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Chapter Sixteen

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« on: October 07, 2023, 06:32:59 am »

MACDONALD WAS sitting with Mrs. Merrion and David Lockersley on the terrace at Valehead. Below them, by the river, yellow water iris stood by the stream like golden sentinels, and the scent of roses came in wafts on the breeze. The hot sun was tempered by a cool breeze, and the whole valley, set between its wooded scarps, was rich and sweet with the glory of an English midsummer.

“I think Mr. Lockersley guessed his way along, rather as I guessed mine,” said Macdonald, “though he was rather put out of his stride by the complication of the diamond theft.”

“Yes. I thought it was part and parcel of the whole thing,” said Lockersley, “and I admit that I believed Keston had deliberately put that stone in my pocket. This confused me and I went astray. I can just remember Carter before he hit me, standing by the cupboard, and I had a sudden flash of illumination, as one seems to have in dreams sometimes, when one says, ‘Now I can see it all,’ just before darkness comes down again.”

Mrs. Merrion sighed, and Macdonald said to her, “You are still puzzled. You want to get the whole problem sorted out, and then you can put it behind you.”

She nodded. “Yes. I want to know exactly what happened, so that I’ve never got to wake up and wonder again.” She paused a minute and then added, “I’m not going to let all this poison Valehead for me. I know my sister thinks I’m inhuman, but I still love this place as much as ever. It’s not that I wasn’t fond of Father. I was, very. I shall miss him, but I do know that he died peacefully, without any pain or distress; and the rest can be forgotten, just like a bad dream. I want you to tell me exactly what happened, so that my mind needn’t ever worry about it again.”

“Exactly, and if there’s anything you don’t understand, stop me, and I will try to explain. Now when you met Bruce Rhodian in London, he told you that he had read your father’s books, and wanted to meet him, and you asked him if he would like to come to see Valehead, and he agreed. That is all quite plain and simple. The complication was this. Two men, Bruce Rhodian and Martin Trent, did a transcontinental journey which has since become famous. They started in Northern Peru, and finished at Rio de Janeiro, but only one of them lived to the complete the journey. That one was the man whom we knew as Bruce Rhodian. Martin Trent was reported to have died of fever in the jungle. The real facts of the matter were that Rhodian died, and Martin Trent assumed his name and claimed to be Rhodian, and claimed, too, the MS. description of the journey which has since been published, here and in America, and the films and other records which had very great value. The impersonation was done for the commonest and meanest of all motives---love of money and prestige. I won’t bother you with a description of the circumstances which made that impersonation possible. It doesn’t matter so far as this narrative is concerned. What does matter is that Martin Trent, known to you and to everybody else as Bruce Rhodian, came to stay at Valehead, and that Lockersley here said to him, ‘Professor Crewdon knew Martin Trent when he was a young man in one of the American universities, and is looking forward to talking to you about him.’ Imagine for a moment what this meant to the impostor. He had come to England ostensibly to enlist, knowing that the chances of his fraud being discovered were very small here. Neither he nor his companion had been at all famous before their journey. Rhodian---as I shall continue to call him for simplicity’s sake---had stolen another man’s work and the very large profit accruing therefrom. He had taken all the credit for a piece of planning and endurance and daring which had been the result of another man’s brains and determination. He was sunning himself in admiration, and expecting to make a large sum of money from the film companies. He saw himself discredited, shown up as a cheat, possibly something worse, by that one brief statement of Lockersley’s.”

“Yes,” said Lockersley slowly, “and he never batted an eyelid. He just changed the subject, and showed an intelligent interest in the Hermit’s Cave.”

