Case for Three Detectives
Quite early the next morning those indefatigably brilliant private investigators who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed, began to arrive. I had some knowledge of their habits, and guessed at once what had happened to bring them here. One had probably been staying in the district, another was a friend of Dr. Tate’s, while a third, perhaps, had already been asked to stay with the Thurstons. At any rate, it was not long before the house seemed to be alive with them, crawling about on floors, applying lenses to the paint-work, and asking the servants the most unexpected questions.
The first on the scene was Lord Simon Plimsoll. He stepped out of the foremost of three Rolls-Royces, the second of which contained his man-servant, whose name I afterwards learnt was Butterfield, and the third, a quantity of photographic apparatus. I happened to be outside the front door at the tune, and heard him address his man. I was at first a little startled at his idiom, for it reminded me of a dialogue I had heard in a cabaret between two entertainers whose name I believe was Western, and it took me a few moments to believe that this was his natural mode of speech. He handed me a cigar of superlative quality, and invited me to ‘spill the beans’. This I did at some length! I told him in detail of the incredible mystery which confronted us, and the insoluble problem of the murderer’s way of escape. When I had finished, he sighed.
“Another of these locked-door cases,” he said with palpable ennui. “I was hopin’ it might be something new, what?”
But he came into the lounge, and glanced about him.
“You say it happened in the room above this one. No footprints outside, I suppose?”
“No,” I said, pleased that I had shewn enough professional acumen to have looked for them last night. Then I led him to the scene of my search. He glanced cursorily at the shattered light bulb, and noted the place in which I had found the knife, stepping back to glance upward at the window. Then he stooped to examine the flower-bed, but without disarranging the crease in his beautifully cut trousers. Finally he stepped back again and remained quite motionless, staring up at the windows above him.
As he did so I examined this young man. I had heard of him first some ten years ago, and was surprised to find now that he appeared no older. But perhaps among other secrets he had discovered that of changeless youth. The length of his chin, like most other things about him, was excessive. But I liked him, because from the moment he arrived at that house the somewhat macabre atmosphere of the previous evening was dissipated. His cheerful and inquisitive nature seemed to discourage any morbid dwelling on the horror of Mary Thurston’s death, and to induce everyone, whether bereaved or guilty, into a pleasant and eager state of curiosity.
I know that for my part from the time when I met Lord Simon I ceased to remember the ghastly moment when we had first looked into that locked bedroom—I even forgot more than a perfunctory duty of mourning. I became wholly absorbed in the fascinating problem which confronted us. And I have gathered that this is the experience of most people intimately connected with a murder which a first-rate private detective or criminologist is investigating.
“Now, which of those windows did you say?” asked Lord Simon when he had finished the tune he was humming.
I explained to him as fully as I could what will be obvious from the accompanying plan, for Williams and I had already ascertained the uses of the upper rooms.
“You say it was a windy night?” he asked dreamily when I had finished. “Yes. Fairly.”
“You could hear the wind when you were in the lounge?”
“Well, yes. These trees round the house . . .”
“Quite. And when you were standing at the door of the room watching Williams search it?”
“Now I come to think of it, yes.”
“Good. Let’s go upstairs.”
We walked towards the front door, and Lord Simon paused to speak to his man. “Butterfield,” he said, with apologetic hesitation.
“Yes, my Lord,” said Butterfield, suavely of course.
“Take some photographs. And telephone to the dowager Duchess and the Ex-Queen that I shall not be lunching with either of them.”
“Very good, my lord.”
“Yes, my lord?”
“Have you got the Napoleon brandy in the car?”
“Yes, my lord.”
We re-entered the house, and started to go upstairs. I was determined to remain with Lord Simon while he was investigating. His care-free manner, which evidently concealed great astuteness, interested me enormously. I was wondering what discoveries he would make in the fatal bedroom, what he would find that we had missed. But when I reached the door of it, he stopped.
“This is the room,” I said.
“The room where it happened.”
“Indeed? Let’s go a little higher up, shall we?”
I reflected that criminologists are nothing if not unexpected, and led the way to the floor above. The boxroom, which we entered first, filled Lord Simon with enthusiasm.
“I love old box-rooms,” he said. “Don’t you? Never know what you may come across when you start pokin’ about in them.”
His eye travelled round the room. There was little enough to see—a number of old trunks, a pair of rusty skates, an array of slightly mildewed boots, and a moth-eaten leopard-skin rug.
“Fascinatin’,” he said, and crossed to the window. This, with its stone mullions, seemed to occupy his attention for longer than I could understand, and he glanced languidly from it to the beams above.
“And now we’re going to do something very Scotland Yard,” he drawled. “Yes. Definitely Scotland Yard. But necessary. We’re going to examine the contents of these boxes.”
“Really,” I began. “I don’t know whether Dr. Thurston . . .”
But Lord Simon smiled disarmingly, and I remembered that criminologists are exempt from such trifling considerations. “Come along,” he said. “There’s a good chap.”
I helped him to turn out the boxes. One contained only odd bits of material, stray scraps of lace, pieces from ancient dresses which poor Mary Thurston had probably stored “in case they might come in useful.” I did not care for this, as it brought the dead woman vividly back to me with all her stupidity and good-nature.
“Like bein’ a beastly Customs officer, isn’t it?” said Lord Simon, disdainfully plucking out a disused petticoat.
