Case for Three Detectives
In a deep arm-chair beyond the circle round the tea-table, Lord Simon Plimsoll was extended, with a cigar between his long fingers and a book in his hand.
There seemed to be a general, and most understandable, desire to avoid the topic which occupied most of our private thoughts. But perhaps it was some subconscious reversion to his far-fetched ideas of yesterday evening which caused Sam Williams to speak of flying, and the progress of flight, gliding, and the making of midget aeroplanes.
“Nice copy, this,” he commented; “it’s the Aldine Plato. I’ve never seen the 1513 edition on vellum before. Aldus and Musurus did it together, you know, and dedicated it to Leo X. He was so tickled that he renewed the privileges granted to Aldus by Alexander VI and Julius II. Your friend must be a bit of a collector?”
“I believe he is.”
“Do a bit myself,” said Lord Simon.
I thought this was modest when I remembered some of the books with which his collection had been credited.
“So I have heard. In the meantime I’ve got some news for you.”
He continued to turn over the leaves of his book while I told him of M. Picon’s discovery of the tattoo marks on Fellowes’s forearm.
“Interestin’,” he conceded, “but not very helpful. We want to know who did the murder, not who thought of it.”
Rather disappointed, I tried him with the story of the jewels in Strickland’s bedroom, and the marked newspaper on Fellowes’s table. But to both of these he nodded and said, “Very likely. Very likely.”
It was when I came to the second rope which Mgr. Smith had found that he jumped to his feet.
“Another rope?” he said. “That’s awkward. That throws everything out. Unless . . .” He paused. “Look here, Townsend, give me a hand, will you? I want to take one of those ropes to the gymnasium.”
Though it meant yet another climb to the second storey, I could not very well refuse. Soon we had dragged the thing across the garden, and Lord Simon, delicately poised on the ladder, had hung it in its original place. He descended, and standing back to the door, looked fixedly at it.
“It’s all right,” he said, as we left the gymnasium. “Quite all right. I might have known it would be.” And he pulled gratefully at his cigar.
The muffins were cold when we got back, but I knew better than to think food was important while there was investigation to be done. Why, I have known people, after murders, to go whole days without eating.
Thurston still had not appeared, but I understood that he was to be present at the enquiry that evening. I was thankful that he had kept out of the way all day. My knowledge of these situations, gathered from some study of them, taught me that we were all behaving according to the very best precedents, but I could not help feeling that a man who had just lost his wife might not see it that way. I had learnt that after a murder it is quite proper and conventional for everyone in the house to join the investigators in this entertaining game of hide-and-seek which seemed wholly to absorb us. It was not extraordinary for there to be three total strangers questioning the servants, or for the police to be treated with smiling patronage, or for the corpse to be pulled about by anyone who was curious to know how it had become a corpse. But when I thought of the man to whom the tragedy would be something more than an entrancing problem for talented investigators, I really wondered how these queer customs had arisen.
All three of our distinguished visitors, I noticed, kept very much to himself, or at least remained at some distance from his rivals. Lord Simon, having satisfied himself-that the rope was, as he put it, all right, had settled down again to his Aldine Plato. Mgr. Smith was discussing mediæval art with Alec Norris, and M. Picon, after rearranging the cups which had been laid haphazardly on the tea-table, sat isolated near the fire.
The time had come, I thought, for stock-taking. The three great investigators, not to mention the police sergeant, had all begun to form theories, and since I had as much evidence in my hands as they had, I did not see why I should not do the same.
However they might differ in the details of their research, they had all been interested in the rope, or two ropes, which had been discovered. Yet I could not see how those ropes could have been used. What made them impossible was that we had been so prompt, so very prompt, in breaking down that door. If the murderer had escaped by climbing a rope he would have murdered Mary Thurston, crossed to the window, climbed out on to the sill, closed the window after him, climbed the rope and drawn it up after him, all during the few moments it had taken us to run upstairs and break down the door, for certainly a rope against that window would have been visible, and probably it would have swung against it noisily. But even if neither was the case I could not believe that the rope could have been drawn up before Sam Williams crossed to the window to look out for it.
