Case for Three Detectives
When Dr. Thurston had left us the atmosphere of constraint which had been noticeable in his presence was at once dissipated, and everyone seemed to return with some relief to the excitement of the chase. Bereavement, on these occasions, as I have often noticed, is a bore; detection is what matters. So that the enquiry was taken up with gusto.
The first person to be questioned was the mechanic sent by the telephone service to repair the wire. He had found it cut clean through where it passed outside the window of the little cloakroom on the ground floor. He seemed an intelligent young man, eager to add his quota of suggestions.
“There was a pair of little clippers, like you use for pruning rose-trees, lying on the window-sill,” he said. “I should think more than likely it ’ud been done with them. All anyone had to do,” he explained enthusiastically, “was to shove open the window, lean out, and snip! the telephone was out of order.”
“Have these so important clippers been examined?” asked M. Picon. “Perhaps the good Bœuf has seen whether there are finger-prints on them?”
The Sergeant cleared his throat, and looked a trifle uncomfortable. “I didn’t ’ardly think it worth while,” he admitted, “seeing as I know oo’d done it.”
M. Picon gave vent to a guttural gallicism, but Lord Simon drawled, “My man Butterfield has looked at the beastly things. No finger-prints.”
The mechanic was not to be excluded. “Ah, but I tell you what,” he said, leaning forward knowingly, “there was a pair of old gardening gloves there beside them. Whoever cut that wire could have pulled ’em on”—he gave an appropriate gesture—“cut it, and taken ’em off again.”
“Voilà!” said M. Picon ironically.
“It would be more to the point if you could tell us when the Exchange discovered that the line was out of order.”
“I can tell you that. It wasn’t till this morning. There was no call for this house last night, and no one came down to report it till ten o’clock to-day.”
“Do you know who came then?”
“Yes. The chauffeur.”
M. Picon glanced up again. “And the last time the telephone was known to be in order, what was that?”
“I understand that there was a call at about six o’clock yesterday evening. That was the last.”
“Thank you very much.” Sam Williams dismissed the young man with a friendly nod.
“Puzzlin’,” commented Lord Simon. “Very puzzlin’.”
“I don’t see why,” I could not help replying. “The mechanic sounded to me as though he was right. Clippers, gloves . . . all handy.”
“I didn’t mean that,” returned Lord Simon. “But why did he bother to do it? What was the point of delayin’ communication with people outside? There were plenty of people in the house . . .”
Sergeant Beef cleared his throat again, and prepared a volley of his heaviest sarcasm. “P’raps it doesn’t occur to your Lordship, that being a murderer ’e might ’ave been afraid of the police?”
Lord Simon smiled coldly. “I am bound to say that didn’t occur to me,” he retorted, lighting a new cigar.
Sergeant Beef grunted. “Such things ’ave been known,” was all he said.
“What you forget,” murmured Mgr. Smith, “is that there is one thing at least in common between the man who decides to be a murderer and the man who decides to be a monk. It is that each leaves his fellows, and for ever. And nothing that either does to effect that isolation is to be marvelled at. This, too, they have in common—each finds at last a cell. So that while one man cuts an acquaintance, this other cut a telephone wire. And that is all there is to it.”
There was silence for a moment, and I glanced about me. The lounge itself was as cheerful and normal as it had been at this time yesterday, when we had sat about, airily discussing the literature of crime, instead of the actuality. But the vividly miscellaneous people now gathered here gave it an atmosphere of unreality, almost of the macabre. Lord Simon, shewing an inch of delicate silk sock on his outstretched ankles, certainly might have been one of the Thurstons’ guests, but the little cleric, bundled untidily into a small, wooden-framed arm-chair, belonged not at all to this conventionally luxurious background, and Sergeant Beef, scribbling industriously in his notebook, added an almost sordid touch. Little M. Picon, upright near the fire, and stooping forward to brush the ash from the grate each time it fell there, was birdlike enough to have perched for a moment here before fluttering to some other gathering, though his excessive foreignness made him exotic in our very English surroundings.
There was an intentness about us all which certainly had not existed yesterday, and every question that was asked now seemed to hang in the air like a rocket waiting to burst. It made the cross-examination of the people who followed almost unbearably tense. In fact as time went on I began to feel that each question was not the mere flash of a rocket, but was a shaft of savage lightning which one of the investigators released. Then the insufferable pause. Then the rumbling thunder of a reply.
They looked harmless enough, these three, the languid young man, the benevolent priest, the chirpy foreigner. But they were aware of things at which we could not guess, they asked questions that we did not understand, they carried the fear of the unknown in their faces and in their words.
So you must picture us, sitting about that room. Williams and I genuinely on tenterhooks, Sergeant Beef stolid and a little sulky over his notebook, and the three investigators, who were accustomed to this sort of thing, calm, but deeply interested.
A chair had been set near the middle of the room, and each of those whom we were to question took it while he was with us. It had been set in a position that allowed the light to fall fully but not conspicuously on its occupant.
After the telephone mechanic had left us, the next to enter was a cashier from the neighbouring bank at which Mary Thurston had kept her account. It was Sam Williams who had arranged for his presence, for he, with his logical and legal mind, having perceived that he himself could not give the investigators much information, had spent the day in doing all he could to help. He had summoned everyone whose evidence might be in the least bit interesting and arranged for their introduction to the conclave. I could not help feeling how much more practical this had been than my own efforts to discover the murderer.
