Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Twenty-Six

Case for Three Detectives

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX
   
“You are wonderin’ what this plan of his might be.  Devilish cunnin’ bit of intrigue.  The first thing he had seen when he had begun to figure out his way of eliminatin’ his stepmother, was that he would need an accomplice.  And the first thing I saw, and I suppose the first thing all of us saw about this murder, was that an accomplice had been there.  Hang it, short of something supernatural the murderer had to have an accomplice to escape from the room and leave the door locked, and shew no sign of himself on his way of escape two minutes later.  And for Strickland there was an obvious assistant all handy and willin’—the chauffeur Fellowes.  But he wasn’t such a fool as to speak to Fellowes till he had made up his mind that this week-end was the time.
“Mind you, he knew his ground.  It is certain that this idea of murderin’ his stepmother had been in his mind a long while, and on all his recent visits he had chatted with the chauffeur.  He knew his story.  He knew the fellow had been in gaol.  He knew that his one ambition in life was to get clear of this place with enough money to buy a pub and marry Enid.  He knew that he was having some sort of an affaire with Mrs. Thurston.  And he judged him, and rightly, to be the very man to fall in with his plan.”
Here Sergeant Beef interrupted loudly.  “Well, I don’t believe it,” he said, folding his arms.  “I know young Fellowes.  Rough, if you like, and may ’ave got into a bit of trouble before now.  Done a bit of ’ousebreaking I dare say.  But not murder.  I don’t believe it.  ’E could put two darts out of three in the double eighteen as often as you like, and I don’t believe ’e’d ever ’ave ’ad nothink to do with cutting that lady’s throat.  Straight I don’t.  Besides, I know who did do it.”
Lord Simon smiled patiently.  “I’m glad to hear of Fellowes’s proficiency in the pastime which seems to occupy most of your time and attention, Sergeant.  But I’m afraid I can’t see its relevance quite.  Besides, have I asked you to believe our young friend guilty of murder?  You must learn the virtue of patience, Sergeant.  Useful in this job.  And don’t go jumpin’ to conclusions.  Where had we got to?  Oh yes.  On Friday morning we find Strickland arriving at the station after a week’s racin’ which might be called disastrous if you were to put it mildly.  He is met by Fellowes who has been seeing a good deal of his girl lately—takin’ her out in the car.  That may have been disastrous, too.  Judgin’ from what we have seen of Enid, I don’t suppose she was enjoyin’ this long waitin’, and savin’ money, and hopin’ before they could get married and own their pub.  Besides, one can’t imagine that she was delighted at her young man bein’ whistled for like a pet dog every time their lady employer was lonely or temperamental.  So that Fellowes, too, was probably approachin’ breakin’-point.
“I don’t think that Strickland will have said anything definite then.  He knew enough to be pretty sure of Fellowes.  But he may have arranged to see him after lunch, or even have asked him whether he would be prepared to come in on something that would see them on to Easy Street.  Can’t tell.  Anyway, they had that time for a chat, alone in the car from the station.
“He had already let Mrs. Thurston know that he would need money, and she, as we know, had drawn two hundred pounds ready for him.  But here was another difficulty.  The man Stall had intercepted, some three weeks ago, a letter from Mrs. Thurston to Fellowes.  It was a silly indiscreet letter, the sort of thing that someone as foolish and thoughtless as this lady might well have written.  But he had found it sufficient as a means to terrify her into parting with quite large sums of money.  The truth is that Mrs. Thurston was genuinely fond of her husband, and bein’ essentially an innocent soul she had imagined this silly little weakness of hers for a young chauffeur to be a far more terrible thing than it would have seemed to anyone else.  At all events, when Strickland got her alone for a minute after lunch and asked her if she had the money ready for him, she had to tell him she had not.  Perhaps she had not the time, or perhaps she did not wish, to tell him why she had not.  I imagine that the whole thing passed between them in this very room, and in the presence of some of you.  A hurried exchange of whispers.
