Case for Three Detectives
I do not know how many seconds it took us to reach the door of Mary Thurston’s room. But that it was seconds, and not minutes, not even one minute, I am certain. At the door stood Alec Norris. But the door was locked.
At first we threw our shoulders against it. Then Williams, pressing first the top, then the bottom of it, shouted, “Bolted! In two places. Smash the panel in, Thurston.”
Thurston was still heaving his weight blindly at the door, and it was I who picked up a solid wooden chair which stood on the landing, and drove it through the upper panel. And through the jagged gap I caught a glimpse of the room, and of something in it which was horrible, and yet which gave me none of the astounded shock which the screams had given me. I suppose they had made me expect it. For what I saw was the dim outline of Mary Thurston’s face on a pillow which was more crimson than white, and I knew at once that she had been murdered.
Before we could enter, however, it was necessary to smash in a lower panel as well, for the door was tall, and, as Williams had said, bolted at top and bottom. I myself leaned through the broken woodwork and pulled back those bolts. And lest it should be doubted later, let me say quite clearly now that each was driven home securely. Indeed, it took me several seconds to get the lower one back at all.
When I had done that, and while I was standing up to turn the handle, Thurston pushed past us into the room. And as he did so I became aware that we had been joined by two others. My whole conscious attention was concentrated on the room before us, so that it was only as it were from the corner of my mind that I perceived Strickland standing there beside us, and Fellowes on the staircase which rose from beyond Mary Thurston’s door to the second floor. At what moment they had arrived I did not, do not, know. But I am certain that neither was there when we had first reached the landing, and that neither had appeared when I stepped back to pick up the chair. In other words, neither was on the scene within a minute of the screams, though both had arrived soon after that.
And now we were peering in at that doorway. We stood there, the four of us, as though we had been warned to respect the room. We stood, and saw what we saw, and watched Thurston’s movements.
There was only a reading-lamp alight in the room, but it was not too heavily shaded for us to see the whole interior. Across the bed lay Mary Thurston, fully dressed. But it was the pillow on which her head lay which drew our horrified stare, the pillow and her throat. For the pillow, as I had already seen, was stained hideously with scarlet, and across her throat, her fat white throat, there was a still ghastlier scar. But once again I do not wish to be unnecessarily harrowing. It is sufficient to say that when Thurston told us in a choking voice that she was dead, we did not speak or move, for we had known what his words must be.
Sam Williams kept his head. “Don’t move,” he said to us who stood in the doorway. “He must be in there.” And he reached for the light switch, and snapped it down. This, however, had no result, and I was conscious of a slight relief. Any further light on that scene would have been too merciless.
But I think it was the fruitless click of that electric light that turned my attention from the realization of Mary Thurston’s death, to the necessity of discovering her murderer. In the agonising seconds during which we had stared at what lay on the bed, I had thought how dreadful, how tragic, as though it had been an accident. But when Williams pressed the switch and the room became no lighter, something woke me to see that this . . . this horror was human work, and that its agent must be discovered.
Still, it could only have been two or three minutes at the most after the time of the first scream. By no means could the murderer have escaped.
“Stay in the doorway, Townsend,” Williams said again, and began to search the room.
I stood with Strickland and Fellowes behind me, watching him. He crossed first to the window, and peered out, and up and down, then went to a large cupboard, built into the wall beside the fireplace, and searched it quickly. I saw him look up to the roof of it, and down in the farthest recess. He crossed to the fireplace, and briefly examined it. He looked under the bed, and at the mattresses; he opened a wardrobe.
“The window again,” I shouted suddenly. Though there were two windows in the room, only one of them was made to open, and towards this Williams hurried again. It is true that I had already seen him look out of it, but some instinct had made me beg him to do so once more.
“Impossible,” he said. “There’s a twenty-foot drop. And,” he looked out again, “ten feet to the window above.”
Williams continued his search as though oblivious of Thurston, who was standing beside the bed. Very low sounds like buried sobs came from him, and he did not move. Presently Williams had finished his first investigation.
“If there’s any place of concealment in that room,” he said, “it is a specially constructed one.”
That was true enough. I had been eager to point out any possible space left unexamined by Williams, if he gave me an opportunity. I suppose that the hunting instinct is still strong in us, and though I never moved from the door my eyes and mind were occupied with the search. There was nowhere left to probe in the room itself.
“Fellowes, help me move this carpet,” Williams said suddenly. “We’ll leave nothing to chance.”
They pulled up the carpet and examined the floorboards. They looked over every foot of wall space. They re-examined the cupboard, the floor of the cupboard, and the upper part of it. The bed was a single one, light, and high above the floor. They scrutinised the boards beneath it. They went again to the fireplace, as though to see whether it might not conceal a means of escape. They moved the furniture and looked behind it.
Williams was white, and his teeth were clenched as though he were repressing emotion. “It’s unbelievable,” he said to me; then, in a lower voice, “It’s unnatural.” And I was inclined to agree with him.
By this time, or during this time, we had been joined by Stall. Norris and Fellowes both said afterwards that he had arrived before Williams had first pushed up the window, but I did not notice him come. He was, incidentally, the only one of us, apparently, who was already in pyjamas. He wore an ugly woollen dressing-gown, and seemed to be shivering, though the evening could not have been called cold.
Presently Williams, whose lawyer’s mind was best equipped for the situation, said, “We must get a doctor. And the police. There’s no point in staying here. Better search the grounds. I’ll telephone.”
