Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Nine

Case for Three Detectives

CHAPTER NINE
   
When tea was cleared away Strickland and Norris tactfully left the room, for it had been understood that only Thurston, Williams and I were to be present during the enquiry.  It must have been about five o’clock when Sergeant Beef was shown in, and nodded to us, rather in the manner of a man who thinks that he must be on the defensive.  Doubtless he felt somewhat out of place.  With his raw red face and thirsty moustache he looked as though he would have been happier in the local public bar.  However, he did not push himself forward, but taking the most upright chair he could find he drew out his enormous black note-book, and waited.
Then Thurston came in.  I had not seen him since the previous evening, and looked anxiously towards him while he was being introduced by Sam Williams to each in turn of the three investigators.  He looked yellow and very wretched, but he managed to force a feeble smile as he shook hands.
“I don’t want to be in the room while you gentlemen enquire into this . . .” he said slowly, “so I thought I would come down first and give you all the information that I can.  And if you want to see me again about anything when you have made more enquiries, I will do my best to help you.  I appreciate the efforts which you are making to clear this up.”
“We all sympathise very deeply,” said Lord Simon, his voice becoming quite sincere.  I liked him for that remark.
Thurston nodded.  “I’ll tell you all I can,” he said, “and there is a certain amount of . . . family history which you must know.  I have discussed the matter with Mr. Williams, who besides being my lawyer is an old friend, and we both agree that you should hear it.”
The silence was broken by a movement from Sergeant Beef.  Rather tactlessly, I thought, at this point he pulled open his note-book and made ponderous preparations to write in it.
“My wife had been married before,” said Thurston, and I started.  “I will tell you the story, so far as I know it.  She was the only daughter of a Gloucestershire parson.”  His voice stumbled, but he went on.  “I never knew her parents, but I gather that they were very hardworking, rather severe people, devoted to their daughter.  She was brought up in a manner which even in those pre-War days would have been considered strait-laced.  But she was quite happy, though that may seem strange to the present generation.  She worked, as her mother did, in the parish, and learnt then, perhaps, to practise the unselfishness which washers by nature.  Indeed, who could imagine her anywhere as being anything but happy and unselfish?”
There was a tense but sympathetic silence.  At last Dr. Thurston went on.  “A visitor to the parsonage was a rich, local land-owner, a man very much her senior, who had made a fortune in Birmingham and had recently retired to a Gloucestershire manor.  He had lost his wife some years previously, and after he had met Mary a number of times he—in the old-fashioned way—sought permission of her father to ask Mary to marry him.  The parson consented, but his wife raised one objection before the matter was mentioned to Mary.  For this man, in his late middle-age, seemed in every way a desirable husband, except for the fact that he had a son.”
“Oh my Lord!” whispered Lord Simon Plimsoll.
“Mary had never seen this son, and to the best of my knowledge never did see him. The boy had already got a bad name for himself—or at least so her first husband said.  He did not live with his father in Gloucestershire, and it was understood that he was abroad—though whether he was a mere lad sent on a training ship, or a grown man in the colonies, I do not know.  Only his very existence rather perturbed Mary’s parents, which is perhaps why she heard even so much of him as she did.  Suppose he should return, and cause trouble between Mary and her husband?  Suppose he should fall in love with Mary?  You must imagine that her parents were simple people whose ideas on such matters were drawn largely from the sentimental novels of the day.
“At all events the difficulty was talked over, and dismissed.  You will gather some of the selfishness and unconscious brutality of such arrangements in those days, when I tell you that, so far as I can make out, it was arranged between Mary’s parents and her husband that the son should be kept out of the way.  He was given an allowance, I believe, and Mary once told me that the last that was heard of him for a long time was that he was thought to be in America.  But even then she wasn’t sure if it was not Australia.”
Thurston was speaking very slowly and thoughtfully.  It seemed that he had nerved himself to this recital, and was determined to get through it.  But it was easy to see that he was suffering.
“They were married for ten years,” he continued, “and I think that they were fairly happy together.  Mary certainly never realized the faults of her first husband.  Or of her second husband either, if it comes to that.  She was not a woman to find the faults in any human being.
“During the early years of their marriage, Mary lost both of her parents, and one of the few really considerate things her husband did for her was to leave the district of her first home, and move to a house about a mile from here.  I first met them when I attended him for influenza, not long after they moved.  Then the War came, and Mary’s stepson came home to serve, and did so with some distinction.  But even when he was on leave he was not asked down to his father’s home.  Occasionally Mary’s husband went up to town to meet him, and spoke rather more kindly of him at this period.  But she never met him.