“Very intelligent,” said Macdonald dryly. “I think he started planning the minute he saw it. He was not going to lose everything without fighting for it. Professor Crewdon was, so far as he knew, the one man in England who could say, ‘But you are Martin Trent, not Rhodian at all.’ Now to get down to the very simple mechanics of the matter. There was charcoal in the cave. Rhodian knew all about charcoal. He had been brought up in Latin America, where charcoal stoves are common. He knew that the professor slept in the cave. Those two facts got him planning, and he planned very quickly. He saw all the possibilities of an electric stove connected to the wiring at the entrance. He determined on two things. He would go away before the professor arrived at Valehead, and he would fix an alibi with his friend Belton, but he would be back at Valehead to watch for his opportunity. The only preparations he had to make were these: to lower the switch which controlled the light at the entrance gate and to secrete a small electric stove near the cave. Additional flex to cover the distance from the electric fitting to the cave had also to be obtained.”

“He must have had a facer when he heard the professor was coming back a day earlier,” said Lockersley, and Macdonald nodded.

“Yes, but he was lucky. Belton put through a call to him, and he was able to give some swiftly thought out instructions. I’ll go back to that later. In the interim, he told Mrs. Merrion that he must go up to town the next morning, but would come down again to meet the professor in a few days’ time. He took the stove from Mr. Lockersley’s room, and cut some of the flex from his reading lamp. Even then he was planning to have a scapegoat, though he could not have foreseen how other complications were going to help him.”

Lockersley gave an indignant grunt. “Why did they all fix on me?” he demanded disgustedly. “Do I look such a fool?”

“It’s because you are a poet, and poets are known to be temperamental,” said Mrs. Merrion, and there was the hint of a smile in her eyes.

Macdonald replied quite calmly, “As a matter of fact, you look a much bigger fool than you are. It’s much better to do that than the converse. However, to get on with the story. Rhodian caught the nine twenty-five from Starford, and travelled in it as far as Reading, where the train stops for some minutes. Here he met Belton, whom he had instructed to meet him when he telephoned the previous evening. Rhodian told Belton what had happened---they are accomplices in deriving profit from the impersonation business. Belton, who is not unlike Rhodian, put on the latter’s light raincoat, took his suitcase, with its noticeable steamship labels, and travelled back to Paddington on the same train Rhodian had travelled in from Starford, and gave up Rhodian’s ticket at Paddington, so that if a check-up of tickets was ordered---a commonplace in police procedure---everything should be in order. Rhodian then calmly waited, and boarded the Enster train on which the professor was to travel, Belton having given him an Enster ticket.”

“But why did he do that?” demanded Eve, and Macdonald explained.

“Rhodian was intending to murder a man whom he had not seen for many years and did not clearly remember. A risky undertaking. He had seen the portrait of the professor in the dining room, and he wanted to make sure he could recognize him again. He walked along the corridor of the train until he spotted the man he wanted, taking care that he was himself unseen. The professor got out at Enster, so did Rhodian. He saw him board the Starford train and could have read the name on the professor’s suitcase. He knew him now, there was no possibility of mistake. Rhodian himself walked back to Valehead---he had plenty of time.”

“How do you know all this?” inquired Eve.

“By a process of assumption to begin with, and later by painstaking proof. We got photographs of Rhodian and Belton, and Mr. Lockersley, too, for that matter, and one of my colleagues spent a weary day at Reading, worrying porters and ticket collectors and bookstall men and tea-trolley boys, and all the odd personalia of a station platform. Another odd incident clinched it. We received an anonymous letter saying that Mr. Lockersley had been seen on the professor’s train.”

“Well, I’m damned!” said Lockersley indignantly, and Macdonald continued placidly:

“I got the inspector down here to trace the letter. He did so without much difficulty. People nearly always talk. The anonymous letter writer proved to be the driver of a local tradesman’s van which often comes up the Valehead drive. This chap had seen ‘one of the gentry’ staying at the house, and had asked Carter who he was. Carter, without bothering overmuch, had replied, ‘Oh, that was Mr. Lockersley. He’s a poet.’ In reality it was Rhodian the driver had asked about. When photographs were produced, the matter was speedily cleared up. The van driver had been to London to see a brother in hospital, and saw Rhodian in the train on the way back, and obliged with an anonymous letter, only he confused the issue by giving Lockersley’s name.”

