Case for Three Detectives
The gong sounded for lunch, and when I reached the dining-room I was not at all surprised to find that we had been joined by a small human pudding, who was introduced as Monsignor Smith. When he had deposited a number of parcels and hung a green parasol on the back of his chair, he beamed round on us, and refused the soup.
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.
“Why, I’ve actually heard that an American has risen from the ground and moved through the air with wings,” he said, “and without sharing the fate of Icarus.”
The little cleric was staring out of the window through the thick lenses of his spectacles. “But there are so many kinds of wings,” he murmured; “there are the wings of aeroplanes and of birds. There are angels’ wings, and”— his voice dropped—“there are devils’ wings.” Then he nibbled at a piece of bread which he had been crumbling.
We were silent at once. My acquaintance with all of this remarkable man that had been made public, led me to look for something in his words which would turn out to have some bearing on our problem.
“But there is flight without wings,” he went on, “more terrible than flight with wings. The Zeppelins had no wings to lift them. A bullet has no wings. A skilfully thrown knife, flashing through the air like a drunken comet, is wingless, too.”
This was too pointed for Alec Norris, who began to talk hastily of motor-cars. And because these had little place in Mgr. Smith’s life, his work being done on foot and in places where motor-cars were not welcome, he became silent-again.
Presently the talk was interrupted. Young Strickland made a sudden exclamation, and turned to Stall. “Look!” he said.
A spider had fallen from the ceiling, or from the flowers, and was beginning to crawl across the table. The butler stepped forward, picked it up, and bore it to the window in his fingers. The little round-faced priest beside me was watching him absently. Suddenly he jumped up.
“Oh no!” he cried. “No!” And his voice was plaintive, distressed, and at the same time startled.
He ran across to the window, threw it open, picked up the spider, and dropped it on to the flower-bed.
“Why, whatever’s the matter?” asked Norris. “Didn’t Stall kill it?”
Mgr. Smith paused before answering. Stall had left the room, and closed the door. “I wish he had,” moaned Mgr. Smith. “I only wish he had!”
We exchanged glances. What could he mean? One would not have suspected him of a hatred for spiders, or for anything else for that matter. He was too mild and benevolent to hate. Besides, if it had been hatred for the insect which had made him run across the room, why hadn’t he crushed it? Why had he released it so carefully into the garden?
“Are you a nature-lover, Monsignor Smith? Have you made a special study of the Arachnids?”
“If you mean spiders,” he said, “I know only two things about them. And those are the things which everyone knows. They kill flies. And they hang on threads.”
The rest of the meal was rather difficult, for childishly innocent as this man seemed, he had, as I already knew, a knack of saying the most disturbing things.
I began idly wondering as to what unanticipated place he would ask to be conducted when lunch was over, but even so it was a surprise when he came up to me and asked if I could shew him the village church.
I expostulated, of course. “Do you think,” I ventured to ask him, “that we ought to waste time examining an old building while this problem is to be solved? It still presents such difficulties . . .”
“Yet what can we do with our difficulties better than take them to the Church?” he asked blandly, and we set out.
In the churchyard we met the Vicar. He greeted me with his quick nervous smile, and I introduced Mgr. Smith. The two seemed to have much to talk about, and I agreed to wait while the Vicar shewed my new acquaintance the beauties of the old building.
I must have been sitting on the low wall in the pale autumn sunshine for ten minutes, when Mgr. Smith bundled out of the building, evidently under some great stress. His clothes were slightly muddy, I noticed as he came forward, and his thick boots dodged in and out rapidly. “He called it a wash-basin,” he cried; “there is not a moment to be lost. Don’t you realize he called it a washbasin?”
I was getting so used to this sort of cryptic excitement that I expressed no wonder, but strode beside the breathless little man towards the Thurstons’ house.
“A wash-basin,” he murmured. “His very words.”
Suddenly Mgr. Smith stopped in the centre of the path. “Why!” he said quite loudly, turning his glasses towards me, “why, of course!” After a moment he went on. “We must go to the gymnasium,” he said.
