Case for Three Detectives
As we came in we met Dr. Thurston coming downstairs. He stopped and looked at us fixedly. Then he asked sharply—“Where have you been, you three?” I told him we had been searching the grounds, but almost before I had finished speaking he had walked on dazedly into the lounge. He sank into a chair and seemed to take no further interest.
Williams, who was standing by the mantelpiece, called me aside, and I told him what I had found. He nodded. “It’s almost a relief,” he said. “What? That the knife is found?”
“Well, in a way. I had almost begun to doubt whether there would be a knife. Whether there would be anything so . . . prosaic.”
I glanced aside at his face. He seemed calm enough, but his wording was so odd that I asked him again what he meant.
“Look here, Townsend. I haven’t a scrap of superstition in my nature. I believe in facts. But I’m going to admit to you that the mildest word I can use about this is uncanny. I don’t mean just because we found Mary dead behind a bolted door. I’ve heard of that sort of thing before—with quite a normal explanation. But damn it, when you consider this . . . the door was bolted. Within two minutes of the scream I looked out of the window. Within two minutes everyone in the house was accounted for. And yet I am certain that there was no way out of that room. I examined every inch of it. What in the world can be said? Someone did it. A hand held the knife. There could be no tricks of suspension. I tell you it affects me as if I had actually seen something impossible—like a tree growing visibly or snow falling on a hot day. It . . . it really frightens me.”
‘Frighten’ was the last word I should have expected from Sam Williams. And yet when we were discussing the whole affair on the following day he said that he distinctly remembered using it.
“In what way?” I asked, for my mind was stupefied.
“Well, how can the brute have escaped? This is not a matter of detection. I haven’t the slightest hope of anything Scotland Yard can do. It’s . . . it isn’t human, Townsend.”
I think those words of Williams, the level-headed, sceptical lawyer, disturbed me more deeply than anything else. And because I more than half agreed with him, I contradicted most flatly.
“Oh, rot,” I said, “there’ll be some perfectly simple explanation.”
“My dear chap, how can there be? Unless the man had wings.”
The vision which this aroused—a dark, murderous creature like a giant bat flapping away from the house—was too fantastic. “No, no,” I said; “don’t get side-tracked into nightmare. There must be a means of escape from that room.”
“Shall we look again, then?”
“Oh, I don’t . . .” The thought of what lay there made me sick and miserable. I must have a literal mind, for it was the actual . . . body, which was most distressing to me, while for Williams, unexpectedly, the doubts and fancies were worse.
“Come on,” he said. “Better than sitting here, thinking.”
We went upstairs again, and reached the broken door. But as we opened it we both paused in astonishment. The body was no longer alone. Kneeling beside the bed, his face buried in his hands, was Mr. Rider, the Vicar. When he realized our presence, he looked up. And the expression on his face was unforgettable. It was like the agony on the face of a martyr in a primitive religious painting. His cheeks were bloodless, and his lower jaw dropped as though he had lost the power to control it.
“Rider! How did you get here?” asked Sam Williams. His voice seemed to me to have a note of suspicion in it. The Vicar slowly stood up. He moved stiffly as though he had knelt for a long time. “Get here?” he repeated, not seeming to understand the purport of the question. “I arrived a few moments ago.”
“Where? How?” The sharpness of the lawyer’s voice surprised me. Could he still be thinking of his winged man? “I don’t understand you,” said Mr. Rider slowly, and it seemed to me that he spoke the truth. “I came to the front door,” he added.
“Who shewed you in?”
“Stall, the butler.”
Williams hesitated. “And you came straight up here?” he asked at last. “Yes.” He looked down at the bed again. “Poor soul! Poor soul!” he said. “I hope she will be forgiven.” Then he added in a lower but it seemed to me more fervent voice, “I hope we all may be forgiven.”
Sam Williams looked at him closely. “Mr. Rider, do you realize that this was a most savage murder? And that the murderer has not been traced? Can you tell us anything that will help us?”
The man was in great distress. I could see that he was trembling. “She died . . . a sinner,” was his reply, at which Williams made a sound of impatience. “But then . . .” said Mr. Rider, staring at us, “we are all sinners, aren’t we? All of us.” And he almost ran from the room.
Williams and I stood as though listening to his footsteps pattering quickly downstairs. “What do you think?”
“What can one think?” I said; “the man’s mad, of course. But whether he had anything to do with it or not, I can’t even guess.”
Before we could start once more that meaningless search which Williams had proposed, we heard the car draw up to the front door. Fellowes had returned, bringing the local doctor and Sergeant Beef, the village policeman.
There was little enough for the former to do. He soon joined us downstairs, but before saying anything he went over to the crumpled figure of Thurston, and said, “Look here, Doctor, I’m going to order you to bed. We’re going to do everything in the world we can for you, and it won’t help us for you to stay here. Now be a good chap . . .”
Thurston rose, as obedient as a small boy.
“Stall!” Doctor Tate was a friend of the household, and knew the servants’ names. “Go upstairs with your master, and see he has everything he wants.”
Dr. Thurston turned at the door to bid us good night, and when I remembered his loud and cheery greetings and leave-takings I was deeply moved by the wretched little smile he gave us.
“It must have been a powerful stroke,” Dr. Tate said when we were alone. “About thirty minutes ago, I suppose?” It was now a quarter to twelve. “It’s hard to tell precisely. Somewhere between eleven and half past, anyway. Who did it?”
It did not seem to have occurred to him that we were mystified. I suppose he thought that an act of such violence in a familiar household could scarcely have been done without instant discovery. When we explained it all to him, he was, of course, incredulous. “But ... but . . .” he began.