“It seems to me I’ve been lucky,” said Lockersley. “I’d no idea how fishy I looked. Incidentally, did any of the railwaymen spot Rhodian’s photograph?”

“Not railwaymen. Railwaywomen,” replied Macdonald. “A muscular young lovely now employed as a porter saw both Rhodian and Belton at Reading. Another porter---also a woman---saw Rhodian alight from the Tawmouth train at Paddington on Thursday. He had walked to Ashampton, cross-country, and caught the train there.”

“Crime is not so simple as it looks,” murmured Lockersley. “You police take a lot of trouble.”

“Some of us do,” replied Macdonald. “Jenkins, the inspector who took the photographs round at Reading and Paddington, takes endless trouble. Well, now I think you can see exactly what happened. Rhodian got back to Valehead some time on the Wednesday evening, and fixed up his flex, and packed the stove with charcoal. He made arrangements to stop up the lancet and the cave entrance, probably covering the old wicket gate with a coat for the latter, and then waited. He would have seen the professor walk down the drive and go into the cave, and then waited until he thought it was time to switch on the stove.” Macdonald paused a moment and then added, “Of course, Rhodian could not have been certain that the professor would choose to spend that particular night in the cave, but Mrs. Stamford had told me in an unguarded moment that Mrs. Merrion had made some comment implying her own certainty that the professor would sleep in the cave as soon as he got back. This opened up several lines of thought, but it explained Rhodian’s determination to try out his scheme on the Wednesday night. Obviously, the more quickly he was able to act, the easier for him to cook an alibi with Belton’s aid. The longer he had to wait, the more risk he ran of not being able to explain where he had been in the interim.” He turned to Lockersley. “When you were in the cave for my experiment I had the stove turned on. You noticed nothing, except that you felt the temperature rise a bit, but that may have been nerves.”

“I should say it might. I never went through quite such a grim performance in my life. I tell you I was sweating with terror. . . .”

Macdonald bent toward Eve Merrion. She was leaning forward in her chair, her face in her hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said gently. “This has been a horrible recital for you. You said that you wanted to know, and I have tried to tell it objectively, as though it had happened to someone else.”

“Don’t be sorry. You have been as kind as anyone could be, all the time,” she replied. “I did want to know, and I’m grateful to you for telling me everything so plainly. Now I feel I can put it all behind me. I’m not going to sorrow over my father. He was happy, and he died happily, in his sleep, without knowing pain or fear.” She got up from her chair. “I’m not going to go on thinking about it, or talking about it,” she said. “I realize what morbid thinking and talking can do when I see the state my sister got herself into. Heavens, I nearly went mad, thinking she knew something about it. I’m very grateful to you for telling me everything so plainly. My father would have been grateful, too, and I think he would have been satisfied over the way he died, because his death caused a lie to be exposed. . . . Now I’m going to forget all this. I’m going to have the children here in the holidays, and they can play and shout and run wild all over the valley, and play hide and seek in the Hermit’s Cave if they want to. What I won’t do is to let sorrow and fear spoil this place. It’s a lovely place!”

“It’s the loveliest place I have ever seen,” replied Macdonald, “and I hope from now on you will be happy in it, and make the garden blossom as a rose.”

+++

Eve Merrion went back into the house, and Macdonald returned to Lockersley.

“That woman has more common sense and more natural generosity than any other woman I have ever met,” said Lockersley. “Do you know she is keeping on Mrs. Carter here, as though nothing had ever happened? And now will you tell me about those infernal diamonds?”

