Case for Three Detectives
“So Fellowes was lying?” I suggested, as we walked on, “He hadn’t got an alibi at all?”
“I hope not,” said M. Picon, “for in that case our walk will have been quite wasted.”
I thought it best to say nothing after that, and we continued in silence till M. Picon saw an old man stacking a bonfire in a kitchen garden beside the road.
“Pardon,” he called. “Could you please direct me to the church?”
The old man stared at him for a moment. “The church? It’s the best part of a mile from here,” he said. “Your shortest way is by the footpath.”
“But the road also goes, n’est-ce pas? ”
“Oh yes, you can go by the road if you want to, but it is the longest way round.”
“I would like to go by the road.”
“All right. Keep straight on through the village till you come to the petrol station, then turn left. It’s a quarter of an hour’s walk. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you,” said M. Picon, and strode off again, his short legs moving at considerable speed.
“Turn to the left at the petrol station,” called the old man after us, as though he regretted that our chat had been so short. “You can’t miss it,” he repeated.
I kept at Picon’s side, but not in the best of humour. “Why can’t we go by the footpath?” I asked. “He said it was shorter.”
Picon made absolutely no reply to this, except to turn to me with a brief but disarming smile. So that I could do nothing but hurry along with him. We passed right through the village, and I had not even a chance to stop and glance at some of the more interesting old houses. And we had left the last building behind by some five hundred yards or so, before a sudden turn in the road brought us within sight of the church. At that we stopped, and Picon stood looking intently towards its tower. I did not see why he should stare like that, for a glance would have told him that there was no longer a flag flying on it, whether at half-mast or not.
Farther down the road on our left was a cottage, the only building visible between us and the church. Towards this the extraordinary little man hurried, murmuring “Voilà! ” “Allons! ” “Vite! ” “La, la! ” “Mon ami! ” and others of his favourite expressions. Reaching the small wicket gate he did not hesitate, but lifted the latch, and walked up a brick path to the front door. He knocked vigorously.
“Really, Picon,” I said, “what can you want at this house?”
For some time there was no reply to his knocking, but at last a woman’s voice shouted from somewhere in the cottage, “Come round to the back, will you?”
Picon looked at me enquiringly, not knowing some English habits. “It’s all right,” I said. “This door probably won’t open at all. Hasn’t been moved for years.”
We went obediently round to the back door, where a thin woman with straggling dark hair and very dirty clothes stood waiting for us. “Yes. What is it?” she said, eyeing us somewhat suspiciously.
“I wanted to ask you a question or two,” said Picon, raising his hat with a rather foreign show of gallantry.
“Oh, you did. Well, I don’t want any brushes—not however good they are. I’ve got enough to do my housework, thank you.”
Picon turned to me. “Brushes?” he whispered enquiringly.
“She thinks you’re a commercial traveller,” I said in his ear.
He turned to her smiling. “Mais non, madame! I do not wish to sell you anything. It is not that. A little question, no more. Now . . .”
“Well, I never give anything, not to those what collects at the door. As my ’usband says, you never know what ’appens to the money. And goodness knows I’ve none to spare. You might just as well collect for me, I’m sure I need it as much as any.”
“No, no!” cried Picon, “I ask for no money. It is information I should like, if you please. Perhaps you could tell me . . .”
“Why, we had the man round with the voters’ list only last week,” the woman said. “It’s my belief you’re a fraud.”
“Madame, would you please tell me whether you noticed a blue car stop in this road on Friday afternoon?” He brought out his question in one breath, frightened that he would be interrupted again before it was finished.
The woman seemed to be impressed. She wiped her hands on her skirt, and took a step nearer to us. “Friday? That’s the day Mrs. Thurston was murdered, isn’t it?”
She could not yet believe that such good fortune as this had come to her—to be a person actually questioned in connection with a matter so topical, so stirring and so famous as a local murder.
“Yes,” said Picon patiently.
“Have you got anything to do with it?” asked the woman eagerly. “Is it something of that that brings you here asking questions off of me?”
“Well!” She was spellbound. It was a great moment for her. She looked from one to the other of us. “Fancy that!” she said.
“And now perhaps you could tell me about the motorcar?” insisted Picon gently.
“Motor-car. Motor-car.” She was driving her brain to its utmost. Even now this glorious moment of importance might escape her. But her eyes lit up. “Yes!” she said shrilly, “there was a motor-car stop outside of ’ere!” Then her voice dropped. “But then it’s the one that often does.”
