Case for Three Detectives
Once more we were in the library—Williams, Lord Simon, M. Picon, Mgr. Smith, Sergeant Beef and I. Dr. Thurston had offered to come, but the investigators had agreed that since all the details were now to be revealed, it would be too painful for him. Nor was his presence necessary. He would hear of the arrest later.
I do not exaggerate when I say that my excitement was terrific, and I have no doubt that Williams was just as expectant. It was not merely that the mystery was to be elucidated, but that a human being was to be sent to a certain death—for with three such detectives to find evidence, surely no Counsel in the world would be able to exonerate him. And this may have made our interest a morbid one, but it naturally gave real point and drama to the proceedings. Someone was to be named, arrested, tried and hanged—someone we knew, someone we had conversed with to-day. I looked down at my hand and saw that it was slightly trembling.
Just as Lord Simon had been the first to interrogate each of the witnesses, he began speaking now. “I may as well outline this unfortunate affair,” he said, “and then my colleagues can amplify or correct any of the details. How would that do?”
M. Picon nodded, and Mgr. Smith did not dissent, so Lord Simon began to talk. There was a silence almost uncanny in the room as he drawled out the circumstances.
“Interestin’ case,” he said, “but not quite as bafflin’ as it looked at first. However, it has kept us guessin’ for a time, so let’s give it its due. Clearin’ up most crimes is as simple as shellin’ bally peas. This certainly wasn’t that.
“First of all we must go back a little way. Remember that will? Unfortunate sort of document, when you come to think of it. Mrs. Thurston’s first husband had a biggish fortune. And between that fortune and the son who felt a right to it he set only one barrier—a woman’s life. There you have the foundation of the whole story. Conventional enough in essence. Motive, as usual, money.
“The stepson you remember was abroad when that will was made, and may or may not have heard of his father’s death. We know from Thurston that he was the type of chappie who was always turning up without a bob, to rest on his laurels and the family honour for a spell, so that his coming home may have been just the customary sort of thing. But in the meantime he had changed his name. You know how these things happen? Half a dozen creditors, some little eccentricity in the way in which a cheque was drawn—something a trifle shady. So stepson arrives with a brand-new name, an empty pocket, and a lot of curiosity. Still conventional, you see.
“And the very first news that falls on his flappers is that his old man has kicked the bucket, and his step-mother has married again. Well, well, thinks Stepson, and pops off down to his father’s solicitor to ask about the will. Unpleasant set-back. Interest left to the wife for lifetime; and only his measly allowance to go on with. He had never seen Mrs. Thurston, you remember, so that not even knowing her as the good-natured soul she was, he set about cursing roundly at scheming females who nipped in to pinch his birthright. He was a very furious young man.
“I don’t know whether any of you have been reversionary legatees, and had to twiddle your thumbs while someone lives on the money which will one day be yours. I’m told it’s the most demoralizin’ business. The most virtuous and temperate natures grow potentially murderous. But this fellow was not exactly a born murderer. He wanted money. He meant to get money. But if he thought of murder in the first place he was headed off by the penalty. The fortune involved had surprised him. The details had been given him by the solicitor, and the sum left by his father made his eyes pop. And since he knew there was so much money in question he wasn’t the lad to hang back.
“So he started, more or less begging—which might have been harmless enough. He found out that Mrs. Thurston was living here, and had a car, so he ran down to a village which was just near enough to make a meeting feasible, yet not too near. And from this village, which was called Sidney Sewell, he wrote to Mrs. Thurston. That first letter, one supposes, was quite a polite and pleasant affair. Regret over his father’s death. Sorry he had never met his stepmother. Usual sort of thing laid on with a trowel, perhaps, but nothing too stirring.
“However, I feel convinced that it contained one phrase which troubled Mrs. Thurston a good deal—a request that she should say nothing to her husband. What reason he gave one cannot possibly suggest now, but it is pretty certain that he found a good reason. Good enough, anyway, for as we know Mrs. Thurston never mentioned to her husband that her stepson had reappeared. More’s the pity. She might have saved her life.
“Instead of that she went to see her stepson, and in her usual, easily pleased way she liked the fellow. Now I’m bein’ a bit psychological and all that sort of thing. I’m goin’ on the characters of both of them to get an idea of what happened. But I feel sure that in that meeting Mrs. Thurston was very much herself, the woman you all knew primarily as a hostess. She saw that her stepson would fit very well into her circle here. She had a passion for entertaining. She saw a way of fitting him in. And she planted him on her husband without tellin’ Dr. Thurston who the fellow in reality was.
