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7: I Appear to Become Irrelevant

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Author Topic: 7: I Appear to Become Irrelevant  (Read 3 times)
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« on: November 19, 2023, 09:58:13 am »

I THINK it was the method of the murder of Sir John that brought home to me most forcibly the nerve of the gang that confronted us. And though there will be many people who remember the affair, yet, for the benefit of those who do not, I will set forth what happened as detailed in the papers of the following day. The cutting is before me as I write.

"Another astounding and cold-blooded murder occurred between the hours of nine and ten last night. Sir John Dallas, the well-known scientist and authority on toxicology, was stabbed through the heart in his own laboratory.

"The following are the facts of the case. Sir John, as our readers will remember, gave evidence as recently as the day before yesterday in the sensational Robin Gaunt affair. He described in court the action of the new and deadly poison, by means of which the dog, the policeman and the Australian---David Ganton---had been killed. He also stated that he was endeavouring to analyse the drug, and there can be little doubt that he was engaged on that very work when he met his end.

"It appears that yesterday afternoon a further and, at present, secret development occurred which caused Sir John to feel hopeful of success. He returned to his house in Eaton Square in time for dinner, which he had served in his study---the usual course of procedure when he was busy. At eight-thirty he rang the bell and Elizabeth Perkins, the parlour-maid, came and removed the tray. He was apparently completely absorbed in his research at that time, since he failed to answer her twice-repeated question as to what time he would like his milk. On the desk in front of him was a bottle containing a colourless liquid which looked like water, and a small cardboard box.

"These facts are interesting in view of what is to follow, and may prove to have an important bearing on the case. At between nine o'clock and a quarter-past the front-door bell rang, and it was answered by Perkins. There was a man outside who stated that he had come to see Sir John on a very important matter. She told him that Sir John was busy, but when he told her that it was in connection with Sir John's work that he was there, she showed him along the passage to the laboratory. And then she heard the stranger say distinctly, 'I've come from Scotland Yard, Sir John.'

"Now there can be but little doubt that this man was the murderer himself, since no one from Scotland Yard visited Sir John at that hour. And as walking openly into a man's house, killing him, and walking out again requires a nerve possessed by few, the added touch of introducing himself as a member of the police is quite in keeping with the whole amazing case.

"To return, however, to what happened. Perkins, having shown this man into the laboratory, returned to the servants' hall, where she remained till ten o'clock. At ten o'clock she had a standing order to take Sir John a glass of warm milk, if he had not rung for it sooner. She got the milk and took it along to the laboratory. She knocked and, receiving no answer, she entered the room. At first she thought he must have gone out, as the laboratory appeared to be empty, and then, suddenly, she saw a leg sticking out from behind the desk. She went quickly to the place to find, to her horror, that Sir John was lying on the floor with a dagger driven up to the hilt in his heart.

"She saw at a glance that he was dead, and rushing out of the house she called in a policeman, who at once rang up Scotland Yard. Inspector MacIver, who, it will be recalled, is in charge of the Robin Gaunt mystery, at once hurried to the scene. And it was he who elucidated the fact that the bottle containing the colourless liquid, and the little cardboard box, had completely disappeared. It seems, therefore, impossible to doubt that at any rate one motive for the murder of this distinguished savant was the theft of these two things with their unknown contents. And further, since we know that Sir John was experimenting with this mysterious new poison, the connection between this dastardly crime and the Gaunt affair seems conclusive.

"The matter is in the capable hands of Inspector MacIver, and it is to be hoped that before long the cold-blooded criminals concerned will be brought to justice. It is an intolerable and disquieting state of affairs that two such appalling crimes can be committed in London within three days of one another."

Which was a fair sample of what they all said. The Daily Referee offered a reward of a thousand pounds to the first person who discovered a clue which should lead to the arrest of the murderer or murderers. "Retired Colonel" and "Frankly disgusted" inflicted their opinions on a long-suffering public; and as day after day went past and nothing happened, Scotland Yard began to get it hot and strong in the Press.

Somehow or other MacIver managed to hush up the death of the woman at Number 12, Ashworth Gardens, but there was no getting away from the fact that the authorities were seriously perturbed. Their principal cause of anxiety lay, as I have shown, in a fact unknown to the public; and whereas the latter were chiefly concerned with bringing the murderers to book, Scotland Yard and the Secret Service's chief worry was as to what had happened to the secret. Had it been disposed of to a foreign Power? If so, to which?