Then Thurston joined us. “Have you ’phoned, Sam?” he asked. His voice was low and tired. “Doctor? And everything?”
“Just going to,” said Williams, and patted his arm.
And then—perhaps you will be shocked—the first thing we did was to have a stiff whisky. Williams poured one out for Dr. Thurston, who had sunk into a chair in the lounge, and gave one each to Fellowes and Stall. Alec Norris’s teeth rattled on the rim of his glass as he drank. Strickland had not spoken yet, but drank greedily.
“Look here, Townsend,” said Williams, “you take Norris, Strickland and Fellowes and make a thorough search of the grounds.”
“Certainly,” I said, though I had little hope of discovering anything. But I felt I could no longer bear the atmosphere of that house. The thought of Thurston, the rotund and cheerful, looking puffy and drawn, and Alec Norris with his white face and thin trembling frame, was too much for me. The man I most respected was Williams, who never lost his head, and handled the hideous situation admirably.
In the hall were Fellowes and Stall, and we decided to take the chauffeur with us, leaving Stall in case he should be wanted.
“What about the women-servants?” I asked. “Do they know?”
It had struck me that it would be cruel to let Enid, the young parlourmaid, go into that room unprepared.
“Yes, sir. The parlourmaid was upstairs while we were at the door, and I sent her down to the kitchen,” Fellowes said.
“Well, stay with her and the cook,” I told Stall. “And don’t let either of them leave the kitchen.”
“Very well, sir,” said the butler.
We had just arranged our routes when Williams called me from the little cloakroom off the hall to which he had gone to telephone for the police. “I think the ’phone’s out of order,” he said, “or the wires have been cut. I can’t get an answer, anyway. Better tell Fellowes to take the car and fetch Dr. Tate and the Sergeant at once. As quick as he can.”
“I’ll have another try at this thing. But it seems pretty dead,” he said, returning to the cloakroom.
So Fellowes went off to the village, and Strickland, Norris and I out into the grounds. We had decided that Norris was to go round by the stable-yards, Strickland was to make an outer circuit, in the remote hope that he might find someone, or something, among the trees which would help us. You will understand that we had little confidence in this chase of ours into the open air. But the fact that Mary Thurston’s door had been bolted, her windows inaccessible, and her room empty, already seemed to us so fantastic and inexplicable that we no longer behaved, or tried to behave, logically.
I could realize little more than that a murder had been committed by some means which seemed to me almost supernatural. I was so much distressed, and so much at a loss, that any course of action which had been suggested to me as likely to capture the murderer would have done as well as this mad rush into the grounds. If Williams had told me to search the garage, or the village church, or to take a train to London, I would have obeyed as readily. I had to do something. When I remembered that poor, kindly, stupid woman who had always been so gently foolish and free from any sort of malice, lying as I had seen her, I was eager enough for work which might avenge her. So that I did not wait to calculate the chances of any success for Norris, Strickland and me in the garden. I ran out blindly.
I had snatched up a powerful electric torch which lay on the hall table, and after a general look round the house I went to the gravel path which ran beyond the wide flowerbed that was under Mary Thurston’s window. It seemed to me that here, if anywhere, I might find something, some . . . (the word had already come into my mind) clue. And I was not disappointed. I found two objects which, if they were not clues, were at least, I thought, connected with the crime.
The first lay far out on the tennis court, fifteen yards or more from the house. It was a broken electric-light bulb. As soon as I saw its fragments gleaming on the short grass, I stopped to pick them up. But before my hand touched them, I paused. I suddenly remembered all I had read of crimes, and their discovery. Finger-prints! And I thought with a shudder that I had been projected by this affair into a new and frightening world, in which investigation, cross-examination, and the discovery of finger-prints took the place of the more normal events of my previous life.
The other object was even more relevant. It was the knife with which the murder had been done. When I saw it lying on the wide flower-bed under the window, I was surprised. And yet, as it was afterwards shewn to me, I ought to have been prepared for greater surprise if it had not lain there. For where else should it be? Wherever the murderer was at that moment concealed, it must have been his first care to rid himself of his weapon. And since the weapon was one which would easily be identified, he did not care how soon it was found, provided it was not found on him. He had done the obvious and the safest thing—he had dropped it out of the window as soon as he had committed his crime.
So there it lay, and my torch even revealed a wet bloodstain on it. But once again I knew better than to touch it. I left it lying there, and decided to return to the house to report my discoveries.
As I stood up I saw Strickland hurrying towards me. “Not a sign of anything,” he said. His voice was a little thick, but he seemed cool enough. His nature was perhaps too bovine to be easily stirred.
I shewed him the knife, and he whistled.
“Poor old Mary,” he said, looking down at it.
I did not like the mixture of conventional regret and familiarity in the remark, and said sharply, “You were fond of her, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Strickland, making no attempt to move, or to take his eyes from the knife. “Lend me that light a minute,” he added.
He held the torch near to the knife, then stood up. “It’s one of those blasted Chinese things from the hall,” he said. Then thoughtfully, “That’ll keep suspicion in the household.”
I was not listening very carefully, for another thought had occurred to me.
“What about footprints,” I said, “supposing that anyone did get down from that window by any means?”
It seemed a remote hope, but then so was everything else. Very carefully we examined the flowerbeds for several yards left and right of a line from Mary Thurston’s window to the ground, and from the wall to the very edge of the bed. But the ground was quite undisturbed. Slowly Strickland and I walked along to the front door together. We met Morris coming from the opposite direction.
“Seen anything?” I asked him.
He said “No” very quickly, and led the way into the house.