“What is it like?”
“Dark blue. Driven by a chauffeur.”
“And you say it often stops—here?”
“Well, yes. Pretty often. Several of them do, you know. They leave their cars here while they go for a walk through the woods. Especially when the primroses is out. We get quite a lot then. My ’usband always says he’s going to put a notice ‘NO PARKING’ on our gate, but he never does. We don’t get so many this time of year, of course. But this blue one’s been more than once lately. You see”—she became conspiratorial—“you see, the young fellow what drives it brings ’is young lady, and off they goes for a walk through the woods. Well, it’s famous, that footpath.”
“And on Friday?” said M. Picon, not so much prompting her as keeping her relevant.
“Oh yes, they was here on Friday, because that’s the afternoon I does my washing, and I remember seeing the car in the road while I was hanging it out. There was a nice breeze, too, I was thankful for, seeing that I had more than usual . . .”
“And you say they both came? The chauffeur and his girl?”
“Yes, they was both there because I ’eard ’em quarrelling.”
Picon started. “You heard them quarrelling?”
“Yes, cat and dog they was when they got out of the car. Only not like anyone as is married—that’s different.”
“Did you hear what they said?”
“No, I didn’t. And shouldn’t like to of, neither. I never believe in listening to what doesn’t concern me. All I know is they was on about something, and ’ard at it till they went down the footpath. I don’t know what happened after that, though I can well guess.”
“No doubt,” said M. Picon dryly. “And when they returned?”
“Oh, it was all over then. Sunshine after the storm, as you might say. I saw them coming up the road together, arm-in-arm they was.”
“And you heard nothing, absolutely nothing that passed between them?”
“Not a word. Well, I’d never listen to other people’s conversation.”
“What did they look like?”
The woman gave an incoherent but sufficient description of Fellowes and Enid, and M. Picon, by asking a few questions, confirmed their identity with the two whom the woman had seen.
“Eh, bien, I thank you, madame. You have been of the very greatest assistance to me.”
“That’s all right,” said the woman. “Do you think I shall be wanted at the trial?”
“I can’t tell you, I’m afraid.”
“I suppose I shall ’ave my photo took, won’t I?”
“That is for the newspapers to decide. But at all events you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have materially assisted me in my search for truth.”
This did not seem to please the woman very much, but when M. Picon once more elaborately raised his hat she managed to smile.
“Au revoir, madame,” said M. Picon, and we left her gazing after us.
“But, Picon,” I began, scarcely able to wait until we were out of earshot of the cottage, “how did you know that you would get your information there, of all places?”
“Mon ami, are you really so short-sighted? Could you not see that it is the only house near a point from which one would notice that the flag on the tower was at half-mast?”
“Picon! You’re a genius!” I exclaimed, and did not grumble at the long walk home.
“And now,” said Picon, “for a little I must think, and then, perhaps, all is complete. Voyons. Amer Picon will not be so far behind, after all. There is light now. Oh yes, my friend, plenty of light. A little thought, and I see all. A most ingenious crime. A most ingenious crime.”
“Well, I wish I could see anything at all. If this visit of Fellowes and Enid’s means so much, what was Fellowes doing with that other pair this morning? Perhaps it was a murder by a sort of committee, Picon?” I suggested, conscious that my guesses were getting wilder and wilder, as the evidence grew more confused. “Perhaps they were all in it?”
M. Picon smiled. “No. I do not think they were all in it,” he said.
“Then . . . but hang it all, Picon, I don’t believe you’ve solved it after all. You may have discovered who had the best motives, but what none of you seem to think about is that room. It was bolted, I tell you, and I never moved from the door while Williams searched it. How are you going to explain that? You may have proved that Fellowes was lying when he said he never took Enid that afternoon, but how will that help you? You’ve got to explain a miracle.”
“No, mon ami. The miracle would be if Madame Thurston lived, not that she is dead. This scheme was irresistible, and it seemed undiscoverable. But it was worked out without remembering Amer Picon—the great Amer Picon. For your police—pah! It would never have been discovered. But to-night you shall see. I will tell you all you want to know. Everything shall be made plain to you. I promise.”
“If you do that you’re a wonder. Do you know sometimes lately I have almost begun to agree with Williams, that there was something sinister, something occult?”
“Sinister, yes. But there was no magic here,” said M. Picon, as we reached the outskirts of our own village.