And then, even suppose that it could have been, who was there in the house who could have done it? I have explained that before even we had started to break the door down, Norris was with us, and Stall, Strickland and Fellowes had all appeared within a few moments—too few moments for any of them to have climbed a rope, entered by the upper windows and come down to join us. That left only the Vicar, the cook and the parlourmaid as possible rope-climbers. It was safe to exclude the two women from suspicion of this feat. As for the Vicar, we had Stall’s word that he had admitted him some time after the crime. But more final than that was the fact that if he had murdered Mary Thurston and escaped by climbing the rope, he would either have had to climb and enter the upper window as we were coming upstairs and breaking in, or have delayed his climb. In the first of these cases he would certainly have been heard or seen entering the apple-room by Stall and Fellowes, who were on that floor at the tune, or his rope would still have been dangling, and he on it, outside the window when Williams had opened it.
No, on the whole, I was inclined to discount the whole of the rope theory. I will concede a great deal to human agility, but not the quickness of action that would have been necessary in this case.
There remained some of the more subtle possibilities, or half-possibilities, which I remembered had turned into successful theories in other cases of murder behind locked doors, and for these everyone was in some way suspect. In my consideration up to this point I had ignored all questions of psychology, and had not been swayed by my knowledge of the characters of people concerned. In my heart, for instance, I could not suspect Fellowes or the Vicar of murder, but I had included them as suspects so long as the facts made it possible for one of them to be guilty. And so now, as I considered the wilder enigmas of time, as opposed to those of place, I excluded no one.
I could not see, for instance, how either Williams or Thurston could be guilty, since I had been with them continuously from the time Mary Thurston had left the room, to the time of the scream, and had not lost sight of them even after that until the discovery of the corpse. And here an ingenious theory half-presented itself, to be contradicted at once by irrefutable fact. For if I had not seen that terrible figure on the bed in the moment of breaking in the panel, and if there had been no light in the room, it might have been conceivable—however far-fetched—that Thurston himself could have walked into the room in front of us and murdered her in our presence without our suspecting him. He could have arranged something in the room which would have given her a severe fright to cause those rending screams, and so have had an alibi. I was rather proud of having thought this out, and seriously considered using it as a plot for a murder story. But in this case it did not fit. The light in the room had not been strong, but it had been quite sufficient to shew me the revolting sight on the bed as soon as I had broken the top panel, and quite sufficient for me and Williams to have seen every movement of Thurston’s when he entered the room first. He had simply crossed to his wife, placed his hand on her heart and told us that she was dead.
Ingenious though I considered this, I was a little ashamed of dragging Thurston into my theories, until I realized that everyone must be considered suspect by the real investigator. There was Williams himself, for instance. Was there any imaginable means by which Williams could be implicated? Was there any trick of time or place such as I had learned to look for in my study of criminal investigation as it is publicly understood, which could connect Dr. Tate or even the Police Sergeant with the murder? Or the parlourmaid? Or the cook? I knew better than to dismiss any of them as quite obviously innocent. If I had learnt nothing else from my study of the methods of the three great men sitting near me, I had learnt this, that they would eventually pick out the one person I had not suspected. So I followed the simple plan of suspecting everyone. I was determined not to be surprised.
But the maddening fact remained that, suspect how I would, I could find no adequate reason for connecting anyone in that house with Mary Thurston’s murder, and my suspicions were nothing in the end but the most humiliating little attempts to believe that those I disliked, such as Norris and Stall, had been responsible, and that those I liked, such as Williams and Fellowes, had not. Which, I recognised, was a method owing nothing to deduction.
And yet—well, someone had done it. It was not suicide. A woman does not scream three times and then cut her own throat with a gash which a doctor attributes to a very powerful man. And that someone would be discovered. That, too, was certain enough. I had never known a case in which any one of these three investigators was concerned end with the mystery unsolved, let alone a case in which all three of them had taken up. And if the clues discovered had taught them so much that Lord Simon Plimsoll was calmly looking at a book, and M. Picon restfully peering into the fire, and Mgr. Smith discussing mediæval art, then surely I could learn something from them?
The ropes, the tattoo marks, the marked advertisements, the snuff, the fact that the Vicar had called something a wash-basin, the jewels in Strickland’s room—why, I asked myself, did these mean so much to the great brains near me, and so little to me? Because, I told myself, these men were investigators, while I was a mere observer. But I wished, how I wished, I had a theory, just as they had.
Never mind. In a few moments now the cross-examination was to begin, and no doubt that would make everything clear.