The only ray of comfort during the weeks that followed lay in Drummond's happy idea of dividing the antidote---if it was an antidote---into two portions. For MacIver's specimen had been analysed, and its exact composition was known. The trouble lay in the fact that it was impossible to carry out further experiments, since we possessed none of the poison. For an antidote to be efficacious it is advisable to know how to use it, and since the most obvious way was not the correct one, we were not much farther advanced. Still, the general opinion was that Drummond's theory was correct, and all the necessary steps were taken to allow of its immediate manufacture on a large scale, should occasion arise.

Gradually, as was only natural, public interest died down. Nothing further happened, and it seemed to all of us that the events of those few days were destined to have no sequel. Only Drummond, in fact, continued to do anything: the rest of us slipped back into the normal tenor of our ways. He still periodically disappeared for hours at a time---generally in a disguise of some sort. He was not communicative as to what he did during these absences, and after a time he, too, seemed to be losing interest. But the whole thing rankled in his mind: he made no secret of that.

"Put it how you like," he said to me on one occasion, "we got very much the worst of it, Stockton. They got away with everything they wanted, right under our noses. And positively the only thing we have to show for our trouble is the antidote."

"A pretty considerable item," I reminded him.

He grunted.

"Oh, for ten minutes with gorse bush alone," he sighed. "Or even five."

"You may get it yet," I said.

Off and on we saw a good deal of MacIver, in whose mind the affair rankled also. The comments in the Press concerning Scotland Yard had not pleased him, and I rather gathered that the comments of his immediate superiors had not pleased him either. It was particularly the murder of Sir John Dallas that infuriated him, and over which criticism was most bitter. The other affair contained an element of mystery; a suspicion, almost of the uncanny. There seemed to be some excuse for his failure in connection with Robin Gaunt. But there was no element of mystery over stabbing a man to death. It was just a plain straightforward murder. And yet it remained wrapped in as dense a fog as the other. It was perfectly true that Elizabeth Perkins stated that she would recognise the man again. But, as MacIver said, what was the use of that unless he could first be found? And as she was quite unable to describe him, beyond saying that he was of medium height, clean-shaven and dark, the prospect of finding him was remote. At a conservative estimate her description would have fitted some ten million men.

The case of the man called Doctor Helias held out a little more prospect of success. Drummond and I separately described that human monstrosity to MacIver, and within two days a description of him was circulated all over the world. But, as Major Jackson pointed out a little moodily, it wasn't likely to prove of much use. If our fears were justified: if the secret of the poison had been handed over to a foreign Power, it was clear that Doctor Helias was an agent of that Power. And if so they wouldn't give him away.

It certainly proved of no use: no word or trace of him was discovered. He seemed to have disappeared as completely as everyone else connected with the business.

Another thing MacIver did was to turn his attention to the genuine owner of Number 12. First he tracked the maid, and we found out that part, at any rate, of the story told us by the woman who had died was true. Someone had come round and asked Miss Simpson to let the house: she had talked it over later with the maid. And on a certain morning a wire had come stating that her mother was ill, and summoning the maid to her home in Devonshire. To her surprise she found her mother perfectly fit. The wire had been sent from the village by a woman; that was all they could tell her at the Post Office. And then next morning, when she was still puzzling over the affair, had come a letter in Miss Simpson's handwriting. It was brief and to the point, stating that she had decided after all to let her house, and was proposing to travel. And it enclosed a month's wages in lieu of notice. The maid had felt hurt at such a brusque dismissal, and was shortly going to another place.

"That's really all I got out of her," said MacIver, "except for a description of Miss Simpson. She is short and fat, as Captain Drummond surmised. Also, according to the maid, she has no near relatives and very few friends. She hardly went out at all, and no one ever came to the house. Moreover, the description the maid gave me of the woman who came to ask to rent the house would fit the woman who impersonated Miss Simpson and was killed, which may be poetic justice, but it doesn't help us much."

Inquiries as to Miss Simpson's predecessors helped as little. Messrs. Paul & Paul were the agents right enough; but all they could say, having consulted their books, was that the house had belonged to a Mr. Startin, who, they believed, had gone abroad. And they knew absolutely nothing about him.

"A dead end everywhere," said MacIver despondently. "Never in the whole course of my career have I seen every trace so completely covered. They set the whole Press blazing from end to end in the country, and then they disappear as if they were wiped out."

