he passed a hand over his forehead.
“I suppose I must,” he said at last.
YOU don’t see how it is in any way connected with the vicar?” asked Ego.
“No,” said Sir Cudworth slowly, “I don’t. But I’ll tell you. My sister ran away with a man of that name. I thought him a scoundrel; to her, he was a hero. He was married and the shock of the affair killed his wife. Anyhow she died afterward. Well,
I did what I thought was my duty. I traced them, and stood over Ardley with a horsewhip in my sleeve while he married her. I never saw either of them again. That packet contains a copy of the marriage certificate; that’s all.”
“Well,” said Ego thoughtfully, “there is at present staying at the vicarage a rather fine young fellow whom the vicar describes as his nephew. His name is Ardley and he is
engaged to General Strivens’ daughter.”
Sir Cudworth stared at him in astonishment.
“Did your sister have a child?” asked Ego. “Not that I ever heard of,” said Sir Cudworth. “She and her husband died years ago.”
"Then, if this boy were the son of these two, he might or might not have been born after the marriage?”
“I suppose so. I never heard of him. They had been living together for eighteen months before the marriage. But she said nothing about a child.”
“She might have concealed that from you, might she not?”
“Yes. Things were bad enough as it was, and she was very sensitive and unhappy. She might have been afraid to tell me; might have wanted to conceal from me how completely the fellow had wrecked her life.” “The vicar, I suppose, knew your sister?” “Of course.”
“And was in love with her?”
“I never heard of it.”
“It’s the things we don’t hear of, Sir Cudworth, that hold the key to most of the mysteries of life. Suppose we sleep on this mystery?”
“The best thing we could do, perhaps.” “And in the morning, will you come with me to the vicarage? I think I shall be able to explain it all then.”
Sir Cudworth agreed to this suggestion. “But it’s going to be awkward for me,” he said, “raking up all that. I still think the old man’s off his head. If he wanted that certificate for any purpose, why couldn’t he have asked me? And how could he know it was there?”
“We shall see in the morning,” said Ego, as he rose to go.
But instead of going home, he journeyed by a late tram to Westminster Bridge and spent some hours poring over records at the Yard under the letter A.
Next morning when the two men presented themselves at the vicarage, they were shown into the drawing-room and asked to wait, as the vicar was engaged with a caller. From the study which joined, they heard through the open windows an occasional murmur of voices, one of them a little raised. And presently they heard the voices passing the drawing-room door and they caught quite distinctly the words, “I am sorry, sir, but this matter must be cleared up before there is any question of an engagement.” Both men recognized the accents of General Strivens, a retired martinet.
Presently the vicar came into the room and apologized for having kept them. He looked old and worn.
“Is it something about the fête, Sir Cudworth?” he asked when they were seated again. His eyes were anxious and his voice not quite under control. Sir Cudworth glanced perplexedly at Ego.
“Sir,” said Ego gravely, “it isn’t about the fête this time. I want to tell you a story and I want you to listen to it—and to forgive me for anything that may seem like an impertinent intrusion on your affairs.”
rT'HE blood drained from the clergyman’s face. He sat back, grasping the arms of his chair. At last he nodded his head.
“I see,” he said in a whisper. “Go on, please. I have done wrong and must suffer for it.”
“The story, as I have pieced it together, sir,” said Ego, “is a simple enough one and a sad one, but it all comes right in the end. Years ago, there was a clergyman who was very much in love with the daughter of a rich parishioner. His affection was not returned; the lady preferred someone else not very worthy of her. She ran away with this man and was disowned by her family except that, when it was possible, her brother compelled the man to marry her. But to’the clergyman she remained the ideal of his life. For her sake he never married, and as time went on he cherished her image more and more. At last—I think when she was dying, perhaps—she turned to him for assistance and implored him to look after her son. He took charge of the boy and educated him. The father offered no oppo-
sition. In fact, he was in prison, and not long afterward he died.
“The boy was sent to a good school, and the clergyman grew very fond of him. He turned out well and when he grew up went into the army, and it was there that the clergyman made his first mistake. He entered the boy at Sandhurst as his nephew and as the legitimate child of his parents, when he did not know whether he was legitimate or not. But the deception, once begun, had to continue. If the boy was illegitimate, of course he was ineligible for the army. But his adopted uncle glossed over that. The real difficulty came when the lad fell in love with the daughter of a general who was a stickler for what he called principles and attached great importance to rank and descent. He wanted to know all about his proposed son-in-law, and the evasive replies he received made him suspicious. He threatened to put enquiries on foot. The clergyman thought of the possibly false declarations he had made to enter the boy for Sandhurst, and began to fear that not only would the boy’s love affair go wrong but his whole career might be threatened.
