Case for Three Detectives
“Night fell, as they say,” continued Lord Simon in the airy way which he customarily used for the discussion of such atrocities, “and it was a nice windy night so that goings-on at windows would not be heard. You all gathered in the lounge for cocktails. And now an odd thing happened. There was talk of murder, and of the discovery of murderers. Awkward that, and for a time it quite took the wind out of our friend’s sails, or put the wind up him, whichever you please. He didn’t like the sound of it. Nasty idea, that, of inevitable discovery. He nattered himself on having worked out a neat little plan, but suppose he wasn’t quite as clever as he thought? Your conversation, in fact, nearly saved Mrs. Thurston’s life. Perhaps Strickland even thought someone had rumbled him, and was delicately pointin’ out that it really wouldn’t do.
“At all events, he so far hesitated in his ideas as to have another try for some money. If, after all, she could be persuaded to see him out of his tight corner, he privately resolved—very kindly—to refrain from killin’ her. And he went to her room before dinner and pleaded again. But by that time the unhappy lady had parted with her two hundred pounds to Stall, probably during the afternoon, when she had gone to her room for her usual siesta. Stall, when I asked him when he had received the money, told an obvious lie. He said that it was just after lunch on Thursday, whereas we know from that cashier who wore that unsightly sort of plaque in his tie, that Mrs. Thurston did not draw it until three o’clock. Stall chose a time when he knew she was in her room—just after lunch on Thursday. But he didn’t know that she hadn’t then drawn the money. His reason for lying was obvious. He would admit when pressed that he had had the money ‘as a gift’ but he wasn’t going to admit that he’d been in her room on the day of the murder. Well, would you? I’m hanged if I would in his place. Nasty things, murders. Best to keep away from them.
“Stall was a blackmailer of the sneerin’, bullyin’ sort, for he had deliberately leaned against a lady’s dressin’-table and taken snuff in her face to shew his independence. So that when Strickland tried again for money he was disappointed. All Mary Thurston could do for him was to give him, or lend him, her diamond pendant which he could pawn for enough to see him through, perhaps. The fact that he slipped the thing in his pocket was evidence, I think, that at that moment he had abandoned the idea of his crime. Well, vacillatin’ is dangerous, and he regretted afterwards having accepted the thing.
Townsend, he knew, saw him coming out of Mrs. Thurston’s room. But when, later, he had taken up his resolution again, that did not seem to matter. Why, after all, shouldn’t he have spoken to his hostess for a moment? After a drink or two he could shrug that away as unimportant. He came down to dinner, and, while making it clear that he was abnormally tired, he behaved otherwise without any of the eccentricity that might be expected of a man who was making up his mind to commit a murder. And some time before Mrs. Thurston would retire, he rose, said good night, and went up to his room.
“Fellowes, in the meantime, had done his half-unconscious part. Under the pretence of ‘running in’ the engine, he had gone down to the village in the afternoon and warned Miles. And Miles had ingeniously established his alibi by securing no less a person than the village sergeant as his partner in this enthrallin’ game of darts of which we have heard so much, and then pretending to be so drunk that several witnesses had to help him home to a room which he shared with another witness. So he was all right.
“But when Fellowes, during dinner, had reached the gymnasium he was a trifle puzzled. Would one of those ropes be long enough? I own that I was myself perplexed at the finding of two ropes, until I realized that this question had worried Fellowes. Looking at the length of them where they hung in the gymnasium he had decided that one might not reach, and had taken both. He had left the latch of the front door up, and watching at the little window beside it until he saw Stall go into the dining-room with a tray of food which would take some tune to serve, he carried them safely through the hall. You will remember that I asked you, Townsend, about that little window in the hall, and Stall said that the curtains were rarely drawn across it.
“He got his ropes up to his bedroom and secured one end of one of them. Can’t say exactly what he slung it on to. In such details both he and Strickland seem to have been pretty knowin’. It may have been the beam. If so he padded it. There were no marks. And when he dropped it down he saw that it was long enough, and went downstairs to Mrs. Thurston’s room. Here he looked round for something with which to reach the end of the rope, and found a couple of old parasols in the wardrobe. He tied one to the other, leaned out of the window, and hooked it. Then he dropped the end into the room, pulled the window down on it, and so left it ready for Strickland without having to make a sign or a scratch to shew where it had been fastened. Oh yes, in such details they were cunning, these two.
“Then came the question of the electric light bulb. He suddenly thought, rather uncomfortably, that Strickland had given him no suggestion as to the disposal of this. Should he take it away with him? Or leave it in the room? Might its removal in any case not shew that someone inside the house had been active? On the whole, he did the wisest thing. He argued that had the thief come from outside and for some reason decided to remove the bulb he would almost certainly have thrown it out of the window and that is just what he did with it, taking care that he threw it far on to the lawn so that its fall or explosion should not be audible to those on the ground floor.
“Then he left the room. He had, he thought, prepared for a rather cowardly robbery. Actually he had set a trap for a very vile murder. He had been careful, all the time, to wear gloves. Strickland may have recommended this, or he may have learnt it in his housebreaking days. At all events he left no fingerprints, for in such details, as I say, these two were cunning.
“When he got downstairs he found, rather to his irritation, that he had about two hours to wait before his next step, and it was then, in an excess of enthusiasm I think, that he cut the telephone wires. I don’t think this had figured in Strickland’s instructions, for Strickland would have seen that the sooner the police and the doctor were on the spot, the better. But Fellowes, who had experience but no finesse, just thought that in a general sort of way, it was worth while holdin’ ’em off for a bit. So he snipped the jolly old communications.
