Case for Three Detectives
“First arrives Monsieur Strickland who, as milord Plimsoll had taken such pains to shew us, was Mrs. Thurston’s stepson. He is what you call in your so expressive idiom, ‘broke to the wide’. He has written to his stepmother in advance that he will need some money, but urgently. And she, who is generous and good, has arranged to overdraw yet another two hundred pounds for him. But hélas! what says the bank manager? Without security no more, Madame. She takes the two hundred pounds, and returns home.
“Then he arrives. ‘It is all right,’ perhaps she tells him, ‘I can give you the money!’ And he is relieved of his troubles. But sshh! She has spoken too loud. The butler has discovered that she has this sum. He has already blackmailed Madame Thurston with the letter that she wrote to Fellowes, and now determines to obtain also this money. During the afternoon he sees her and she has to give him the two hundred pounds. It is a pity.
“Then, after that so intelligent discussion of the literature of crime, you go to dress for dinner. Madame Thurston sends for Fellowes and tells him to set the trap for the rat. That is good for Fellowes. It is not necessary, but it is good. And Monsieur Townsend perceives Monsieur Strickland emerging from Madame Thurston’s room. She has given him her pendant to help him through his troubles. She is kind, this Madame Thurston.
“During dinner the chauffeur, just as Lord Simon has explained, fetches the ropes. Lord Simon has obliged me by perceiving how he brought them into the house unobserved. I had myself wondered at that. But it is simple. He used the front door. He goes to the chambre des pommes. He suspends the rope. He goes to Madame Thurston’s room and removes the light. Why? She must foresee no danger. It is necessary that she should be silent. The semi-darkness will assist him. All upstairs is now ready. He descends, and sneep! the telephone wire is cut. Why? The Doctor must not come too soon, or the fact may be discovered that she was murdered earlier than the screams.
“He goes now to the kitchen. Dinner is over. Presently the guests begin to go to bed, or to go home. The door of the kitchen is ajar. Why? Because one must know when Madame Thurston goes to bed. Eleven o’clock draws near. Ah! At last! Madame has left the lounge. Enid rises at once and follows her mistress to her room. She explains that she cannot get another light bulb. She is sorry. Does Madame require her further? Mais non, madame is secretly expecting the chauffeur and requires no one. Enid says good night, with a smile. It is also good-bye.
“Once more the chauffeur ascends. He takes the rat-trap with him. He enters madame’s room. She awaits him. All is well. There is very little light. He remains with her a little while. Why? Ah, that is no matter for the detective, that delay. It is for the priest to understand. Perhaps the crime seems at last too terrible. Perhaps he wishes her to be at a disadvantage. Who can say now? But at last he can delay no more. He has brought his weapon. He strikes. Voilà! It is done. Quite silent. She had no time to cry out. She is dead.
“And now he is nervous. He crosses quickly to the window. He throws it up. He is on the rope. And he can climb. Parbleu! But can he climb, this man who was once a sailor? He pulls down the window, and climbs swift, swift, to the window of the apple-room. He enters. He commences to draw in the rope.
“So far, all has gone à merveille. But now occurs a little disaster for the murderer. Downstairs there is a conversation between Dr. Thurston, Monsieur Williams and Monsieur Townsend. The wireless plays. What does Monsieur Townsend? See, he rises. He will fetch something from his overcoat. He goes to the door and opens it. But no. Monsieur Williams addresses nun. He is interested. He forgets the something in his overcoat, and returns to the other messieurs.
“But what is the effect? The poor Enid! She has been waiting for ten minutes for her lover to descend from the apple-room, so that she may do her part. But still he has not come. And now she hears the noise of the wireless suddenly increase as the door is opened. Someone comes, she thinks. Someone will find her. She is discovered. Her lover will be hanged. But wait—there is yet time. He has surely climbed in now? Quick, to the door. Ah, bien, he is there. He descends. She returns to the room of Dr. Thurston and she screams. She has saved his life, she thinks. But she could not foresee that Amer Picon, the great Amer Picon, would investigate!
“The chauffeur is what you call nonplussed. Why has she screamed too soon? In a panic he runs into his own room. Then, in a moment he realizes that he must shew himself at once, as soon as possible. He joins you at the door. He is relieved. His alibi, though not as good as if he had been with the cook, is still perfect. He will escape.