“What had happened, probably, is that Stall had been listening at the main of the telephone, when Strickland rang her up on Thursday morning to say he would need the money.  And Stall had heard her promise to have it ready for him.  Or else Stall had seen the counterfoil in her chequebook, and knew from it that she had just drawn the two hundred pounds.  Or he had chosen by chance this time for a last determined blackmail campaign, knowing that he was under notice to quit.  At all events he had got wind of the money, and made it clear that lie was to have it.
“Finding that he was not to receive this sum, which he had intended to get doubled, Strickland went straight to the chauffeur, and told him his plan.  At this point he shewed a most horrifyin’ sort of determination.  He did not hesitate.  He had his notions cut and dried and he was going to put them straight into action.’
Here Lord Simon hesitated.  Full of admiration I watched him light another cigar, before revealing to us what we were now burning to know.  He had told us who was the murderer, but his identity was not, I thought, as mysterious as his method, and I wanted to say “Go on!  Go on!” while the young man nonchalantly applied a match to his cigar.  But he took his time, and when he began to talk again it was from a new angle.
“When you were thinking about the escape from that room, and you had an inklin’ that there was a rope in it somewhere, did you wonder how that rope had been used?”  He asked the question directly of me.
“Wonder?  I’ve done nothing but wonder,” I replied irritably.  “Even supposing that the rope was let down from the floor above by an accomplice, I don’t see how it could have been of much use.  I’ve told you again and again that no one would have had time to climb out on to it, close the window after him, climb up it, and haul it up, before Williams opened the window again.  And even if he had, he couldn’t have reached us at the door as quickly as Strickland, Fellowes and Norris did.”
“What about droppin’ down it?” asked Lord Simon.
“The same thing applies.  Suppose that there was someone upstairs to haul it in, the murderer would have had to climb out on to it, close the window, drop to the ground, and get away before Williams looked out, and the rope would have had to be hauled up after he had dropped from it.  I don’t think that those are possible.  But even if they are, how was it he left no footprints on that soft bed which came out six feet from the wall?  And how did he get in again, and upstairs to us in the time?  And how did his accomplice haul in the rope and come downstairs as quickly as that?  No.  I don’t believe it’s possible.  In fact,” I added on a sudden inspiration, “I’m not sure that the ropes were not a blind!”
Lord Simon smiled.  “You are right about the first two things,” he admitted; “there wouldn’t have been time for anyone to have gone up or down the rope.”
“Well, then?”
“It didn’t occur to you perhaps that there are other directions in which it is possible to travel?”
“What do you mean?”
“He means,” put in Mgr. Smith suddenly from his armchair, “that a rope is not only used to let a man climb, but also to make a man swing.”
“Exactly, said Lord Simon; “swing is the word I want here and hereafter.  Strickland knew that he might not have time to climb a rope, or drop down a rope, and establish that unimpeachable alibi which was necessary to him.  But he would have time to swing on a rope, as comfortably as you please from outside Mary Thurston’s window to outside his own.  All he had to do was to have a rope hung beforehand from the window that was over his own, with the end of it caught and hooked at Mrs. Thurston’s ready, and his fire-escape, or escape from justice if you like, was ready.  An accomplice was only necessary to haul the rope in afterwards.”
I gasped.  Of course!  Why hadn’t I thought of that?  And there were Williams and I talking about the supernatural!
“But Strickland was no fool,” continued Lord Simon.  “He was judge enough of character to know that Fellowes would not come in on that.  For one thing, Fellowes would not have enough to gain by it.  There was the will made out to the servants—but Strickland didn’t feel that it would be enough inducement to a man to bring him into a murder plot.  I think he was right there.  Fellowes was not quite such a bad hat as all that.  No, Strickland went about it far more cleverly.  What he was going to do, he said, was to pinch Mrs. Thurston’s jewellery.
