Case for Three Detectives
M. Picon had scarcely finished speaking, and was still smiling in self-congratulation, when Mgr. Smith unexpectedly began.
“What you all seem to forget,” he said, “is that a man who can be a spy, can also be a spider”.
At once I remembered all his mystic references to King Bruce, and things of people or facts that hang on threads, and I asked myself what abstruse wonders were now to be revealed as commonplace.
“You, too, have discovered the murderer?” I asked; not, I must own, taking the little cleric very seriously, but willing enough to be diverted by his account.
“I have discovered the murderer,” he replied, “by a rope, a phrase, and by the way in which a man killed flies. It is very simple, but it has the terror and the power and the immensity of all simple things.”
He paused for a moment, as though wondering whether he should tell us. Then he went on. “There was a woman murdered in a locked room, from which the only escape was by the window, and the only manner of exit from the window was by a rope. So without beginning to talk in that superstitious way of unnatural happenings, it was necessary to discover how that rope had been used. It could have been neither climbed nor used for descent, so we came to Lord Simon’s explanation—that a rope may swing, and a man may swing on it. But what I think Lord Simon failed to see, was that when a rope can swing from left to right, another may swing from right to left.
“In Mrs. Thurston’s room there were two windows, one which was made to open, and one, constructed without frame or hinges, which would not open. And both had stone ledges at least a foot wide. And you were all observant of the window which opened. But what about the window which did not open? It could have let in lovely things, fresh air and moonbeams, the scent of flowers, and truth. For the truth of this matter was behind the window which did not open, waiting to be admitted.
“To escape from the room a man had to swing on a rope. But he did not swing to the right to the window of Strickland’s room, but to the left, to the unopening window, for the rope to which he clung was let down not from Fellowes’s room, but from the box-room. And there he stood on that ledge, gripping the stonework above him, while you were searching the room. He could not watch you clearly, for the window is of stained glass, but he could see when you had gone. And then he returned. For another rope was hung from the window of the apple-room, on which he could swing back to the window which did open. It was simple to discover this. One only had to remember that no pendulum goes only one way, that an action has its reaction, that black, in fact, is opposed to white.
“But who had done it? Whoever had swung on the ropes had had an accomplice who hung them. Or should one say that whoever had hung the ropes had had an accomplice who swung on them? At all events there were two people concerned.
“And while we sat at lunch on Friday a spider appeared on the table. The butler came into the room and picked it up carefully in his fingers. I was watching, and I thought that the man who shrank from killing an insect would probably hesitate to kill an employer. But suddenly I saw a very horrible thing. The butler had not shrunk from killing the spider because he loved spiders, but because he hated flies. He took the creature and carefully set it on the window-ledge where several sleepy flies were crawling. And he turned away regretfully, as though he wanted to wait and watch the results. It was appalling, but like many appalling things it shewed the truth. The man who had set a spider to kill a fly had set a man to kill a woman.
“But what man? It had been a weak man who was persuaded into it, a guilty man who was blackmailed into it, or a devil to whom it had to be no more than suggested. It could have been no one who came to the door of the room or was present at the search. And that afternoon I set off for the village church. At first I thought that I should have to look elsewhere, for Mr. Rider was neither a weak, nor a guilty, nor a bad man. But when he shewed me a fine piscina in the chancel of his church and referred to it as a wash-basin, I perceived the terrifying truth. He was not himself a devil, he was possessed of devils, he was insane. And this madman was the instrument which the real murder had chosen.
“But only one rope had been found. If it had happened as I thought there must be two. I hoped, as I thrust my hand into the tank, that there would be nothing in it but water. The crime as it appeared to me then seemed too vile. But no—it was there. Two ropes had been used.
“You see, this butler here was a very wicked and very clever man. He had been a butler for twenty years or more, and as he said, he had excellent references. But imagine what had gone to the making of those references, what innumerable subservient humilities, what civil grins, what concealment of personal emotion! He was a man given to hatred and jealousy, who had been forced for two decades to shew complaisance and satisfaction.
“At last he is employed by a woman who thinks she can trick her servants into loyalty. But loyalty comes with trial, not with trickery. A man may call a June evening New Year’s Eve, but we shan’t sing Auld Lang Syne. A man may put a crown upon his head, but we shan’t sing God Save the King. A woman may make a will, but we shan’t sing For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow. And when Mrs. Thurston signed this will she was not securing for herself any service—except unfortunately the Burial Service. It was her death warrant.
“For the wicked and clever man of whom we are speaking was too wicked and not quite clever enough for success. He was wicked enough to see that if he could get Mrs. Thurston murdered he would inherit her money, but not clever enough to know that there was no money to inherit. He was wicked enough to plan her murder, but not clever enough to find out that she had only a life interest in her first husband’s money. So that the trick has worked twice—on the murderer as well as on the murdered woman.
“He saw a way of escaping from all service, of achieving what all his life he had most ardently craved—his independence. If he could eliminate this woman he would not only leave the house, from which he had already been dismissed by her husband, without danger of the blackmail he had practised being discovered, but he would also inherit his share of her money. He would be comparatively well off for the rest of his life, for we may presume that he had already saved a certain sum.