“After the War, the son, like so many sons who had fought, was again a problem.  A few years on a private allowance abroad, followed by three or four years of war, do not represent the ideal training for a citizen.  He was not a bad boy, but he was a difficult one.  He had the normal vices, slightly pronounced, and I don’t think he ever cared much for his father.  He was put unsuccessfully into a number of jobs, and sent to a number of places.  But he had a way of turning up again in London.  Not an unusual case, I suppose.
“It was after his father had sent him with some finality to Canada that the old man made his will, and in the circumstances I suppose it was fair enough, though not very generous to his son.  The young man’s small allowance was to be continued, the rest of the fortune was to provide an income for Mary during her lifetime, and, should she die before the son, it was to revert to him.  Actually I do not believe that Mary was very much older than her stepson, but she never seemed to her husband a young woman, because in his self-centred view she was his wife, and to be regarded as about his own age.  It was not therefore quite such an unfair arrangement in his mind as it may seem to you.  He expressed the hope, in his will, that should his son ever inherit the money he would by then have learnt its value.”
Again he paused.  “You will understand that it is not very pleasant for me to go over all this.  But I want to make things as easy as possible for you.  And whether it has any bearing on the matter or not, you might feel you had to find it out for yourselves, and so waste time.  But I have nearly finished now.  I attended my wife’s first husband in his last illness.  She and I were thrown together a great deal at that time.  And those of you who knew her will not be surprised that we were married within a year of her becoming a widow.”
Williams murmured something, and Dr. Thurston shifted uncomfortably in his chair.  “And now I must touch on something even more intimate,” he said.  “My wife had an income of nearly two thousand pounds a year.  My own income, apart from the practice which I then had, was considerably, very considerably, less.  I am not going into all the complications which follow when a poor man marries a rich woman.  But there are points I must explain.  First of all, I myself was an interested party in a will of my uncle’s, by which I was then expecting shortly to inherit a sum of money rather larger than my wife’s fortune.  This sum actually came to me about six months ago.  It was delayed by some legal difficulty.  Secondly, it might be as well for you to know how our private finances were arranged.  My wife retained her income absolutely in her own hands, but at her own wish she met all the expenses of this house.  My own private expenses were few, and my small income amply sufficed for them.  Since I have inherited the sum I have mentioned, however, I have not allowed my wife to use her money for anything but herself.  The rest of the details, such as her own will, you may learn from Mr. Williams.”
The investigators were looking up now.  It was M. Picon who spoke.  “And the stepson?” he queried.
“Has never reappeared.  My wife used at one time to worry about him a great deal.  She felt that she had taken away what justly belonged to him.  She even went to the extent of advertising for him, but without result.  You can imagine how concerned she was over anything like that.  She was a very generous woman.”
Lord Simon Plimsoll spoke rather uneasily.  “You won’t mind, Doctor, if we ask you one or two questions?”
“By all means.”
“What was the name of Mrs. Thurston’s first husband?”
“Burroughs.”
“And the village where she was brought up?”
“Watercombe, near Cheltenham.”
“And no one has any idea what has happened to this young man?”
“I certainly have not.”
M. Picon broke in.  “So that, hélas” he said, “he might be dead?”
“It is possible,” said Dr. Thurston.
“Or, on the other hand, he might be in this house,” said Lord Simon.
Dr. Thurston smiled very faintly.  “I don’t think that is likely.  You see, I know everyone here.”
“Yes, Doctor.  But suppose—of course it is the merest supposition—suppose that this young man had by any chance reappeared.  How long, for example, have you known Townsend?”  And he glanced without apology at me.
“About three years.”
“And Strickland?”
“Rather longer.”
“Do you happen to remember how you met Strickland?”
“My wife met him.  In town, I believe.  She had a good many friends.  She asked him down here, and I liked him.  Always have done.  Irresponsible fellow, but a very good sort!”
“Then Morris, Doctor?”
“Well, he also came here through my wife.  I know where she met him, though.  It was at the Bagleys, about six miles from here.  They make some pretensions towards being literary, I believe, and often have fellows like Norris staying there.”
“Then again, the chauffeur.  How did he come into your employ?”
“My wife engaged all the servants.  She was far more practical than I am in such things.” He paused.  “But really, you know, Lord Simon, if you're supposing that my wife's stepson could have been in the house, masquerading as one of our friends or employers, I must tell you that I think the idea is too far-fetched.  The fellow disappeared years ago.”