And then on the 20th of June occurred the next link in the chain. It was an isolated one, and it is safe to say that the few people who may have read the paragraph in the papers never connected it with the other issues.

"A fisherman named Daniel Coblen made a gruesome discovery late yesterday afternoon. He was walking over the rocks near the Goodrington Sands at Paignton when he saw something floating in the sea. It proved to be the body of a woman in an advanced stage of decomposition. He at once informed the police. From marks on the unfortunate lady's garments it appears that her name was A. Simpson. Doctor Epping, who made an examination, stated that she must have been dead for considerably over a month."

As I say, the few people who may have read the paragraph would assuredly have traced no connection between it and Sir John Dallas being stabbed to death, but MacIver went down post haste to Paignton. It transpired at the inquest that death was due to drowning: no marks of violence could be found on the body. But the point of interest lay in how it had happened. How had she been drowned? No local boatman knew anything about it: no ship had reported that any passenger of that name was missing. How then had Miss Simpson been drowned?

That it was a question of foul play seemed obvious---but beyond that one bald fact everything seemed blank. The gang had decided to get rid of her, and they had chosen drowning as the method. Why they had done so was a totally different matter.

It was well-nigh inconceivable that they would have taken the trouble to put her on board a boat merely to take her out to sea and drown her, when their record in London showed that they had no hesitation in using far more direct methods. It seemed to add but one more baffling feature to a case that contained no lack of them already.

And the sole result was that Drummond's interest, which had seemed to be waning, revived once more. Sometimes I wonder if Drummond, with that strangely direct brain of his, didn't have a glimmering of the truth. Not the final actual truth---that would have been impossible at that stage of the proceedings; but a glimpse of the open ground through the trees. He said nothing then, and when I asked him the other day he only shrugged his shoulders. But I wonder . . . Day after day he disappeared by himself until his wife grew quite annoyed about it. As a matter of fact I, too, thought he was wasting his time. What he was doing, or where he went, he would never say. He just departed in the morning or after lunch, and often did not return till two or three in the morning. And since there seemed to be nothing particular to look for, and no particular place to look for it in, the whole thing struck me as somewhat pointless.

It was about that time that I began to see a good deal of Major Jackson. His club had been closed down for structural repairs, and the members had come to mine. So I saw Jackson two or three times a week at lunch. General Darton, too, was frequently there, and sometimes we shared the same table. On the whole I thought they were fairly optimistic: nothing had as yet been heard from any of our agents abroad which led them to suspect any particular Power of having acquired the secret.

"Somebody must have it presumably," said the General. "Crimes of that sort aren't perpetrated for fun. But the great point, Stockton, is this---we've got the antidote. It might be quite useful if we could discover how it worked," he added sarcastically.

"Anyway those squirting machines must have a very small range, and there still are rifles left in the world amidst this mass of filthy chemicals."

The worthy infantryman snorted, and Jackson kicked me gently under the table. He was off on his favourite topic, and he required no assistance from us. Only now as I look back on that conversation, which was only one of many similar ones, that big fundamental mistake of ours looms large. It was a natural mistake, particularly since the War Office had been concerned in the affair from the very beginning. Automatically their gaze was fixed on the foreign target; and it was tacitly assumed by us all that the direction was right. Until, that is, Drummond proved it wrong.

At the time, however, all of us who knew the inner history of the affair had our attention fixed abroad; and for the rest---the great general public---the Robin Gaunt mystery had become a back number. The Press had buried him in a final tirade of obloquy and turned its attention to other things---principally, as will be remembered, the Wilmot dirigible airship.

It was in July, I see after reference to my files, that the Wilmot airship publicity stunt was first started. Up to that date airships were regarded as essentially connected with the fighting services. And it was then that the big endeavour was made to popularise them commercially.

The first difficulty which the promoters of the scheme had to overcome was a distinct feeling of nervousness on the part of the public. Aeroplanes they were accustomed to: the magnificent Croydon to Paris service was by this time regarded as being as safe as the boat train. But airships were a different matter. Airships caught fire and burned: airships broke their backs and crashed: airships had all sorts of horrible accidents.

The second difficulty was financial nervousness in the City, doubtless induced largely by the physical nervousness of the public. Would a fleet of airships---six was the number suggested---pay? They were costly things to construct: a mooring mast worked out at about 25,000---a shed at more than 100,000. Would it prove a commercial success?