“How far he persuaded her into that we shall probably never know. It suited him excellently. And from that moment he began to sponge on Mrs. Thurston with an ease and a greed which seem incredible now. He never tried to blackmail or bully her. That wasn’t necessary. He played the part of the poor son who had been cheated out of his rightful due by her very existence. He had the sense to play the part gently and good-humouredly. He never grumbled, but he pointed out that he never grumbled. He made her feel that it was hard luck on him, and that she must do all she could for him. And he did very nicely, thank you.
“Now so far I have reconstructed the story as it looks to me, and filled in the gaps in a fanciful sort of way. The bare facts I have confirmed. The stepson did arrive in England soon after Mrs. Thurston’s second marriage, and did go to his father’s solicitor to hear about the will. I’ve spoken on the ’phone to the solicitor myself. Charming old boy, and remembers the visit distinctly. Moreover, he did go to stay at Sidney Sewell, and Mrs. Thurston, as we know, was in touch with him there, And finally he did come to this house, was in this house at the time of the murder, and is, unless Beef has let him get away, in this house at this minute.”
Lord Simon paused at this point to re-cross his legs and sip some Napoleon brandy which Butterfield had craftily put into one of Dr. Thurston’s decanters so that his Lordship could enjoy his favourite beverage without ill-breeding. The pause made me so impatient and curious that I could not help saying—“And you know who it is, Lord Simon?”
“Yes. I know who it is.”
“How did you find out?”
“That was really too easy. I instructed Butterfield to obtain photographs of all the men here who could, so far as age was concerned, have been the stepson. And armed with these I went, as you know, to Sidney Sewell. The public house was disappointing, for it has recently changed hands. But the post-mistress had not only been there a long time, but had an excellent memory. She instantly recognized one of the portraits as that of a young man who had stayed in the village some years ago. There is no point in keepin’ the name from you. It was David Strickland. I have since confirmed it. Strickland’s real name is Burroughs, and Burroughs, as you will remember, was the name of Mrs. Thurston’s first husband. Strickland is in fact the stepson in question.”
“Well, Sergeant,” I said, rising, “you’d better arrest him.”
But Sergeant Beef did not move. “I should want to know a great deal more than that before I was to arrest anyone,” he said. “Very likely Mr. Strickland was Mrs. Thurston’s stepson. I’m not saying he wasn’t. ’E was a very generous gentleman, and always stood drinks all round when he came down to the village. So I don’t see that ’is being ’er stepson makes ’im a murderer, does it?”
Lord Simon smiled. “All right, Sergeant,” he said. “You shall hear the whole thing. All in good time, what?”
I was relieved, I think. Though I felt no personal animosity towards Strickland, I had no particular affection for him, and I was thankful, at least, that this continual suspecting of each person in turn was over, and I could hear the rest of the details undisturbed by doubt. Nor was I greatly surprised. The fact that Strickland’s room was next door to Mary Thurston’s had always seemed to me highly suspicious.
“There can be little doubt that the murder was a premeditated one. It was very carefully planned. But I think it was what you might call conditional premeditation. Strickland wanted money, as we shall see later. And if he had been given enough of it this week-end he might not have committed this highly unpleasant crime. But he had his plans ready before he came here. He knew the house well, and the people who worked in it, and those who were to be invited for the week-end. He knew, too, that if Mrs. Thurston was murdered, suspicion would certainly fall on him, for he had the strongest motive. As the stepson who had changed his name, and who would inherit a fortune on Mrs. Thurston’s death, he couldn’t escape suspicion. So, knowin’ what he was up against he had to work things out pretty carefully.
“And, believe me, he did. I don’t like to think how long it took for the plan to mature in his somewhat turgid brain. Months probably. And it wasn’t a bad plan—as plans go. It had its weak spots, of course, but we must remember that this was our friend’s first effort in this line. He couldn’t be expected to be perfect. And I think on the whole his attempt at bein’ bafflin’ was creditable for an amateur. If he had been just a little bit cleverer he might have deceived me. But then if he had been just a little bit cleverer he wouldn’t have gone in for murder at all. It’s a mug’s game.
“However, thus we have him, arriving for this week-end, in urgent need of money, and determined to get it from Mary Thurston, by persuasion if possible. And if that failed, he had in his brain a complete plan for murderin’ her in a way which would perplex half a dozen Scotland Yards. But I don’t think we should run away with the idea that, had she handed over what he wanted, it would have saved her life. It might have postponed his crime, but no more. When her first husband made that will he pretty well did for Mrs. Thurston. It should be a lesson to people who make wills on those lines.
“I have got the facts of Strickland’s financial situation last week. I needn’t bore you with them—tedious things, debts. But you can take it from me that he was desperate. He had to have money—snappily too. And he came here to get it.”