Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Eighteen

Case for Three Detectives

And now for the Vicar, I thought, with some relish.  For of all those who had been interrogated there had been none who, from the first, had seemed to me so likely to do or say something quite unanticipated as Mr.  Rider.  He had seemed to me, on the evening of the crime, the only person with any real mystery about him.  There was his rather grotesque appearance, his reputation for eccentricity and fanaticism, there was his very odd question to me yesterday, and most singular and inexplicable of all, the discovery of him kneeling at Mary Thurston’s bedside only twenty minutes after the murder.
Surely, I felt, after so much inconclusiveness, the investigators would extract something definite from this man.  Surely now even I —would begin to see some of that ’light’ which was guiding M. Picon.
The Vicar smiled nervously yet civilly to us as he came in, and sat down quickly.  His long fingers he kept twisting into intricate cat’s cradles before his chest.  He too, I was certain, was afraid of something.  He waited to be questioned as though with any one of the innocent queries put to him might come disaster.  And yet, I thought, he found it hard to concentrate.  His nervous mind went wandering off, and his pale eyes grew vacant.  One thing was certain—the man was suffering.
“Sorry to bother you, Mr.  Rider,” began Lord Simon.  “Fact is, we’re hopin’ you can help us a bit.”
“I’ll do all I can.”
“You’ve known the Thurstons for some time?”
“Ever since they’ve lived here:  they have attended my church—and have been good enough to invite me to the house—more frequently than I could very well accept.  You see, I had no means of returning their hospitality.  My home . . .”  He shrugged, and ceased speaking as though he had suddenly recalled that he might be saying too much.
“Was there anything in this household that—so to speak—got your goat?  Any goings-on, as they say, which worried you?”
“I think not.”
“Yet you asked Mr.  Townsend last night if he had noticed ‘anything wrong’.”
The Vicar paled.  “Mr.  Townsend, whom I then took to be a young man of good sense and discretion, might have seen some evidences which had escaped me.”
There was no mistaking the indignation in his glance.  I realized that my role as an associate of investigators carried its penalties.  I had certainly made two enemies at least.
“Evidences of what?” said Lord Simon evenly.
“Evidences of . . . something scandalous.  I had heard rumours.”
For the first time in my brief personal acquaintance with Lord Simon he shewed unmistakable anger.  “And you considered it your duty to investigate the truth of those rumours?”
“To go into a house to which you had been invited as a guest, and question another guest about them?”
“Yes.”  Then very quietly, almost meekly, he added, “Have you never felt such questioning to be your duty?”
Lord Simon did not condescend to reply.  And why should he?  His questions were prompted by his determination to find out the truth about a crime; the Vicar’s were the merest Nosey-Parkerdom, if they were nothing worse.
“And what, exactly, were those rumours?”
“I hardly like to revive them now.  De mortuis, you know, de mortuis.”
“Mr. Rider, I hardly think this is a moment for you to profess scruples about blackguardin’ another person, even if that person is dead.  What were those rumours?”
“It had been bruited in the village, had in fact reached my ears, that some sort of . . . understanding existed between Mrs. Thurston and the chauffeur.”
To all of us, I think, came the disappointment that must be felt when a promised bonne-bouche of scandal turns out to be stale news.  I, for one, had hoped that Mr. Rider would produce something new.
“Had you yourself seen any evidences of it?”
“Not actually.”
Lord Simon spoke and looked as though there was an unpleasant smell in his nostrils.  It was quite evident that he did not like the Vicar.
“And what you heard did not prevent your accepting the Thurstons’ invitation to dinner last night?”
“I considered it my duty to . . .”
“Ah yes.  I was forgetting your duty.  Did you happen to know that it was Mrs. Thurston’s habit to retire to bed at eleven o’clock?”
The Vicar stared silently at Lord Simon.  “No,” he said at last.
“Yet you had dined here . . . how often?”
“Oh many times, many times.”
“Did you never stay to chat with Dr. Thurston after Mrs. Thurston had retired?”
“And you have never heard her make a remark to the effect that eleven o’clock was her bed-time?”
“Now that you mention it, I do seem to remember something of the sort.”
“What time did you leave the house?”
“About twenty to eleven, I believe.”
“So that you knew when you went that Mrs. Thurston would soon be going to bed?”
“I might have guessed it, had I thought about it.”
“What had you been talking to her about?  You and she were sitting alone together for some time.”
“Oh, parish matters, chiefly.  She told me, I remember, that Stall, the butler, who is a chorister of mine, would be leaving her shortly.”
“Did she express any regret?”
“Oh yes.  She had been very satisfied with him.”
“And had you?”
“He had a good bass voice, I believe.”
Lord Simon leaned back in his chair.  I took my eyes from the pale and twitching face of the Vicar to watch his interrogator.  Perhaps it was because he must now be approaching his most serious questions that Lord Simon now dropped all evidence of anger or distaste, and became his usual self— drawling and apparently effete.