I nodded. We had soon finished that box, and after replacing its contents, turned to the next. This smelt more strongly of camphor, and proved to be an undisturbed mausoleum of Dr. Thurston’s cast-off suits—old morning coats, and a dinner-jacket of antique cut. We went through the remaining boxes with the same thoroughness, but came on nothing which appeared to interest Lord Simon.
“Disappointin’,” he said. “We must try the apple-room.”
When we entered it the apple-room appeared to me even more barren of possibilities than the box-room, but Lord Simon seemed to like the place.
“Rippin’ smell, stored apples,” he remarked, drawing it in through his chiselled nostrils.
The fruit had been laid out on the floor, each apple separated from its fellow to prevent the spread of any infection. But a clear passage, about a yard wide, had been left from door to window. Lord Simon stood looking down at the crimson and yellow rows, then stooped to pick up a Cox’s Orange Pippin.
“Recently crushed,” he said, and took a bite from the undamaged side of it.
Then his eyes were alight again, and he became unaffectedly active. He took off his pale grey overcoat, and hung it carefully behind the door. His handsomely tailored jacket followed it, and he stood in his shirt sleeves fumbling with a pair of Asprey cuff-links.
An unpleasant thought occurred to me. “You’re not going to move all these apples, are you?” I asked.
“Rather not,” he returned. “Just a lucky dip, that’s all.” And he picked his way among the fruit to the water-tank which wheezed stertorously in the corner.
Breathlessly I watched Lord Simon. Would he discover another corpse? I knew he had a penchant for that sort of thing. But surely he would not blindly plunge his arm into the water if that was what he sought. No, I could see by his face that he had found whatever he had anticipated. And presently he began to draw it out—a length of very thick rope.
He laid it on the floor between the apples, as tenderly as if it had been a child. There was a great knot at one end of it and an iron ring at the other. It must have been about fifteen feet long.
“Exhibit A,” he said. “Undoubtedly Exhibit A. Ever seen it before?”
“It looks as though it came from the gymnasium.”
“Gymnasium? You never told me that there was a gymnasium.”
“I did not see that it could have any bearing.”
“No, no. Of course not. Yes, certainly this rope comes from the gymnasium. At any rate, it has been used for climbin’.”
“But . . .”
“I never could climb a rope at Eton. Could you at wherever you were?”
“Yes,” I said rather shortly. “Well, let’s go down. I think it’s time I . . .”
“Viewed the body?” I suggested. “Exactly,” said Lord Simon. But before he left the room he examined the stone frame of the window very carefully, as he had done that of the box-room.
We came down the narrow staircase, and I tapped at the door of the room in which the tragedy had happened. It was Sergeant Beef’s voice which bade us come in. My knowledge of these situations was sufficient to tell me just what sort of greetings to expect between these two, and I was not disappointed.
“Mornin’, Beef,” said Lord Simon gaily. The Sergeant seemed to be suffering from the effects of his visit to the ‘Red Lion’ last night.
“I shouldn’t ’ardly ’ave thought you’d of bothered with a little case like this,” he said slowly. “It’s all plain sailing.”
“You find it so?” asked Lord Simon. “Yes. Of course I do. Why it’s . . .”
“What are you doin’ there, Sergeant?”
“Just ’aving another look at these bloodstains,” said Beef sulkily.
Lord Simon turned to me. “The police love blood,” he said. “Surprisin’, isn’t it?”
The Sergeant did not appreciate the joke. Very soon there was silence in the room, as Beef and I watched Lord Simon at work. He went with sure-fingered efficiency over every object in the room, tapped the walls once or twice, and examined the fireplace.
“No means of escape,” he observed.
Sergeant Beef guffawed. “Surely you wasn’t expecting to find one, was you?” he asked.
“No, Sergeant,” said Lord Simon quietly. “Oddly enough, I wasn’t.”
Next he went to the wardrobe, and after poking about, rather rudely I thought, among a number of Mary Thurston’s coats, he pulled out two old parasols.
“Going out in the sun, and afraid of your complexion?” asked Sergeant Beef, with heavy satire.
“No. Just interested,” said Lord Simon, scrutinising them carefully.
At last he put them down, and started a stupid game with the long curtains. He pulled one over a little way, then pulled it back carelessly, two or three times.
“Nice curtains,” he said, releasing them.
Finally he returned to the dressing-table, and to my surprise stooped over it, and applied his nose to a point near the mirror. In a moment he was sneezing violently.
“Disgustin’,” he said. “I’m glad you hadn’t noticed it, Sergeant. It’s most unpleasant. By the way, who in this household takes snuff?”
“I know that Stall does,” I told him. “I saw him once on the landing when he thought no one noticed him.”
“Oh,” said Lord Simon dimly. “Well, I’m going to get some lunch.”
It was barely twelve o’clock, so I guessed he had some other purpose in leaving us just then. But I accompanied him downstairs and towards the hall door.
Just before I opened this for him he stopped and glanced at a little window beside it, which looked out from the front of the house. “Do you happen to know whether these curtains are drawn at night?” he asked me.
I was unable to tell him, but Stall, who was passing at that moment, said, “I am afraid they are usually forgotten, my lord. It is the parlourmaid’s place to draw them, but they seem to get missed.”
“Drawn last night?”
“I believe not, my lord.”
“Thanks,” said Lord Simon to Stall, and thereupon ambled off.