Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Nineteen

Case for Three Detectives

“I consider that man a nosey parker of a most unpleasant kind,” commented Sam Williams, when the door had closed behind Mr.  Rider.
“But let me remind you,” said Mgr. Smith, “that there have been Parkers less sane and more sinister than the proverbial Nosey.  There was a Thomas Parker, who was a Lord Chancellor of England and a pilferer, and a Matthew Parker, who was an Archbishop of Canterbury, and a Protestant.”
“Exactly.  Well, we’ve heard all these ladies and gentlemen, and personally I’m for a spot of shut-eye,” said Lord Simon.
“Sorry to bother you, Mr.  Rider,” began Lord Simon.  “Fact is, we’re hopin’ you can help us a bit.”
I was astounded, and disappointed at this announcement.  I had never doubted, while the cross-examination had gone on, but that the investigators would have completed their theory by the end of it, and that we should see the expected arrest before we went to bed.  They at least had seemed to know where their questions were leading them, and although I had no inkling I had put this down, conventionally enough, to my own inexperience and obtuseness.
“But . . . don’t you know who is the murderer?” I asked Lord Simon rather blankly.
“Instead of tellin’ you what I know,” he returned, “let me remind you of a few of the things I don’t know.  I don’t know who Mr.  Sidney Sewell may be.  I don’t know who is Mrs. Thurston’s stepson, or if the two are the same person . . .”
“Nor,” I interrupted sarcastically, “do you know whether her first husband liked his eggs scrambled or boiled, nor who his great-grandmother may have been.  But really, Plimsoll, if you’ve solved this thing, I think you might tell us.”
Lord Simon gave me a long-suffering look.  “Don’t get agitated, old boy.  I’m doin’ my best, don’t you know.”
“Do you know how it was done?”
“I’ve got some sort of an inklin’.”
“And do you know who did it?”
“I’ve got my suspicions, as policemen say.”
“Then why can’t you tell us?” broke in Sam Williams.  “This atmosphere of suspicion is most unpleasant.”
“It’s just a bit of the old professional vanity stuff.  I want to complete my case, and all that.  Seriously, it isn’t complete yet.  Not by a long chalk.  Suspicion’s no good to anybody.  What we all want is a cert.  Let me have tomorrow and I’ll see what I can do.  Yes, Butterfield?”
Lord Simon’s man had come into the room, and had been waiting for his employer to finish speaking.
“I think I have what you require, my lord,” he said, and handed over a somewhat grubby piece of paper.
Lord Simon glanced at it, whistled, and gave it to Picon.  It was handed right round, and when I had it I recognized at once the rather childish calligraphy of Mary Thurston.
My dear one, (it read)
I am sorry about yesterday.  I must speak to you this evening at the usual time.  You must not be angry with me.  I would do anything in my power to make you happy.  You know I love you.  Don’t let anything prevent this evening. 
“From the chambre of Stall, of course?” said M. Picon.
“Yes, sir.”
I was infected by all this reasoning and drawing of conclusions.  “But,” I said, “if Mary Thurston had already arranged with Fellowes by means of her rat-trap instructions, why should she send this note?”
Lord Simon’s reply was good-natured, but crushing.  “In the first place, how do you know that this note was addressed to Fellowes?  In the second place, what makes you think it was sent last night?”
I glanced at the grubby piece of paper.  “No.  I suppose it is older than that.”
Butterfield coughed.  “I have applied the usual tests, my lord,” he said, “and I find that the ink is at least a month old.”
He was still speaking when he noticed that Lord Simon had allowed the ash from his cigar to fall on his jacket.  Without hesitation he produced a large clothes-brush from his pocket and whisked it away.
“This, en tout cas” said M.  Picon, holding the paper up to the light, “was the instrument of blackmail.”
“Looks like it,” yawned Lord Simon.  “Well, I’m going to get some sleep.  May have to go a long way tomorrow.”
“Really?  What for?” I asked, doing my part as questioner readily enough.
“To find Sidney Sewell,” he replied.
“Do you think that means going a long way?” I asked, for I already had my own ideas on the subject.
“Quite likely.  Well, good night, everyone.” He stalked away, followed at a respectful distance by Butterfield.
“And I, too, may have to be absent a little,” said M. Picon.
I was beginning to enjoy this.  “You too?  And where will you go, M. Picon?”
“I, mon ami?  Who knows?  Perhaps to Morton Scone, to see whether the flag is still what you call at half-mast.”
He smiled happily at his droll announcement.  From the hall I heard Lord Simon offer him a lift to the village, which he accepted.
“Have you thought,” murmured Mgr. Smith, “how strange it was that Mr. Rider supposed himself to be Queen Victoria?  I should have imagined it would have been Elizabeth.  For when a man believes that he is a queen, one would think he would choose the queen who believed herself a man.”
I ignored this obvious irrelevance, and turned to Williams.
“What do you think?” I asked wearily.  “Are we getting any further?”
“I’m certainly not.  And sometimes I wonder whether anybody else is.  If we only knew one fact for certain!  If there was one witness on whose word we could absolutely rely.  But what happens?  The servants turn out to be gaolbirds, Strickland is in debt, Rider has been off his head, if he isn’t so still, Stall is a blackmailer, and as for Norris—the fellow’s a writer and a neurotic, and I wouldn’t trust him an inch.  What is one to think?”
“We can only fall back on what we saw for ourselves.”
“And that was Mary Thurston, lying murdered in a locked room, from which no one could have escaped by the window because there was no time, or by any other way, because there was no place.”
“Yet time and place are a murderer’s tools,” said Mgr. Smith, “that is—if he’s a clever murderer.”