Macdonald laughed a little. “Yes. Those infernal diamonds. They put me off my stroke at first. Carter, you may be interested to know, was jailed in the States for thieving years ago. He was an able seaman, and got discharged for theft, and was finally repatriated here. We have traced his record, but it took a long time. He got a job as caretaker, and later houseman, and he had been going straight for years. Then, unfortunately, he heard the professor talking about his diamonds to Keston. It was too much for Carter’s honesty. He searched until he found them, and took them. Unfortunately for him, he timed his theft just before the professor’s death, and then he got in a panic. He knew the house might be searched, and he dared not be found with the stones in his possession. He first thought of burying them, but was afraid that with the police about the place he would be spotted. He wanted to return them, but the very day he hit on this grand idea, I turned up. He was then more panic-stricken than ever, feeling he would be caught red-handed. He hit on the idea of putting them in the pocket of your dinner jacket, thinking he could recover them after I had left the house. It seemed to him that it was a good idea to let them be found in some pocket not his own. He put them in your pocket, and later he recovered them, save for one which he left behind by accident, being flurried, as he told me. The evening you went upstairs and found him at your cupboard, he was searching for the one he had lost, like the lady in the scriptures. When you appeared, rather too quietly, he had actually got the other stones in his hand, and was counting them as a child might count. He has a very simple mind. Then he saw you, and you had seen the stones in his hand. His reaction was very simple---‘hit first and think afterwards.’ He did, with disastrous results. I found the diamonds scattered about the bedroom floor later. He had been too upset to pick them up.”

Lockersley laughed aloud. “That’s a good piece of comic relief. Silly old fool, that Carter. If he’d thought for a moment he could have realized that those stones would bring him nothing but trouble. He was lucky they didn’t bring him worse trouble. You must surely have thought that the diamonds were an intrinsic part of the mystery.”

“At first glance it appeared so, but, thinking it out, I was less certain. Keston had one of his lucid moments when he said that he couldn’t see any point in the thief who stole the diamonds murdering the professor. In fact, one might say that the professor’s death insured the discovery of the theft. Once his affairs were gone into in a police investigation the matter of the diamonds would inevitably come to light. However, I was bound to regard the two crimes as connected at first. I think I first came to the conclusion that they were not connected when I read your statement, after finding one of the stones in your pocket. I did wonder if Keston were trying to plant evidence, but I never seriously believed in his guilt, and it was very difficult to consider him as a thief. Carter or Brady seemed much more likely suspects in that direction. I was certain that it was Carter as soon as I had found that you were knocked out. Brady was obviously incapable of that performance. When I considered that Carter was a likely thief, I didn’t much favour the idea that he was responsible for the murder. It was too ingenious. Carter is a clumsy fellow.”

“One other point. What about that packet of Meta fuel Mrs. Merrion was talking about?”

“That was a red herring of Rhodian’s, when he was casting about in his mind for a useful explanation. He suggested that the professor lighted the charcoal by means of Meta fuel. Mrs. Merrion caught at the suggestion; she thought it was quite possible, and she remembered that her father had had some of the fuel. She went to his room to look for it, and found a box in his compactum. She took it out and put it on his wash stand, meaning to tell me about it. I found it there, and was interested, knowing that it had not been in the room when I first searched. The most interesting point about it was that the only fingerprints on the Meta packet were Mrs. Merrion’s own. I’m pretty sure that Rhodian brought the packet with him from London, having wiped all fingerprints off it, and put it in the professor’s bedroom for me to find. It was a futile proceeding, because if the professor had opened the packet, his fingerprints must have been found on it.”

Lockersley gave a snort of indignation. “What a lowdown dirty cur that Rhodian-Trent blighter is! To murder a kindly old man was bad enough, but to produce evidence reflecting on Mrs. Merrion---trying to get her involved in his filthy crimes---God, that strikes me as unforgiveable.”

“Trent-Rhodian had only one intention---to make his way by fair means or foul. He also contrived to burn some of the Meta fuel in the cave, and saw to it that traces were left for me to discover---a belated afterthought on his part. He did his best to cast suspicion on everybody: on Keston, who he said was always ‘snooping around,’ on you, on Carter. Incidentally, it’s my turn to ask a few questions. When you gave me that statement, you had observed for yourself what the implication was so far as Rhodian was concerned?”

