Case for Three Detectives
I spent a very bad night. Looking back on the whole gruesome business, I think that the worst part of it—was this period in which we three, who were neither investigators nor suspects, were left in an unpleasant state of doubt, not knowing whom to suspect. Unless one is naturally malicious it is horrible to think of the people round one as potential murderers.
I woke before dawn, and after tossing about miserably for some hours, I dressed, and got downstairs to find the fires only just lit, and having that cheerless smokiness which makes even a position in front of them unencouraging. But looking out of the long windows I saw that it was a glorious morning—warm and still, as though autumn had turned back regretfully for a day. I decided at once to walk down to the hotel, and see Lord Simon. He, I felt, could put my mind at rest. He had admitted that he had suspicions, and his suspicions, I had reason to know, were as good as other people’s certainties.
Stall was in the hall, and said good morning much as though this were a normal week-end, and I an ordinary guest. I knew for certain that Stall was at any rate a blackmailer, if he was nothing worse, so that it need be no mere suspicion in his case. I scarcely nodded in reply, and said that I should not be in to breakfast.
It was pleasant walking down the familiar village street in the clear morning air, and my spirits revived a little. This evening, at all events, would put an end to our mistrust, and we would be able to return to our normal lives. And in the meanwhile it was a lovely day.
The man Miles was cleaning brass at the door of the hotel. I asked him if Lord Simon was up yet.
“Oh yessir,” he replied, with none of the defiance that had been in his voice last night. “His lordship has been up some time. His man has just come down to fetch his lordship’s breakfast. You’ll find him in the sitting-room at the top of the stairs.”
“Thank you, Miles,” I returned. Again, this unpleasant doubt as to how one should behave. I had no wish to hobnob with a murderer, but the fellow was civil enough.
Against a wildly incongruous background, Lord Simon sat waiting for his breakfast. The room was crowded with a chilly miscellany of knick-knacks and ornaments, gewgaws and trumpery of every kind which had been popular towards the end of the last century. Lord Simon’s head was a sober shape against an enormous case of stuffed birds, perched in a grotesque parody of naturalness on lichen-covered branches. Lace was festooned over baize along the mantelpiece, which supported an overmantel as intricate as an Oriental building. A firescreen painted with garish overgrown carnations had been laid aside, a woolly black rug was before the fire, and a bunch of pampas grass stood in a tiled urn in one corner. The table had a green and tasselled tablecloth on it, the furniture was of bloated mahogany, there were muslin curtains on great brass rings and foot-stools in unlikely places.
“Come in—if you can bear it,” said Lord Simon, when I hesitated for a moment. “You see what one has to suffer in the cause of truth? Have you ever seen anything like it? It can’t be true!” he said, glancing about him. “Had breakfast?”
I explained that I had not waited up at the Thurstons’ house—I had been too anxious to see him as soon as possible.
“Good. We’ll breakfast together.” And Butterfield, entering at that moment with a tray, was sent to get another breakfast.
“I came to see you at this early hour, because I really hoped you might be able to tell me something. You know, it is most unpleasant suspecting everyone in the house in turns. I scarcely slept last night.”
Lord Simon nodded, and helped me to kidney and bacon. “I know. Bally awkward. You’re just going to ask someone to have a round of golf and you remember that he may be a murderer. Or someone suggests a harmless stroll and you find yourself wonderin’ whether you’ll ever come back from it.”
“That’s just it,” I said. “And since you understand so well, perhaps you’ll clear it all up for me. Who do you think did kill Mary Thurston?”
Lord Simon looked pained, as indeed any famous, investigator might, at being faced with so flat a question, and since Butterfield returned at this point with another tray, he became very busy in serving out more breakfast.
“One thing about crime,” he commented, “it gives you an appetite.” And he concentrated on the kidneys.
“But look here . . .” I began again.
“Tell you what I have done,” said Lord Simon cheerfully.
“I’ve found Sidney Sewell.”
“You have? Where? At the Thurstons’? Or somewhere else?”
“In the perfectly obvious reference book. Where I ought to have looked in the first place.”
“You mean the London Telephone Directory? Or Who’s Who?”
“No. No. In the Gazetteer.”
“In the Gazetteer? You mean he ... it’s a place?”
“That’s it. It’s a village about forty miles from here. I’m going there presently. Like to come?”
“But—I don’t understand. If it’s not a person, but only the name of a village, what’s the point in going?”
“Shouldn’t ask too many questions,” cautioned Lord Simon, rather archly. “It’s not done in the best detective circles. But I don’t mind tellin’ you this much. I think our visit would clear up another little matter that’s troublin’ me. This stepson. Elusive sort of bloke. I rather want a word with him.”
“And you think . . .”
“That’s all I think for the moment,” said Lord Simon, lighting his first cigar of the day.
“Well, I’d certainly like to come, it if will elucidate things any quicker.”
“That’s right. And now . . .” he turned to a heap of papers beside him, “there’s a sale at Hodgson’s to-day. I really ought to be there. It’s awkward confusin’ one’s interests.”