Lord Simon smiled.  “You mustn’t mind me, Doctor,” he said, “I was born inquisitive.”
M. Amer Picon had been moving about in his chair in a most restless way, and now spoke impatiently.  “Monsieur le docteur,” he said, “you will forgive Picon.  He may seem—what you call—impertinent.  But there is a little question, difficult to ask.  Yet it is necessary.  You permit?  A thousand thanks.  It is this.  Do you remember if ever your so unfortunate Madame seemed to have something concealed from you?  Oh, I mean nothing of—what you say?—a guilty secret.  Some little thing, which she might have concealed as one hides a Christmas present before Christmas, perhaps?”
Dr. Thurston took this quietly.  He seemed to appreciate the dainty way in which Picon had put it to him.  He was silent for nearly a minute, then he said, “Only once.  I do remember such an incident—but it is a long time ago; soon after we were married.  Your speaking of Christmas presents reminds me, because it was just before Christmas, and I accounted for it at the time in that way.  I thought it was a little ingenuous secret such as she loved, connected with a gift for me.  But when Christmas came I could not see that it had anything to do with her gift.  But I never attached any real importance to it.”
Picon could scarcely wait.  “Yes, yes, Monsieur le docteur?” he said.
“One afternoon I came into her room and found her sitting at the little bureau she always used when she had any letters to write.  She had not heard me come in, but when she saw me she looked very startled, and quickly tore up the envelope she was writing.  I can give you no idea how innocent such behaviour made her seem.  No really deceitful person could have blushed and been so confused as she was.”
“But is that all?” queried M. Picon anxiously, “you read nothing that was written?”
Dr. Thurston looked wistfully towards him.  “If I tell you I read a man’s name,” he said, “you must not let your imagination start working.  You must believe me when I tell you that my wife was incapable of carrying on anything like an intrigue.  The mere thought of it, to anyone who knew her, is absurd.  But it was a man’s name that I read on that piece of paper, and I can tell it you.  It was Sidney Sewell.”
“Just the name?  You saw no more?”
“That was all.  But really, you should attach no importance to it.  Ask Williams here.  He knew my wife.  Whatever significance the matter had it did not mean that there was some clandestine love-affair in her life.”
There was a sympathetic murmur of assent, and Williams said something to the effect that it had never been doubted.
Thurston rose painfully from his chair.  “And now, gentlemen, is there anything else you wish to ask me?”  He looked so exhausted and wretched that even had there been any further questions to put to him after his very lucid narrative, I doubt if they would have been broached just then.
“Very well, then,” he said, “I’ll say good night.  I have told Stall to give you anything you may want.”  With evident relief he left the room.
Lord Simon turned to Williams.  “There can be no doubt about that will?” he asked, “the stepson will inherit?”
Williams nodded.  “Yes,” he said, “I have always understood that it was like that.  I was not the old man’s lawyer.  But that was his will.”
“Looks pretty bad for the stepson, whoever he is,” I observed.
But Mgr. Smith blinked at me gently.  “You mustn’t say that,” he observed.  “The fact that it is a piece of parchment does not mean that it is a piece of prophecy.  You are like so many of these modern thinkers.  Because it was a new Will you want to turn it into an Old Testament.”
“What is more of moment,” said M. Picon, turning to Williams, “is the will of the lady herself.  What can be said of that?”
Rather unexpectedly Williams smiled.  “Mrs. Thurston,” he said, “was in some ways a very ingenuous person.  As Mr. Townsend here will tell you, her great pride was her house.  She devoted her life to making it comfortable.  And she had an idea by which she hoped to get very good service.  She got me to draw up a will leaving her personal belongings to her husband, but all the money of which she might die possessed was to be divided equally among such employees as were with her at the time of her death.  This was, of course, after her husband had come into his own fortune.”
“But,” I said, “since she had only a life interest . . .”
“Exactly.  That was the idea.  She never had very much money in her possession at any time.  She received her income quarterly, and spent it, or gave it away.  So that what the servants would receive was the sum actually to her credit in the bank at the time of her death.  That would be about the amount normally left to servants.  But of course they were not to know that.  It was common knowledge among them that Mrs. Thurston was rich.  And certainly the plan seemed to work, for she has not changed the staff since then.”
“In other words it was a trick,” said Mgr. Smith.
“I should hardly call it that,” snapped Williams.
“And tricks can work both ways,” reflected the little cleric.  “If you try to make anyone an April Fool after midday on the First of April, the joke rebounds on to you.”
“I can see no joke,” said Williams.
“Nor I,” said Mgr. Smith, “I see no joke here at all.”