“Oh, yes. It was as plain as daylight. I thought of telling you about it, and then it occurred to me that it was much better to let the statement speak for itself. I wasn’t afraid you’d miss anything of that kind.”

“Thanks.”

Lockersley grinned at the dry tone, his heavy eyes lighted with a glimmer of impish amusement.

“If I wanted to pose as Sherlock Holmes cum Peter Wimsey, I should pretend that I’d seen the implication from the word go. Actually, I’d forgotten all about that casual conversation with Rhodian. It wasn’t until you told me to write everything down in detail that I dug it up out of my subconscious. It came back because I did exactly what you told me to do, starting at tea time on Tuesday, I made an effort to remember every word anyone spoke.”

“Very few people have the faculty of accurate recollection,” said Macdonald. “I asked Keston to do the same thing, and he was quite hopeless. He can only remember what he has read, things heard in casual conversation don’t stay in his mind. Another question: on the evening before Carter knocked you down, you telephoned to London, to a journalist on the Morning News. Were you trying to get private information about Rhodian?”

“Yes. The curiosity bug was working in my system, and I was feeling that I might be a swell at detection. I asked the chap to collect all that he could for me on the topic of Rhodian from the South American papers. It may have been an idiotic thing to do, but I’m no exception to human idiocy.”

“Your particular type of idiocy has been very useful to me,” replied Macdonald. “Well, I think we have covered all the ground, save for my conversation with Professor Evans. When he dined with Crewdon, Evans showed him some photographs---groups taken recently at a party in Oxford. Rhodian was in one of the groups. Crewdon spotted him, saying. ‘That fellow---why, it must be Martin Trent. He was a student of mine years ago . . .’ and then the fat was in the fire. The two learned men put their heads together, and Crewdon determined to go back to Valehead the next day to see Rhodian. He was much too scrupulous to mention his suspicions to anyone until he was sure of his ground.”

“He was a nice old chap,” said Lockersley soberly. “I’m glad Mrs. Merrion looks at things as she does, that there’s nothing to sorrow over in an old man’s passing, especially when he goes peacefully and painlessly.”

There was a moment’s pause, and then Macdonald said: “Yes, Mrs. Merrion is ‘rich in saving common sense,’ to quote one of our now despised Victorians, but she has had a rough time of it. I think her idea of having the children here for the holidays is a sound one. They will help her to forget. Keston is going to do some secretarial work for Professor Watlington, so he will be going away from here.”

“So I heard.” Again Lockersley grinned at Macdonald. “Did you organize that arrangement?”

“To some extent, yes. I thought it would be a relief to Mrs. Merrion not to have Keston brooding around the place, and good for him to be doing a job of work.”

“Quite. Have you organized a job for me, too?”

Macdonald chuckled. “No, young fella me lad, but I’ll drive you back to town on government petrol tomorrow. It’ll save you a tiresome railway journey. If you have nothing else to do, you can write a volume in vers libre embodying the idiom and opinions of Mrs. Briggs, charlady, of Camden Town.”

“Be damned! Are all our private lives open books to you?”

“Books at which I have glanced, and closed again. Books returned to the library shelf. No further concern of mine.”

“You just feel that Valehead will not be itself again until I---and Keston---and you have left it?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

Macdonald got to his feet and stood looking across the sunlit valley.

“Things happen, but the place remains,” he said quietly, as though talking to himself. “Crime and punishment, wars and rumours of wars, yet the earth still brings forth its increase. Perhaps the nicest thing one can say about Mrs. Merrion is that she apprehends the beauty of this valley, and she won’t let it be spoiled for her by the errors of human beings.”

Lockersley nodded. “Yes, you old proser. You’re right in the main. All right, I’ll come back to London with you, but one day I shall sneak back and sleep in the Hermit’s Cave.”

“May you dream good dreams,” replied Macdonald.

THE END

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