“Everything, unfortunately, went to schedule. Mrs. Thurston said good night to you all, and entered her room for the last time. She found Strickland there. She did not find the strange man in the mask who, as Fellowes fondly thought, would await her. But merely her stepson. ‘What do you want?’ Enid heard her ask, in a rather startled, but not frantically startled, voice. He had come earlier that evening to beg—and had taken all she could give him without risking the notice of her husband. What more could he want? She found, too, that the strong light in her room was out of order. So that the man standing there in the half-darkness was a little startling.
“Meanwhile Fellowes was quietly establishing an alibi downstairs. Whoever robbed Mrs. Thurston of her jewellery, he and Strickland had argued, would appear afterwards to have been waiting for her when she came to bed. So he said very pointedly to the cook, ‘Hello, it’s past eleven,’ and apparently without hurry left her. That would remind her in the future that it was after, and not before, her mistress went up to bed that Fellowes followed. Only he had not the time to make it much after.
“He must have grown anxious during the next ten minutes as he leaned out of the window of his bedroom, waiting for Strickland to appear at Mrs. Thurston’s window, down to his left. And it is a bit gruesome to wonder what caused that delay, and what took place in the dimly lighted room beneath. And then, when Fellowes heard those screams, a less cool type than he might have lost his head. He didn’t. He waited, and almost instantly Strickland gripped his rope, pulled the window after him, swung across to his own window and was gone. In a moment the rope was hauled in, stuffed in the tank, where, probably, he had already concealed the other one which had proved to be unnecessary, so that both Strickland and Fellowes were outside Mrs. Thurston’s bolted door almost as soon as you were.
“Perhaps it was not until that night that they realized their most serious blunder. They had thought of everything —finger-prints, alibis, and witnesses—but they had failed to provide for the removal of the rope. It was a stupid and an elementary mistake, but was there ever a murderer who did not make a stupid and elementary mistake? And Fellowes had the additional remorse of finding himself a party to a murder. But for obvious reasons he kept quiet.
“He wanted, however, two things. One was to dispose of those ropes. This hope was frustrated when next morning I put my hand on one of the rotten things, and Monsignor Smith came across the other. His second desire was to get hold of Strickland alone, and have a reckoning with him. He did not know, he does not know yet, that he was deliberately fooled. He has no idea that Strickland expects to gain a great deal by Mrs. Thurston’s death. He probably thinks that Strickland’s disguise lapsed in some way, and that Strickland murdered Mrs. Thurston to conceal his identity. While Strickland has taken great care to avoid being alone with Fellowes. Even when he asked Dr. Thurston for the use of his car, and found that Fellowes meant to drive him in it, he had the presence of mind to persuade Alec Norris to accompany them. So up to the present he has succeeded in escaping a reckoning with his accomplice, and on that, at least, I think he is to be congratulated. For though Fellowes strikes me as a roughish bird, I don’t think he would have taken up murder as a hobby if he had known what he was doing, and I don’t think he’ll easily forgive the bloke that let him in for it.
“As for the girl Enid, I’m pretty sure she knew nothing of the idea on hand at the time, and I don’t think she suspects her young man of bein’ mixed up in it. She spoke the truth when we asked her questions, except when we asked her if she had been out with Fellowes in the car that afternoon, and a lie in answer to that was natural enough. Perhaps someone else”—he glanced at Mgr. Smith—“may have reason to think she knew everything. I’m inclined to think not.
“As for Miles—all he knew was that there was a little scheme afoot to grab the tomfoolery . . .
“’E means the jewellery,” put in Sergeant Beef, seeing me looking puzzled by Lord Simon’s second use of this queer word.
“He may even have known the way it was to be done. But he had nothing to do with it. Not he. And Mr. Miles went in for the very best quality alibis, as you see. He invited the Sergeant to hurl the honest javelin with him.
“And what about Stall, say you. What about him, say I, remembering Ben Gunn and all that sort of thing. Stall was a nasty sort of blackmailer, but he regrets this unfortunate affair as much as you do, if for rather different reasons. In another fortnight he would have gone. Jolly old swallow, Stall would have been. With his nest pretty well feathered. Do swallows feather their nests? Let’s hope so, it sounds well. And now this untimely bit of murderin’ has turned up, and let the whole tribe of cats out of his unpleasant carpet-bag, and he faces a stiffish sentence. Well, well, the best-laid schemes of mice and men, and all that. Aren’t we getting zoological, Butterfield?”
“Your lordship’s phraseology has certainly taken an almost biological turn,” assented Butterfield gravely, from his place near the door.
“Then the Vicar. In deference to Butterfield, I won’t say he had bats in the belfry. But that’s about what it comes to. He had purity on the brain. And when, that evening, Mrs. Thurston, quite unconscious that he was on the snoop for such details, told him that she was very fond of young Fellowes, it set the feller’s brain spinnin’ like a top. No wonder he walked about that orchard for half an hour. If he hadn’t heard the screams he might have been there all night.
“As for Norris—there is no reason to doubt his perfectly simple story. That mild attack of hysterics of which you all make so much, was natural enough to a feller of his type. It must have been disconcertin’ for him to have been interrupted in the middle of writin’ one of his fearfully intense novels by something as vulgar as a murder, and we must sympathize with him.
“And there you have it—lock, stock and jolly old barrel. I expect Monsieur Picon will hang a few more trimmin’s on it, and I look forward to hearin’ him. Meanwhile . . . yes, Butterfield. Another brandy, I think.”