Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Twenty-Four

Case for Three Detectives

M. Picon left me in the village, where he was staying, and I hurried on towards the house alone.  It was dusk now and in the autumn breeze, which had risen with the evening, the trees cracked and swayed.  I was thinking how pleasant it would be to warm my hands over a fire and drink some hot tea, when I noticed something in the road before me which at first seemed too shapeless for a human being, as though a sack of coals had become animated and was moving forward between the hedges.  As I came nearer I recognized Mgr. Smith.
I had noticed that people who had not the advantage of a long acquaintance with him, often expressed a wholly superfluous pity for the little man who had the trick of appearing vague and ineffectual.  So I was determined not to sympathize with him over the fact that both Lord Simon and M. Picon had got ahead of him, lest I should find myself looking foolish when he revealed that he had solved the problem long ago.
Besides, Dr. Tate, the local G.P., was with him, and addressed me at once.  “I have been telling our friend here,” he said, “of a rather curious legend connected with this village.  I thought it might be rather in his line.”
I could see that Mgr. Smith was smiling at that, but he made no reply and Dr. Tate continued.  “The archæologists call it the story of the Angel of Death,” he said, “but I don’t know how that name was first used.  It seems that this story itself had been handed down from mediæval times, when the house that is now called Tipton Farm House was the only habitation of any size about here, and must have been something like a small castle.  It was in ruins for centuries, and rebuilt in Georgian times.  If you go there any time you can see that some of the walls are three feet thick.  What those walls could tell!”
“Why?” asked Mgr.  Smith innocently.  “Does their thickness mean that they are the kind of walls which have ears?”
Dr. Tate continued.  “I forget the name of the family,” he admitted, “but they were, of course, Catholics, and had all the faith of people of your religion in bogeys, and what not.”
“Bogeys?” asked Mgr. Smith.
“Well, you know the sort of thing.”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” said Mgr. Smith.
“Well, hang it, do you believe in devils?” challenged Dr. Tate.
“Do you believe in germs?” retorted Mgr. Smith.
Dr. Tate decided to leave this treacherous ground.  “At all events, the members of this family were superstitious.  And the head of it, Sir Giles something or other, was the most superstitious of all.  For years before he finally died, he claimed to have visions of the death that awaited him.  It was no ordinary death . . .”
“What is an ordinary death?” asked Mgr. Smith.
“Well—death from some illness . . . death in bed.”
“I see.  An ordinary death is one in which the deceased was attended by a doctor, perhaps?”
“Yes.  No.  I mean . . . well, whatever an ordinary death may be, the death visualized for himself by Sir Giles was very far from ordinary.  He said he could see him coming—the Angel of Death himself.  He came through the air on great black wings.  He was clad in black from head to foot, and he held a sword in his hand.
“What was the sword for?” asked Mgr. Smith.
“To strike with.”
“I see.  I thought its use might be to perform an operation.”
“Sir Giles saw this a number of times—always the same.  The Angel of Death came winging through the air from a great distance, and came to avenge himself on the unfortunate Sir Giles.”
“To avenge himself?  What had Sir Giles done to him, then?” asked Mgr. Smith.
“He was a very loose-living old fellow.  And these visions were a good deal a source of repentance.  He seemed to think that the Angel of Death would strike him for his sins.  Mind you, I’m only telling you the local story.”
“I know.  I hope it has a happy ending.”
“At last, it seemed, the Angel of Death struck.  The old man had been behaving outrageously, even according to the standards of those days.  And he seemed to expect that he would suffer for it.  He said that he had seen the black wings beating their way nearer several times.  And at last one evening he went up into a tower of his castle alone, and did not reappear for some hours.  The household grew anxious, and presently one of his sons went up to look for him.  He found the old man lying in his own blood on the floor of the topmost room, not quite dead, but on the point of expiry.”
“And what were his last words?” asked Mgr. Smith, who seemed to be enjoying the whole story in a chuckling sort of way.
“The son raised his father’s head, and the old man nodded to the window, or port-hole, or whatever they had in castles then.  ‘Death came on wings!’ he whispered, and then expired.”
“And how had he died?”
“That is the interesting part of the story,” said Dr.  Tate.  “It was never known how he died.  There had been a sentry at the foot of the stairs all the time the old man was up in his tower, and a thorough search was made of the whole building without any success.  The room in which he was found was thirty feet from the ground, and no weapon was discovered.  So the people in the house, being as I said, superstitious . . .”
“Oh, they were all superstitious.  You did not tell us that.”