“Now that, as you can see, was right in the chauffeur’s line of country.  He, or Enid’s brother, knew just where to plant it afterwards.  And Strickland’s plan was ingenious.  What they had to do, he said, was to make sure that no one inside the house could be suspected.  The door must be left bolted and an escape made via the window.  That was where Fellowes was to come in.  It was at that point that Strickland pretended to think of a snag.  Mrs. Thurston’s jewellery was valuable, and a safe had been let into her bedroom wall for it, and only she and the Doctor knew the combination.  So Strickland did a bit of his deep thinkin’ stuff.  ‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘I’ll stick a bally mask on, wear an old overcoat, and be waiting for her when she comes up to bed.  I’ll waggle a revolver in her face, and make her open the safe.  Then, if you have the rope ready, I can escape by the window, and it will never occur to her that it was anyone in the house.  And it won’t occur to the police, either, when they come to investigate it.  They’ll think that anyone who gets out of the window, got in by the window, and if we make it clear to everyone that we were inside a few minutes before, and inside a few minutes after, she was held up, we’re clear.’
“Now that plan did not sound to Fellowes as crazy as it may sound to you.  In the first place, Mrs. Thurston could be relied on to go to bed at eleven.  In the second place, she was obviously a woman who could be easily scared.  And in the third place, by escaping out of the window, Strickland would give a pretty fair imitation of a bloke from outside.  He would have to make sure of her silence, of course, till he was well away, and he would have to make certain that she did not follow him across to her window, and see him pop into his own.  But neither of those would be very difficult.
“Fellowes, in any case, was not hard to convince, because his own part in the affair wasn’t very difficult or.  incriminating.  All he had to do was to haul the rope in when Strickland was safely in his window, and afterwards collect his share of the oof.  That was not a hell of a job for a man who had already been to gaol for housebreaking.
“So the whole thing was arranged thus.  During dinner Fellowes was to get the rope from the gymnasium, hang it out of the window of his own bedroom, which, as you know, is over Strickland’s room, go down into Mrs. Thurston’s room, and by means of a hooked stick or something haul the end of the rope over to her window.  He could fix it there by the simple expedient of pulling the end into the room, and hauling the window down on top of it.  Even if anyone went into the room after him, and before Mrs. Thurston came to bed, those long curtains would hide it.
“When the rope was fixed, Fellowes was to take out the electric light bulb, so that when Strickland came the room would be in half-darkness.  And after that he had nothing to do until eleven, when he was to go up to his bedroom and haul in the rope.
“Meanwhile Strickland, so far as Fellowes knew, was to go to bed early, get into Mrs. Thurston’s room in his rough disguise, wait for her to come to bed, clap a hand over her mouth quickly to prevent her screaming, gag her, force her to open the safe, pocket the jewellery, tie Mary Thurston to something out of sight of the window, climb out on to the rope, let the rope swing him to his own window as it would kindly do in obeying the law of gravity, nip in, conceal the tomfoolery, and be ready to come out of his room and join the hue and cry.
“Fellowes thought it a splendid idea.  He saw only one snag in it.  That was his friend Miles.  He knew it was Miles’s day off, and that he, who would certainly be outside and not inside the house, would, as an experienced cat-burglar, be at once suspected.  But this he could easily avoid by seeing Miles that afternoon, and telling him to see that he had a cast-iron alibi in the evening.  So Fellowes was quite happy.
“And Strickland’s own real, and rather more private plan, was now perfect, too.  No paltry disguises for him.  A disguise might frighten her into giving a premature scream.  He would be waiting in Mrs. Thurston’s room in his own charmin’ and natural guise, and when she came up he would neatly slit her throat and swing home in safety.  He would then step out of his room with a perfect alibi almost before anyone could reach her door.  Afterwards, he would have to explain it to Fellowes as necessary.  And Fellowes would be too deeply involved to peach.  Fascinatin’ fellow—Strickland.”