“But how? He had not even the courage necessary to murder this woman. But what he lacked in courage he had in guile. He looked about him for someone to do the thing for him. And it was probably not for some time that he found this agent in the unlikeliest place—the local vicarage. Something like a sardonic smile must have come to him when he first thought of that. For who would look for violence in a vicarage? Who would expect to find a murderer in a manse?
“Stall sang bass in the choir, and made himself useful to the Vicar. At first, while the weak brain of the latter had still enough health to ape normality, he was satisfied with that. But gradually he came to exert more and more influence over the wretched man, until he had only to suggest something to the poor lunatic brain of the other, and he could persuade him to take any course of action that he chose—always providing, of course, that the Vicar was convinced that it was his duty. Quite early in their sinister relationship, Stall must have learnt that this was his easiest way to accession—he had to prove to the Vicar that such and such a thing was his duty, and the thing was done. When I think of it I see the stars turn awry with nausea. He was an unusual criminal, and I thank God for it.
“Then, drawing nearer to his final object, Stall began to suggest to Rider that there was evil in the relationship between Mrs. Thurston and young Strickland. The Vicar, with his mania for what he called purity but what I should call puritanism, needed very little instigation on this point. His mental disorder took the form of an abnormal hatred for even the happiest and most innocent love, and when Stall began to fill him with suggestions of this scandal, he was quickly and insanely alert, and doubtless saw many things which did not exist.
“Then slowly the butler must have begun to suggest the horrible idea that it was Rider’s duty to assassinate the woman he had represented as guilty. He had found a weapon which had hitherto been the prerogative of political plotters—a madman who could be made to commit an act of violence for the sake of an imaginary virtue, a man who would undertake a crime as though it were a crusade. It was here, probably, that he used that absurd story of the avenging angel striking at the old man in the tower. He led him on with a legend, fanned his anger with a fable, lured him with a lie. Until at last Mr. Rider was ready.
“I wondered at first that he should have troubled to extort that last sum of two hundred pounds from Mrs. Thurston at that point. But I underestimated Stall’s gift for calculation. He had a very vile fault—a love of scoring off his fellows. By manipulating the murder of Mrs. Thurston, he felt, he would be scoring off the whole series of his employers. By securing this two hundred pounds, which should rightly have been divided with the rest of the estate, he would be scoring off his fellow-servants. How he will have to wipe off those scores, it is not for us to say.
“When at last the unfortunate Vicar arrived on Friday evening he knew what he must do, and had been schooled into the method he must follow. No wonder he questioned Mr. Townsend before dinner, as though he sought some final confirmation of the facts to influence his diseased brain. And it is possible that even then he might have escaped the domination of Stall, and gone home an innocent man, if it had not been for that unlucky conversation with Mrs. Thurston before he took his leave. But she ingenuously told him that she was fond of the young chauffeur, as indeed, and inoffensively enough, she was. He left the room with his crazy conscience quiet, determined to set about the dreadful work which he believed to be his duty.
“Stall, meanwhile, had everything ready. There was the rope hung from the window of the box-room and caught at the opening window of Mrs. Thurston’s room, on which he was to escape, and the rope hung from the window of the apple-room to the unopening window of Mrs. Thurston’s room, on which he was to return. If one could have seen them there they would have appeared to make a great X on the side of the house, marking it out for its doom, a sinister parody of that ink-mark by which ‘our window’ is designated on post-cards from the seaside.
“But unfortunately no one did see them. It was a dark night, and you were all indoors. So that when Mr. Rider went upstairs to wait in Mary Thurston’s room for his victim, no one suspected that he was not on his way home, except Stall, who had shewn him there.
“She went up to bed. At her door she hesitated, startled, not unnaturally, to find Mr. Rider awaiting her in a room which had been partially darkened by Stall in the hope that the murder might be committed before the murderer’s intention was apparent to the victim, and the alarm raised.
“What crazy appeal the poor man made in those ten minutes we shall never know, or what were the unhappy lady’s answers. But at last the thing was done, and thereafter the Vicar followed Stall’s instructions minutely. He seized the rope, pulled down the window, and swung, a giant spider on his thread, to the window which did not open. There he stood, gripping the masonry above him while Stall pulled in that first rope, and descended to the door to prove his alibi.
“You all came, you broke in, you searched, you left the room, and Stall, on the plea of fetching brandy for the hysterical girl, went to draw in the second rope, on which Mr. Rider had now swung back to the open window. He said afterwards that he had gone to the front door in answer to the bell, to admit Mr. Rider. At first, I thought that, had that bell rung, it would have been a peal of joy, for it would have proved this unfortunate man’s innocence. But then I found that all the bell-pushes of the house, including those of the front door and Mrs. Thurston’s room, operated on the same bell, so that had it sounded it might have been a summons to Stall from Mr. Rider in the bedroom as well as Mr. Rider at the front door. It might, as I said at the time, have shewn that someone was not outside the front door, as well as that someone was there.
“You know the rest. You came upstairs and found the murderer, who, I prefer to think, was but the weapon of the murderer, in the room beside the dead woman.”
“So you think,” I asked breathlessly, “that he cut her throat because he thought it was a duty?”
“I think,” said Mgr. Smith, blinking at me, “that he cut her throat because he thought it was a canker.”