Once more I ignored him.  “We’ve got no fact to go on.  If we only knew who took out the electric light bulb, we should be progressing.”
“Do you think so?” chirruped Mgr. Smith.  “Because there was practised a crime on the light, I don’t see why it should necessarily be a light on the crime.”
“Really!” I said, for this was beginning to exasperate me.  Sergeant Beef, I noticed, was fumbling with his unnecessarily large notebook.  He coughed impartially.  “Now that those amateur gentlemen’s gone,” he said at last, “there’s one or two questions as I should like to ask.”
Williams smiled kindly.  “Really, Beef?  And of whom would you like to ask them?”
“Of you, sir.  And of this gentleman.” He indicated me.
“Fire away, then,” said Williams.  “Only do remember it’s nearly midnight.”
“Well, sir, it’s not me as ’as kept you here till this hour, talking about flags and ’arf-mast, and son-in-laws, and ’eaven knows what else that’s got nothing to do with the murder.  I’ve ’ad to wait to ask my questions.  First of all—” he licked his pencil, “first of all, I understand you was talking about murder mysteries before dinner last night.  Do you ’appen to remember ’oo started that conversation?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.  Do you, Townsend?”
Waste of time though I considered it, I did my best to remember, but without success.  “No.  I can’t think.  Why?  Is it important?”
“Very important,” said Beef solemnly.  “Very important indeed.”
“I really can’t see how it possibly can be,” I returned, for I had an idea that Beef was only asking questions because the others had done so, and to establish his position in our eyes.
“Well, it is.  And now, another thing.  How long do you think these larks had been going on?”
“Really, Beef.  What ‘larks’?” asked Williams.
“Why, between Mrs. Thurston and Fellowes, of course.”
Williams stood up.  “Look here, Beef.  The best thing you can do is to forget about that.  We don’t want it discussed in every public bar in the village.  There was probably nothing in it in any case.  Mrs. Thurston was a very kind-hearted and sometimes indiscreet lady.  But there was nothing there to feed the local scandalmongers.”
“I’m not in the ’abit,” said Beef, with elephantine dignity, “of discussing matters like that in the village.  And it ’appens to be needful for my enquiries that I should know.”
“I can’t tell you, I’m afraid,” said Williams sharply.  “I have said already that there was nothing in it.”
“Oh yes there was,” said Beef more hotly, “else what about that letter?  That wasn’t just kind-’eartedness.”
“That letter?  It may have been anything, It may have been written years ago.  It may have been to her husband.”
“Well, Stall was able to put the screws on with it, anyway.  There was more in that than met the h’eye.”
Williams turned to me.  “1 think it’s disgusting how all sorts of things are dragged out in these cases, and made sordid.  Plimsoll’s largely to blame.  You knew Mary Thurston, Townsend.  You will bear me out when I say that she was a good woman, and that all this sort of thing was quite foreign to her?”
“Certainly I will.”
“What I should like to know,” said the Sergeant, “is whether the Doctor ’ad any notion of what was in the wind.”
Williams was thoroughly angry.  “Beef,” he said, “you are using your position to try and ferret out some nastiness which does not exist.  I shall certainly complain to the Chief Constable of this.  It is outrageous that a man of your type should be able to come up here and try to infect a tragedy with his own dirty-mindedness.  Once and for all I tell you that whoever murdered Mary Thurston, and for whatever motive, there was nothing discreditable in her life to have caused it.  I have known her and her husband for many years, and they were decent, upright and devoted in a way that you could probably never realize.  Now please say nothing more of that kind.”
“I’m only doing my duty, sir,” said Beef.  And a rather awkward silence followed.
At last the Sergeant turned to me.  “There is one question I would like to ask you, sir.”
“It’s about when you went to look round the grounds.  ’Ow long would you say you was out there?”
“Ten minutes or so, I should say.”
“And Mr.  Morris and Mr. Strickland went with you?”
“Thank you, sir.  And now I’ll say good night.”  To our relief he closed his notebook, and took himself off.
When Mgr. Smith had gone up to bed, I faced Williams.  I had sympathized deeply with him in his defence of Mary Thurston’s good name.  “Look here, old man,” I said, “as between you and me, have you got any suspicions?”
He shook his head.  I saw now, standing close to him, that he looked ill and tired.
“Once or twice it has seemed to me that you and I and Thurston are the only three who have kept sane through all this.  They’ve all seemed a bit hysterical to-night, haven’t they?”
“It was pretty gruelling.  I’m glad we didn’t have to go through it.  But these detective fellows seem to be pretty confident.”
“Oh, they’ll get the right man, of course.  They never fail.”
“No.  Not if there is a right man.”
“Why, what on earth do you mean?”
“Well, Townsend.  I’ve told you before.  I’m the last man to start tinkering with the supernatural.  But when reason ends, what are you to do?  With my own eyes I saw Mary Thurston lying murdered on her bed.  With my own eyes I searched the room while you stood in the doorway.  I looked out of the window within ninety seconds of that last scream.  And there was no one.  I tell you, however you may laugh at me, I don’t, I cannot believe that we’re dealing with a human murderer.  Or if we are, he has a means of moving which is as yet unknown to science.”
If Williams had said all this last night it might have disturbed me more.  But now I thought of little Mgr. Smith.  And I knew that what I called in his talk ‘mystic’ he would call ‘matter-of-fact’.  And I knew, somehow, that superstition could not live in his presence, that whatever else he did he would dissolve the uncharacteristic nonsense that Williams was talking.  “Come along,” I said, “let’s get some sleep.”