And the promoters of the scheme, rightly realising that the first difficulty was the greater, took every step they could to reassure the public. Who can fail to remember that beautiful, graceful ship circling over London day after day: going long trips over the Midlands and down to the West Country: anchored to the revolving top of the lattice-work mooring mast?

And then came the celebrated trip on July 25th, when representatives from every important London paper were taken for a trial voyage, and entertained to a luncheon during the journey which the Ritz itself could not have beaten.

I have before me a copy of the Morning Herald of the 26th in which an account of the trip is given. And I cannot refrain from quoting a brief extract. Having described the journey, and paid a glowing tribute to the beauty and the comfort of the airship, the writer proceeds as follows:---

"Then came the culminating moment of this wonderful experience. Lunch was over, a meal which no restaurant de luxe could have bettered. The drone of the engines ceased, and, as we drifted gently down wind, the whole gorgeous panorama of English woodland scenery unfolded itself before our eyes. It was the psychological moment of the day: it was the fitting moment for Mr. Wilmot to say a few words. He rose, and we tore our eyes away from the view to look at the man who had made that view possible. Tall, thick-set, and with greying hair and eyes gleaming with enthusiasm he stood at the end of the table.

"'I am not going to say much,' he remarked, in his deep steady voice---a voice which holds the faintest suspicion of American accent, 'but I feel that this occasion may mark the beginning of a new epoch in British aviation. To-day you have seen for yourselves something of the possibilities of the airship as opposed to the aeroplane: I want the public to see those possibilities too. The lunch which you have eaten has been prepared entirely on board: not one dish was brought into the kitchen ready-made. I mention that to show that the domestic arrangements are, as I think you will agree, passably efficient. But that, after all, is a detail. Think of the other possibilities. A range of 3000 miles carrying fifty passengers in the essence of comfort. Australia in a fortnight; America in three days. And it is safe, gentlemen---safe. That is the message I want you to give the British public.'"

And at this point I can imagine the reader laying the book down in blank amazement. What, he will say, is the fellow talking about? What on earth has the Wilmot dirigible got to do with the matter? We all know that any hope of success for the scheme was killed when the airship crashed in flames. There were ridiculous rumours of Wilmot going mad, though for some reason or other the thing was hushed up in the papers. Anyway, what has it got to do with Gaunt and his poison?

Don't get irritable, my friend. I warned you that I am no story-teller: maybe if I was I could have averted your anger by some trick of the trade. And I admit it looks as if I had suddenly taken leave of my senses, and that a dissertation on the habits of ferrets would have been equally relevant. I will merely say that at the time I would have agreed with you. The Wilmot dirigible had as little to do with Robin Gaunt in my mind as the fact that my clerk's name was Stevens. If I ever thought of Mr. Wilmot, which I presume I must have done, I pictured him as an ordinary business man who saw a great commercial future in the rigid airship. I take it that such was the picture in everybody's mind. I know that I heard of him lunching in the City: I know that I heard rumours of a company being actually floated. (The Duke of Wessex was to be one of the directors.)

The principal thing I did not know at the time was the truth. So bear with me, my irritated friend: in due course you shall know the truth yourself. Whether you believe it or not is a totally different matter.

Furthermore, I'm now going to make you angry again. More apparent red herrings are going to be drawn across the trail: herrings which, I once again repeat, seemed as red to me then as they will to you now.

On the 31st of July the celebrated American multi-millionaire, Cosmo A. Miller, steamed into Southampton Water in his equally celebrated yacht, the Hermione. He had with him on board the type of party that a multi-millionaire might have been expected to entertain. To take the ladies first, there was his wife, for whom he had recently bought the notorious Shan diamonds. The diamonds of death, they had been christened: strange, wasn't it, how they lived up to their evil reputation! Then there was Angela Greymount, a well-known film star: Mrs. Percy Franklin, a New York society woman and immensely wealthy; and finally Mrs. James Delmer, the wife of a Chicago millionaire. The feminine side of the party was to be completed by the Duchess of Sussex---also an American, and Lady Agatha Dawkins, an extremely amusing woman whom I knew slightly. These last two were to join the yacht at Southampton, and it was to pick them up that the Hermione called there.

The men consisted of the owner, three American business friends, the Duke of Sussex and Tony Beddington, who was, incidentally, a pal of Drummond's. He and the Duke also joined the yacht in England.