“What is there more to do? He offers himself now to those who seek the criminal. He is calm, and confident. He fetches the doctor and the policeman. Why not? The doctor may now examine the body, but it is more than half an hour since the murder. It cannot be possible for him to tell that she died just four or five minutes before the scream. And the policeman—but he is acquainted with our honest Bœuf. He is enchanté that he should investigate. So he goes willingly.
“Nor is he troubled that the ropes should remain concealed in the tank. Why should he be? He has seen that the screams of Enid have been taken by all to be the screams of the murdered woman, so that his alibi is perfect. No rope in the world can convict him, he thinks, not having foreseen the intervention of Amer Picon.
“He made, however, one stupid blunder, this so longsighted young man. He arranged to meet the girl on the afternoon before he committed his crime. And he tried to conceal that afterwards. Then when I wanted to find out what his movements had been that day, he fell plop into the trap, and was caught as surely as the little rats in the apple-room. Figure to yourself—he has decided on Friday to carry out the scheme he has planned. Already, as we know, he has in view the public-house he will take when he has received the money. He has made up his mind. He wants, of course, to meet his accomplice. This he effects so secretly that none see them go away in the car together. Perhaps the girl is hidden in the back. Perhaps she waits for him beyond the village. At all events their meeting was concealed. They drive to their customary place, where it is unlikely that they will be observed. They leave the car where they, have always left it, and where it will arouse no comment, since a car may often be left near to a lovers’ lane. They are quarrelling. The girl, perhaps, is impatient with so much waiting, and with her lover’s attentions to madame. He must pacify her. He tells her of his decision—that the day they have awaited is here. They complete their plans. They smile again. They return to the car, and drive to the house—unseen.
“But then, quel dommage! I put my little question. I want to be sure that he was not in the village, I say. Can he tell me something which will prove him to have been elsewhere? And he, the poor fool, who does not know Amer Picon, tells me of the flag that was at half-mast. He leaves me then only one thing to do. It is a hope, a chance, that he stopped the car at a point from which that tower is to be seen. And voilà! it comes true! I discover that he went there with his accomplice.
“Then worse, they both deny that they were out together. How foolish! Had they been innocent, why should they conceal it? A little scolding for an offence in the routine of the house, what is that? Nothing. And by denying it, they make it guilty. Oh yes, even this young man had his blunders.
“That then, mes amis, is the explanation of this mystery. You, unfortunately, all of you who tried to solve it, sought the impossible. You thought, as the murderer intended that you should think, about the manner in which someone could have escaped from the room after the screams and before your entry. That was foolish. It should have been evident at once to you that nobody could have escaped in that time. Then either he was still there, or the screaming had not been done at the time of the murder. And since he was not still there, voilà! the certainty was the latter. You see how simple, how logical, now that Papa Picon explains? But no—you do not reason so. You begin to think of the unnatural, of creatures with wings. You should have known that always, my friends, always in such cases of a murder behind locked doors the explanation is a matter not of the means of escape, but of the time at which the crime was done. Ah, if we all drew the conclusions which murderers mean us to draw, what a happy time for murderers! But fortunately there are some who have a sense of logic!
“This man had, as you say, all the luck. Everything conspired to shift the blame on to other shoulders, and to confuse the investigators. There was Monsieur Strickland, the stepson, who would benefit so much, who had been in trouble and changed his name, who slept next door. There was the butler, already guilty of blackmail. There was the curé, who was not quite well in the head, and who arrives at the bedside so soon after the murder. And there was Monsieur Norris who was also upstairs at the time. So many to be suspected! So much confusion. Surely he is lucky. But no—fortunately there arrives Amer Picon, with his sense of logic. He is lucky no more. He and his accomplice are discovered. Voilà! C’est tout! ”
Looking back on the moment at which M. Picon finished, I think that my first emotion was one of sympathy with Lord Simon. It must have been galling to him to see his card-castle collapse, and the iron-clad edifice of M. Picon take its place. He had worked so hard and conscientiously, that he deserved to have been successful. But no. The little foreigner was obviously congratulating himself. All doubt was now removed.