Before anyone could speak to Mr. Kingsly, the cashier, he himself addressed us. He was a colourless man in his forties, dapperly but inexpensively dressed in grey. I saw Lord Simon suppress a shudder when he noticed a large garnet in his necktie.
“Well, gentlemen,” Mr. Kingsly said in a prim but determined voice, “I have both the Manager’s and Dr. Thurston’s permission to give you what information I can. What do you wish to know?”
“’Ow much ’ad Mrs. Thurston got in the bank?” asked Sergeant Beef rather coarsely. It seemed as though he felt it incumbent upon him to ask some sort of question.
Mr. Kingsly coughed. “Her account was very considerably overdrawn.”
This produced an astounded silence, until Lord Simon said, “Well, well. Much drawn out lately?”
“The day before yesterday, that would be Thursday, Mrs. Thurston arranged to overdraw to the limit that we could allow. She drew in cash the sum of two hundred pounds.”
“In little small notes?” queried M. Picon excitedly.
“In one-pound notes,” said Mr. Kingsly.
“Two hundred one-pound notes. What you call peculiar, is it not?” went on Picon.
“It might be for many of our clients. Mrs. Thurston had been in the habit lately of drawing out quite large sums in just such denominations.”
“I thought so,” said Beef. “Blackmail, I’ll bet.”
M. Picon looked pained. “The good Bœuf is a little direct,” he explained to Mr. Kingsly. “But is it not possible?”
“It was not for me to question the—uses to which our clients put their money,” replied the cashier priggishly.
“You say she had been doing this pretty regularly?” asked Lord Simon.
“On five occasions. The sums varied from fifty to two hundred pounds.”
“When was the first occasion?”
“About three months ago.”
“And did she always come in person to draw these sums?”
“Otherwise there was nothing remarkable about her account? Nothing worth mentionin’?”
“Nothing at all. It was quite regularly conducted.”
“Were you actually at the bank when Mrs. Thurston came down to draw that two hundred pounds?”
“You actually handed it to her, perhaps?”
“I did. That is, after she had been in to see the Manager. He instructed me to cash her cheque for that amount. I have since learnt that she wanted a rather larger sum, but that we were unable to arrange it.”
“And now—this is really important. At what time did Mrs. Thurston leave the bank?”
“It cannot have been many minutes before three o'clock.”
“One other little point, Mr. Kingsly,” said Lord Simon. “Do you happen to remember whether at any time the name Sidney Sewell appeared on your books? I know, of course, that it would be the merest chance if you remembered it, but I should like to know whether Mrs. Thurston was in the habit of making cheques payable to a Mr. Sidney Sewell.”
The cashier sniffed almost imperceptibly. “That, of course, I cannot say. But if the matter is of importance to your . . . researches, I will find out tomorrow whether that name appears.”
“Thank you. I should be most grateful.”
“There is no other point on which I can enlighten you?” His use of the word ‘enlighten’ struck me as characteristic. It carried in it a suggestion of all the self-importance of men whose life is spent with matters of money. He was probably convinced that the answer to our problem was to be found in the books of his bank.
Lord Simon glanced round enquiringly, “No. I think that is all, thanks,” he said, and Mr. Kingsly left us.
Sergeant Beef sucked his moustache. “So she was being blackmailed, was she?”
Williams turned on him. “That is a wild assumption,” he snapped. “She might have had other reasons for drawing money in that way.”
“What other reasons?” asked Beef truculently. “Only bookmakers and people as are being blackmailed want it like that.”
“I knew Mary Thurston well,” said Williams, “and I am certain that there was nothing in her life for which she could be blackmailed. She was a good woman, essentially.”
“If she was being blackmailed,” I said, “why did she shew no sign of it? She was always quite cheerful—one might say care-free.”
“A very brave prince also bore blackmail,” (it was, of course, Mgr. Smith who was speaking), “and bore it lightly.”
Lord Simon answered this somewhat impatiently. I already knew that in his methods he was nothing if not practical, and had little sympathy with such utterances. At any rate,” he said, “we shall probably know before the end of the evening whether or not Mrs. Thurston was being blackmailed, and if she was, why, and by whom. So surely we might leave the point. I am far more anxious to know something of her stepson, and the identity of Mr. Sidney Sewell.”
Sergeant Beef sighed. “Can’t see no reason for you to get on to that,” he said. “’E ’ad nothink to do with the murder, ’ooever ’e was.”
Lord Simon ignored this and said—“By the way, Beef, have you had any new-comers to the district lately? Anyone you’ve thought worth watching?”
Sergeant Beef hesitated. “I don’t know as I ought to say anythink about that. But I suppose you gentlemen’s to be trusted. Well, there is a certain individual as I’ve been told to watch. Mills, ’is name is. Working at the local ’otel. I understand it was Mrs. Thurston got ’im the job.”
Lord Simon sat up. “Really, you might have mentioned this before, Beef. What age?”
“Round about thirty.”
“What does he do at the hotel?”
“Porter ’n’ boots.”
“And why have you been instructed to watch him?”
“Oh, ’e’d got a bit of a record. Couple of stretches, I understood. Cat burglary. But nothink against him for over a year.” He looked defiantly at Lord Simon. “Now make a murderer out of ’im,” he challenged.
“It’s certainly illuminatin’,” he said. “Most illuminatin’.”
Mgr. Smith’s spectacles flashed vacantly. “Red lights are illuminating too,” he sighed to the ceiling.