Cowes week was in progress at the time, of course---so the eyes of social England and the pens of those who chronicle the doings of the great were already occupied in that quarter. But the arrival of the Hermione was something which dwarfed everything else. Never had so much wealth been gathered together in a private yacht before. Mrs. Tattle, in that bright and breezy column which she contributed daily to the Morning Express, stated that the jewellery alone was worth over two million pounds sterling. And it is, I gather, a fact that a dear friend of Mrs. Cosmo Miller's once stated that she'd lunched with Minnie's diamonds and she believed Minnie was inside.

The yacht itself was a miniature floating palace. It had a swimming pool and a gymnasium: it had listening-in sets and an electric piano encrusted in precious stones---or almost. There was gold plate for use at dinner, and the plebeian silver for lunch. In fact it was the supreme essence of blatant vulgarity.

In addition to the guests there were the Wallaby Coon Quartette, the Captain, the wireless operator, four maids, the chef and the writer of "The Three Hundred Best Cocktails" as barman. The crew numbered sixteen.

So that when the Hermione steamed slowly down Southampton Water there were in all forty souls on board. The sea was like a mill-pond; the date was August 2nd. On August 4th a marconigram was received in London by the firm of Bremmer and Bremmer. It was from Mr. Miller, and is of interest merely because it is the last recorded message received from the Hermione. From that moment she completely disappeared with every soul on board.

At first no one worried. When the Hermione failed to arrive at the Azores, which was originally intended, it was assumed that Mr. Miller and his guests had changed their route. But when, on August 10th, Bremmer and Bremmer having obtained the information required by Mr. Miller proceeded to wireless it to the Hermione, no response whatever was received from her. The sea was still beautifully calm: no report of any storms had been received from the Atlantic. And somewhere in the Atlantic the Hermione must be, since it was definitely certain she had not passed Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean.

By August 12th the whole Press---English and American---was seething with it.

"Mysterious Disappearance of Multi-Millionaire's Yacht."

"Cosmo A. Miller beats it with Wallaby Quartette."

"S.Y. Hermione refuses wireless calls," etc., etc.

Still no one took it seriously. The yacht was fitted with a Marconi installation: the sea was still like glass. The general opinion was that there had been a break-down in the engines, and that for some obscure reason the wireless was out of action.

But by August 20th, when the silence was still unbroken, the tone of the Press began to change. Once again I will refer to my file of cuttings, and quote from the Morning Herald of that date.

"The mysterious silence of the S.Y. Hermione has now become inexplicable. The last communication from her was received more than a fortnight ago. Since then nothing further has been heard, though Mr. Cosmo Miller, her owner, has been repeatedly called up on important business matters. It is impossible to avoid a feeling of grave anxiety that all is not well."

But what could have happened? The wireless operator was known to be a first-class man, and it seemed impossible that such damage could have happened to his instruments, in a perfectly calm sea, that he would be unable to effect a temporary cure.

Then some bright specimen had an idea which held the field for quite a while. It was just an advertisement---an elaborate publicity stunt. They were receiving all these messages, and taking no notice of them merely in order to keep the eyes of the world focussed on them. Such a thing, it was argued, was quite in keeping with at any rate Mrs. Miller's outlook on life. And it wasn't until August 25th came and went that one of the officials at Southampton Docks shattered that theory. The Hermione's bunkers only held sufficient coal for a fortnight, and that only when steaming at her economic speed. And it was now twenty-four days since she had sailed.

By this time the public on both sides of the Atlantic were very gravely perturbed. The wildest rumours were flying round: from pirates to sea serpents all sorts of suggestions were put forward.

Both the British and American navies despatched light cruisers to discover what they could; and it may be remembered that when Mr. Wilmot's patriotic offer to place his airship at the disposal of the authorities was refused, he himself, at his own expense, went far out into the Atlantic to see if he could find out anything.

Nothing was ever discovered; no trace was found of the yacht. And no trace ever will be; for she sank with every soul on board.

Now for the first time I will put down what happened, and show the connection between the two chains of events---the big and the so-called little: between the disappearance of the Hermione and Robin Gaunt's cry over the telephone. I will tell of the death of Mr. Wilmot, and of what happened to the man called Helias in that lonely spot in Cornwall. And, perhaps, most important of all, certainly most interesting, I will set down word for word the last statement of Robin Gaunt.
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