“Well, what can you expect they were in those dark ages?  Anyhow, they believed of course that the vision of the old man had come to pass, and the Angel of Death had struck him at last.”
“I see.  So his murderer was never discovered?”
“No.  What do you think of the story?”
“I think that like many good stories it is a lie.’
“But you are quite right in thinking that I should be interested in the story.  Is it well known about here?”
“Very.  It would be difficult for anyone to live in the parish long without hearing it.  Why, I believe that our crazy Vicar even used it in one of his sermons the other day.  Sort of warning to people who misbehaved themselves.  But then he’s an unaccountable chap.  Well, I turn in here.  Little girl with whooping cough.  I hope you clear up this rather more urgent mystery of ours.  Terrible business.  I’m not an advocate of capital punishment myself, but I think that the man who killed Mary Thurston ought to be hanged.  Good night to you both.  Good night.”
Dr. Tate turned into a narrow drive and left us to complete our walk alone.  I was thinking quickly.  Something in the story had caught my imagination.  The idea of death coming on wings.  The mystery of Mary Thurston’s death was to me so baffling that nothing seemed too far-fetched.  Suppose—of course I knew it was fantastic—but suppose that someone could fly like that?  Even if it was only from a first-floor window to a point on the ground far enough away from the walls to leave no sign of landing.  Was it, after all, so impossible?  I remembered, as a boy, experimenting in jumps from the roof of a shed with an open umbrella in my hand to break the fall.  The experiments had not been very successful, but still . . .
After all, it was not as though the murderer would have had to fly in at the window.  It was only out of it.  Surely some contrivance, perhaps in the nature of a parachute, would have been possible.  Or wings of some kind.  There were such things as gliders.  Was I really a fool to wonder about such possibilities?
I turned to my companion.  “Don’t you think that perhaps this story of murder might be relevant to our problem?”
“Any story of murder might be relevant to our problem,” he replied, “from the story of Cain and Abel onwards.”
“But isn’t it conceivable that something of the sort might have happened here?”
Mgr. Smith turned to me.  “It is hard enough to find what actually did happen without looking for all the things that might have happened.  A dragon might have flown in at the window and with his tongue which is a sword have done the deed.  A newly-invented balloon might have hung over the house like a cloud and lowered the murderer to the window.  A man might have made a miraculous leap to the window-sill, and afterwards have projected himself into the boughs of a neighbouring elm tree.  Or I might have been hiding all the evening under the bed, and have changed myself into a rat on your approach.  Yet it is not very helpful either for me or for Dr. Tate to invent these sensational hypotheses.”
“You do know then,” I said with some relief, “what really did happen, and who is guilty?”
I was waiting breathlessly for his answer when he suddenly caught my arm, and we stopped.  There was a slope of the downs above us, and its outline was as smooth and distinct as that of a dome.  There was a clump of trees bent by many years of wind, and maintaining their distracted lives in spite of it.  I can see their shape and the edge of the hill to this day, for there was one detail in that silhouette which made it memorable to me.
It was such a detail as my companion liked, and of the kind to which he was accustomed.  Black against the oyster-blue sky of dusk were two figures, a tall and a shorter one.  It was not only their position against the sky which made them look black, their clothes were black, too, and there was something fluttering about the smaller one.  I started.  What were those limply flapping things at the man’s side, which hung now close against him, now rising flippantly in the breeze?  Could they be . . .
But in a moment I told myself not to be a fool.  There was nothing unnatural about the man’s outline.  Its flapping appearance was produced by a black Inverness cape, and having realized that, I knew that it was the Vicar.
Mgr. Smith blinked in the blank and innocent way which I knew concealed his most intelligent discoveries.  He watched the two coming down the hill towards the Thurstons’ house, holding the crook of his umbrella with both his hands.  And as he did so, all my confidence in the solutions of Lord Simon and M. Picon evaporated.  After all, where had they got me?  This morning, I had, in company with Lord Simon, seen three of the suspects, and he had told me that his theory was complete.  This afternoon, on my walk with M. Picon, I had observed three more, and he, too, had solved the riddle.  And now, in this maddening moment, here was Mgr. Smith, blinking in his unmistakably ominous way at the remaining two.  (For the other figure was recognizable by now as that of Stall.)  So that really, after motoring eighty miles or so, walking eight, and standing in a chilly breeze staring at the outline of the downs, I was no nearer to the truth than I had been last night.
I scarcely needed to repeat my question to Mgr. Smith when he at last walked on.  “You do know then?” I almost whispered.
“Yes,” he said, “I know.”