He found the catalogue for which he was looking, and began to study it carefully. Then he rang for Butterfield.
“Look here, Butterfield. Run up to London, will you? One or two lots we might as well have. Nothing terribly special—but there’s not much for you to do down here. I’ve put my limits against the books I shouldn’t mind your buying. Here you are. There’s the original manuscript of Chaucer’s Parlement of Fowles. You can get that. Oh, and there’s a Faust Bible—the early edition without a date, supposed to be about 1450. Interesting story to that book, Townsend. It caused the whole bag of tricks of the legend about Dr. Faustus. All he was, poor old bloke, was a rather snappy bookseller. He printed his Bibles, nipped ’em across to Paris where nobody had heard of printing, and sold them as manuscript Bibles at sixty crowns a time. This caused a strike among the Bible scribes, who couldn’t copy ’em out for less than three hundred crowns, poor devils. It was thought that Dr. Faust was in league with the devil, because he could produce as many as he could sell at this price. The red lettering was supposed to be his blood. So they searched his rooms, and seized his stock. Awkward, wasn’t it? And all because he palmed ’em off as manuscripts. Anyway, here’s a copy of the bally thing, Butterfield, which we may as well have. Biblia Sacra Latina Vulgata. Then I see there’s Caxton’s Chronicle of England, the 1480 edition. Shouldn’t mind that. They’ve got a Shakespeare first folio, too. Mm—nice tall copy, 13⅛ by 8½, so you may just as well bring it along. Not much of a sale, on the whole, after some I’ve attended. Still, I think it’s worth your while going up, Butterfield.”
Butterfield nodded gravely. “Very well, my lord,” he said. “Oh, and here are the photographs you required, my lord. I trust that they are all satisfactory. The one of Mr. Townsend is particularly clear, I think.”
“Of me?” I said incredulously.
“A formality, old man,” said Lord Simon soothingly.
He took the large envelopes which Butterfield handed to him and drew out a number of portraits. I saw, staring unsuspectingly up at me, first Fellowes, then Miles, then Strickland, Norris, and finally an outrageously vulgar likeness of myself.
“Really, Plimsoll,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Townsend. We had to have snaps of everyone within the age limit. Embarrassin’, of course. Have much difficulty in getting them, Butterfield?”
“None at all, my lord. I found a vantage point from which they were framed nicely, one after another, my lord, and I just waited.”
Lord Simon enquired no further.
Presently I began telling him about the odd questions which Sergeant Beef had put to Williams and me last night, after he had gone. I said that we could not understand what he was getting at.
“You don’t know the police as I do,” chuckled Lord Simon.
“But he seems pretty certain that he knows who is guilty.”
“Of course he does. He has to. The police are always certain, till it is proved that they’re wrong.”
“I wonder who it is that he suspects.”
Lord Simon sighed with some ennui. “Probably Morris, I should say.”
“Well—one can only have dim glimpses at the official mind. But I should guess it was Morris. You see, Beef doesn’t know how the murderer got out of that room. But Morris was at the door when you and Thurston and Williams reached it. He, according to Beef’s point of view, was nearest to the crime. Therefore he was guilty.”
“Do they really think like that?” I asked.
“My dear chap, when you’ve seen as much of them as I have you’ll know that they don’t think at all. They just guess.”
“Good heavens!” I said, with visions of all the murderers in England being arrested, tried and hanged by guesswork.
“Of course,” conceded Lord Simon, “here and there in the Force you find a glimmer of intelligence. But something more than intelligence is needed in a case like this. A modicum of imagination, for one thing.”
“Just so,” I agreed. “I suppose you had to have imagination to know that there was a rope in the water-tank?”
“I suppose so.”
I had, as a matter of fact, almost forgotten those ropes, and now that I remembered them they seemed, in the light of last night’s enquiries, more mysterious than ever.
“But, Plimsoll,” I said, “about those ropes. How can they have been used? I swear to you that it was impossible for anyone to have climbed up from Mary Thurston’s room and pulled the rope after him in the time. From the moment of the last scream to the time Williams pushed the window open was scarcely a couple of minutes. You can’t tell me that a man would have had time to murder Mary Thurston, cross the room, climb on to the rope, close the window, climb the rope to the window above, crawl in, and draw the rope after him? It couldn’t have been done.”
“I dare say not. But who said anything about climbing the rope?” asked Lord Simon.
“Well, if he dropped down it,” I went on decisively, “he must have had an accomplice in the room above to haul it up after him. And even then I doubt if the two ropes together would have been long enough. Besides, what about foot-prints? There was a flower-bed under that window. Are you going to tell me he stopped to rub out his footprints in the soil? And if this was how it was done, who could it have been? Stall, Fellowes, Morris and Strickland all got to the door of the room too quickly to have come in by the front door. It only leaves the Vicar—or conceivably Miles, if his alibi was not as good as it sounded. And then he would have to have had an accomplice in the apple-room.”
Lord Simon smiled. ’“You’ve got hold of the wrong end of the rope,” he said.