Williams interrupted him. “I know,” he said curtly, “it’s incredible. But you see it has happened.”
The police sergeant joined us. We scarcely looked up as he came in. He was a big red-faced man of forty-eight or fifty, with a straggling ginger moustache, and a look of rather beery benevolence.
“I’ve made my examination of the body,” he announced in a heavy voice, such as he probably used for giving evidence in Court, “and I’ve formed my conclusions,” he added.
“You’ve what?” snapped Williams.
“I said, I’ve made my examination of the body, sir, and the bloodstains, and the instrument. And I’ve formed my conclusions.”
This was almost comic relief. “You mean to say you think you know who did it?” I gasped.
“I didn’t go so far as to say that, sir,” admitted Sergeant Beef, “but I’ve done all that’s necessary for to-night.”
“You had better get in touch with Scotland Yard as soon as possible,” I told him, feeling somewhat irritated by the stolid self-importance of the man.
“That may not be necessary,” he replied ponderously.
Dr. Tate, who knew the local reputations only too well, said sharply, “Don’t be ridiculous, Beef. This is quite evidently not a case for you. And I very much doubt”—he turned to us—“whether even Scotland Yard will be able to solve it. But there must be no delay in sending for them. No delay at all. I for one could not stand by and see time wasted which might be valuable in tracing the murderer. You had better ring up from here.”
The Sergeant remained unmoved. He blinked his red eyelids. “I know my duty, sir,” he replied.
Dr. Tate grew angry then. “I suppose you’ve been in the ‘Red Lion’ all the evening?” he said. “Well, I tell you now that unless this matter gets proper investigation without delay I shall go to the Chief Constable at once.”
“You must do as you think proper about that,” said the policeman, “but in the meantime I must ask that none of these gentlemen leave the house. I’ll tell the servants the same. I’ll be up in the morning to . . .”—he tapped a large notebook—“to ask some questions.”
“That, I believe, is the usual thing.”
“Very well, then, gentlemen, I may take it that you will all be here tomorrow? Perhaps I’d better just have your names.”
And slowly, painfully, he began to write our full names and private addresses in his large book. It was an exasperating ten minutes. But at last he finished, and went out into the kitchen, apparently to collect the names of the staff.
Presently we heard the front door slam, and knew that the eye of the law was no longer on us. Yet none of us moved. Williams turned to Dr. Tate.
“What do you know of Rider?” he asked.
“Rider? He’s a hard-working chap. But I sometimes wonder if he’s quite sane. He has a monomania, anyway. Purity. He really does the most unbalanced things when purity’s called into question.”
Suddenly I remembered the curious question he had asked me before dinner, and repeated the gist of it.
“Just like him,” exclaimed Tate. “He probably suspected something absurd, or something quite trivial.”
“What I don’t understand,” said Williams, “is how he came to be beside Mary Thurston’s bed, within half an hour of the murder. He left to go home long before eleven, and the Vicarage is only just across the orchard.”
“Could anyone have telephoned to him?” asked Strickland.
“Impossible. The telephone’s out of order. Wires cut, probably.”
“Then he can never have gone home,” I said.
Williams rang the bell. “We’ll ask Stall,” he said. “Rider old us that he let him in.”
Stall came into the room. I felt at once, looking at him, that he was on his guard. He glanced from one to another of us, as though wondering whence the attack would come.
“Oh, Stall,” said Williams, “did you see Mr. Rider out?”
“On which occasion, sir? When he first left the house, before Mrs. Thurston had retired, I saw him out.”
“I see. When did he return?”
“It must have been ten minutes or a quarter of an hour after . . . the discovery, sir.”
“For whom did he ask?”
“For Dr. Thurston, sir.”
“And did you shew him into the lounge?”
“No, sir. It was just then that the parlourmaid was took ’ysterical, sir. Very ’ysterical, she was. And I was ’urrying back to the kitchen. I left Mr. Rider to go into the lounge himself. I did not see him again, sir.”
“He said nothing to you beyond asking for Dr. Thurston?”
“No, sir. Nothing. But he seemed agitated, sir.”
“I see. You go to his church, don’t you, Stall?”
“Yes, sir. I sing in the choir. Bass, sir.”
“Thank you, Stall. You’d better get to bed now.” When the door was closed we exchanged glances, as though each wanted to see what the others thought of it.
“Extraordinary—about Rider.” I said after a moment. But no one answered. So much was extraordinary. And so very extraordinary.
Leaning back in my chair I began considering each of the men who were in that house separately, as a possible murderer. It was not a pleasant occupation, for there was not one of them to whom I wished evil, or whom I had hitherto really disliked. But as each one presented himself to my doubt, I was faced again and again by the same blank wall. How had he got out? Those two bolts—I had pulled them back myself. Whoever had done it, if natural laws existed still, had left that room during the few moments it had taken us to run upstairs and break down the door, but how? How? I felt as though the doubt would lead me to madness. There was no way out of that room.
At last we decided to turn in. But when we were standing, waiting for someone to lead the way out of the room, young Strickland said a rather tactless thing to Alec Norris.
“Well,” he said, “it seems that already your theory about murder has been proved to be wrong.”
I had forgotten all about that conversation, over the cocktails. The recollection gave me a start. But the effect of the remark on Norris was quite unexpected. He answered in a high-pitched voice, shrill with hysteria.
“Yes,” he said, “I must have been wrong!” And he began to utter a laugh, which was low at first, grew louder and higher, until Williams, who was standing beside him, struck him across the mouth.
Norris stopped at once. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m sorry, too,” said Williams. “But it’s the only thing to do with hysteria. Couldn’t have you waking the household. It’s long past midnight.”