“He knew that the boy’s mother had been married, but he also knew that she had lived with her lover for some time before the marriage. In their last brief interview, she had told him that her brother had the proof of the marriage, but she died without telling him where it had taken place. Now, he could have set enquiries on foot himself, but he feared to do so in case other people, hearing of it, looked into the matter. He knew from the mother’s papers the date of her son’s birth, but where it had taken place or been registered, he did not know.
“But he knew her brother’s house intimately, and in his distraction he formed the idea of going there and recovering the marriage certificate which would tell him what he wanted to know, that is, whether the boy was bom before or after the date of the marriage. Why did he not go to the brother and explain things? Well, because the exalted conception he cherished of the lady to whom he had been so devoted made that unthinkable to him. To reveal anything that others might think derogatory to her seemed to him like putting a slur on the precious image in his mind and like a treachery to her. So he formed this mad scheme, risking his own name and reputation to ascertain the truth that might enable him to establish his nephew’s legiti-
“But,” stammered Sir Cudworth, “how could the boy be his nephew?”
“Because,” answered Ego quickly, “the boy’s father was this clergyman’s brother. And there was another secret: The man was a criminal with many names; he had good reasons for dropping the name he had disgraced.”
The vicar leaned forward in his chair.
“I suppose that I have put myself within reach of the law,” he said, “and that you have come to arrest me, Inspector Ego. But tell me first—how did you know all this? It is all true, almost in every detail.”
"Sir,” said Ego, “a detective without a good imagination ought to look for another job. We have only come to give you that which you might have had for the asking.”
“But I understand now why you didn’t ask,” said Sir Cudworth gruffly. “It was a mad scheme, vicar, all the same.”
The vicar tore the envelope open and extracted the certificate. He read it and gave a cry of happiness.
“The boy was born after the marriage!” he exclaimed, beaming on them. “He was legitimate. He is my legal heir, and his entry to Sandhurst was perfectly correct.” Then his face clouded. “I have done wrong,” he said gravely. “I have committed a crime in the eyes of the law. I have risked bringing a scandal on the cloth I wear. I have deceived the police and given you, Sir Cudworth, great anxiety. I ought to be punished for it—”
“Punish my grandmother!” exclaimed Sir Cudworth, walking over to the window. “Take me out into your garden and introduce me to my nephew, if you please.”
WHEN Sir Cudworth and Ego returned to The Towers they found Constable Tomson in the library. Furthermore, Tomson was so intent upon the task of polishing an electric torch with a duster that he did not hear them till they were upon him. He started guiltily.
“Just having a look round, gentlemen,” he stammered. “I see you didn’t take that torch to the Yard last night, sir.”
“And why,” asked Ego severely, “are you polishing it with that duster?”
Tomson, red-faced and confused, hesitated for a moment, then he burst out: “Sir, it’s wrong, I know; but I know who did the burglary because I saw him after I left you last night. And whoever done it,” he added inconsequently, “done it for some reason that was right, because I know ’im. I wouldn’t see him in trouble if I was broke for it.” *
“As a matter of fact, constable,” said Ego pleasantly, “you have been wasting your time. I removed all traces of fingerprints from the handle of that torch myself last night. None of us would see him in trouble. I can’t tell you any family secrets, but I know I can rely upon your discretion. All I can say is that the burglar came here to search for something that Sir Cudworth would have handed him at once, had he known that he wanted it. And being, as
you know, a rather unworldly and simpleminded old burglar, he simply didn’t think of asking for it. Will that do?”
“That’s enough for me, sir,” said Tomson with conviction.
HI! EGO!” shouted the assistant commissioner that evening as he saw Ego vanishing along a corridor at headquarters. “What about that parson?”
“Oh, that’s all right, sir,” said Ego carelessly. “You’ll hear nothing more about that, and the Prime Minister can sleep in peace.”
“He did burgle the place, then?”
“Yes, sir, in a way, so to speak; but he bungled it.”
“What?” said the assistant commissioner with an unkind smile. “An amateur criminal who was a bungler? What was he after?”
“Well, sir,” said Ego, “he was a little eccentric. He wanted to check the correctness of his nephew’s entry to Sandhurst. That was all, sir.”
Ego vanished into his room. And after a moment in which annoyance almost triumphed, the assistant commissioner vanished into his, where he made a large black cross on a calendar.
“I owe him one for that,” he muttered as he turned to the papers before hirn.