“Well, Mr.  Rider, you seem fond of a bit of sleuthin’ yourself on the quiet.  Keepin’ an eye on misdemeanours, and all that.  You’ll appreciate the difficulties of a fellow-sleuth, won’t you, and do what you can to help him out of a hole?  Fact is, you can help us along quite a lot.  Hope you’ll do your best to answer a few more of my silly-ass questions.  Here goes, anyway.  When you left the house, where exactly did you go?”
It was, I was sure, this very question that the Vicar had dreaded.  He swallowed as a man does who has an inflamed throat.
“I . . . I had decided to walk home through the orchard.”
“Let’s see, that’s at this end of the house, isn’t it?  Not overlooked by any of the windows?”
“That’s right.  There is a footpath across it which leads straight into the garden of the Vicarage.”
“And you took that path?”
“And went home?”
I thought that no question which had been asked this evening produced quite such an expectant hush as this one.  The Vicar’s fingers twined and untwined and his eyes had fallen.  When his answer came it was scarcely audible.  “No,” he said.
“You didn’t?  Then where did you go?”
“Nowhere.  I stayed in the orchard.”
“Picking fruit, perhaps?”
“No.  No.  You must not misunderstand me.  I stayed in that orchard in agony of mind.  I paced up and down, up and down in torment.”
“I wonder whatever was the matter?  Sat on an ants’ nest, or something?”
“Lord Simon, this is no joking matter.  I was in great distress.  When I told you just now that Mrs. Thurston and I had discussed parish matters, it was only half the truth.  We had also spoken of the chauffeur.  Mrs. Thurston had admitted that she was fond of him.  It is true, she claimed that her affection was that of a mother for her son.  But I knew—I felt that it was otherwise.”
Honi bally well soit,” commented Lord Simon.  “So that made you march up and down the orchard for . . . how long?”
“I was in the orchard when I heard those heart-rending screams.”
“Oh, you were.  You must have done about half an hour’s pacin’ about.”
“I suppose so.  I lost all count of time.  And then I couldn’t make up my mind what I should do.  It was some minutes, I believe, before I gathered courage to return to the house.  But at last I did so.  I went to the front door, and rang the bell.  The door was opened by Stall.  I asked him what those sounds had been, and he said, ‘Mrs.  Thurston . . . up in her room.  She’s been murdered, sir.’ I at once asked for Dr. Thurston, feeling my place was at his side.  Stall left me alone to find him, as he had to return to the maid, who had had an attack of hysterics.  So I hurried up to the bedroom, and found the pitiful, terrible corpse of that poor woman.  I did what I could—I knelt beside her and prayed.  It was thus you found me.”
As he finished Mr.  Rider did a very embarrassing thing.  He buried his face in his hands, and began violently to weep.  We could hear the sound quite plainly in that silent room.  And again—I trust my intuitions—I did not believe that it was for Mary Thurston that he was weeping.
Mgr. Smith’s voice interrupted him.  “Where did you work before you came here, Mr.  Rider?” he asked.
Evidently, I thought, he wishes to relieve the poor man by persuading him to talk of himself in a more noncommittal way.  There could be no other explanation for a question so entirely irrelevant.
“I was a curate in a London parish.”
“And you came straight to this village from that work?”
“No.  I had a . . . nervous breakdown.  The work in London . . . I was an invalid for a time.”
“Would you mind telling us the nature of your illness?”
The Vicar gaped blankly at him.  “It . . . it was nothing very serious.  I was subject to certain delusions.  As a matter of fact”—he made the announcement very solemnly—“I thought I was Queen Victoria.  For several months I spoke exclusively in the first person plural and had an unfortunate habit of draping a scarf about my head in the form of a widow’s coiffe.  But that is all over, I am glad to say.  I recovered completely seven years ago, and have never been revisited by the malady.”
Certainly, if we were waiting merely for the unexpected, Mr. Rider was no disappointment.  It had needed a man with the insight and imagination of Mgr. Smith, however, to discover that he had been something more than eccentric, though as I looked at him now, with his white cheeks tear-stained and his eyes glazed by a look of absence, I knew that I ought to have guessed it long ago.
M. Picon, who had seemed at a loss during the Vicar’s more hysterical moments, now returned to the practical issue.  “Since you were in the orchard, m’sieu,” he said politely, “you saw no window of the house?”
“Not at all?  During all the time that you were out there?”
“You could not say whether any window in the front of the house was illuminated?”
I wished that M. Picon would leave him alone.  I was sure that the poor fellow was again going to break into those embarrassing sobs.
“Where précisement stood you when you heard the scream?”
I was right.  Instead of answering, the Vicar once more covered his face.  “Oh, leave me alone now,” he said.  “I have done wrong.  But who hasn’t?  Which of you is guiltless?  And the wrong I have done has nothing whatever to do with you.  Nothing whatever.  There is nothing more I can tell you which will help you to find the murderer.  So leave me alone . . .”
He stood up rather unsteadily, and made for the door.  I saw the investigators exchange unwilling glances.