“Yes. At once. You say one rope has been found?”
“Yes. The rope.”
“One of the ropes,” he replied absently.
“Are there two, then?” I asked, feeling as though I were Alice.
“I’m afraid so. If there was only one, it would be better. It would be much better. But I’m afraid there are two. And yet—who can say? One rope makes a noose.”
The gymnasium had been built by Thurston’s predecessor, an enthusiast for physical fitness. It stood beside the garage, a long white building. Since it was entirely modern in architecture, and made no attempt to ape the crusted red brick of the house, it had been discreetly set out of sight of even the bedroom windows.
It was not used, nowadays, by the Thurstons themselves, or their friends. None of us were physical culturists. But strolling that way one morning during a previous visit, I had heard some movement in the place, and had looked in to see Fellowes, the chauffeur, in a position on the parallel bars which would have been thought impossible to anyone but a contortionist. I had asked him then whether the gymnasium was used at all, and he said that Dr. Thurston allowed the local boy-scout troup to gather there once or twice a week. He, Fellowes, did not like this scheme, because the boys made so much noise, and had been known to run about the grounds afterwards.
When we entered it now it was very silent, and had that empty gloom which haunts schools and churches when no one is in them. One missed the crowd that should have been in that place.
Little Mgr. Smith was gazing up to the roof like an idle shepherd boy watching clouds. And I looked up to see what held his attention. Two hooks, of the reinforced kind used for the fixing of gymnasium apparatus, were in the crossbeam, but no rope hung from them.
“You’re quite right,” I said, “1 remember now. There were two ropes. The man who built the place, so Fellowes told me, had them fixed so that he and his friends could have races. And they’re gone.”
Lying along the wall was a ladder.
“Strange place to keep a ladder,” I commented. But Mgr. Smith did not wait to answer. I realized afterwards that he had gathered at a glance that the ladder had been brought in to enable the man who had removed the ropes to get them down.
It was he who led the way into the house, and up the stairs to the second floor—stairs which I was beginning to know too well. He bustled briskly into the apple-room, and scarcely troubling to pull the black cloth from his arm he plunged his hand into the water-tank. A moment later a second rope, similar in every respect to the first, lay dripping beside it on the floor.
Then Mgr. Smith sat himself plumply down on a wooden bench and said nothing for a long, long time. Dusk was already beginning to fall outside, but in the apple-room there was still light enough for me to see his round features, with a look of great and fearful wonder on them. The sun went down in crimson and yellow, like a vast battle between two armies on the hills of Spain.
And presently Mgr. Smith said: “Have you never thought what vile things men have invented for the killing one of another? And to what use they have put inventions already evil, like gunpowder and gas? But neither gunpowder nor gas, neither pistol nor poison, is as terrible as the instrument which this murderer chose.”
“I should have thought it was a very ordinary instrument,” I ventured. “A knife.”
“You are speaking of the weapon, only. I was thinking of more than that.”
“You mean, he had an accomplice?”
“I mean he had seven.”
“Seven,” I almost shouted, for this obscure suggestion startled me.
“Seven devils,” he said, and rocked himself to and fro sadly.
“But, Monsignor Smith,” I said, “what is the distinction between the weapon and the instrument? Surely you are playing with words?”
“That is too perilous a game for me to play. I would sooner amuse boys with a bomb which they think is a ball, than confuse men with a word which they believe is a warning. The instrument may yield the weapon as the guillotine dropped the blade.”
“But then—if you understand it all . . .”
“But I don’t!” cried Mgr. Smith. “I know the weapon, and I think I know the instrument. But I have yet to be sure of the murderer.”
The apple-room was almost dark now, and I felt that it must be tea-time. I stood up to see whether it would move him. To my relief Mgr. Smith rose too.
“You are right,” he said, “there is evil in this room.”
He seemed to be no longer in a hurry, but thumped downstairs prosaically. As we came into the lounge to join the others I could hear him murmuring softly to himself, and half-turned to catch the words.
“King Bruce, King Bruce,” he was whispering mystically.