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Chapter 14

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« on: January 29, 2023, 09:55:30 am »

"THERE is one link in the chain missing," said Rolfe, who was discussing with Inspector Chippenfield, in the latter's room at Scotland Yard, the strength of the case against Birchill.

"And what is that?" asked his superior.

"The piece of woman's handkerchief that I found in the dead man's hand. You remember we agreed that it showed there was a woman in the case."

"Well, what do you call this girl Fanning? Isn't she in the case? Surely, you don't want any better explanation of the murder than a quarrel between her and Sir Horace over this man Birchill?"

"Yes, I see that plain enough," replied Rolfe. "There is ample motive for the crime, but how that piece of handkerchief got into the dead man's hand is still a mystery to me. It would be easily explained if this girl was present in the room or the house when the murder was committed. But she wasn't. Hill's story is that she was at the flat with him."

"When you have had as much experience in investigating crime as I have, you won't worry over little points that at first don't seem to fit in with what we know to be facts," responded the inspector in a patronising tone. "I noticed from the first, Rolfe, that you were inclined to make too much of this handkerchief business, but I said nothing. Of course, it was your own discovery, and I have found during my career that young detectives are always inclined to make too much of their own discoveries. Perhaps I was myself, when I was young and inexperienced. Now, as to this handkerchief: what is more likely than that Birchill had it in his pocket when he went out to Riversbrook on that fatal night? He was living in the flat with this girl Fanning: what was more natural than that he should pick up a handkerchief off the floor that the girl had dropped and put it in his pocket with the intention of giving it to her when she returned to the room? Instead of doing so he forgot all about it. When he shot Sir Horace Fewbanks he put his hand into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe his forehead or his hands—it was a hot night, and I take it that a man who has killed another doesn't feel as cool as a cucumber. While stooping over his victim with the handkerchief still in his hand, the dying man made a convulsive movement and caught hold of a corner of the handkerchief, which was torn off." Inspector Chippenfield looked across at his subordinate with a smile of triumphant superiority.

"Yes," said Rolfe meditatively. "There is nothing wrong about that as far as I can see. But I would like to know for certain how it got there."

Inspector Chippenfield was satisfied with his subordinate's testimony to his perspicacity.

"That is all right, Rolfe," he said in a tone of kindly banter. "But don't make the mistake of regarding your idle curiosity as a virtue. After the trial, if you are still curious on the point, I have no doubt Birchill will tell you. He is sure to make a confession before he is hanged."

But it was more a spirit of idle curiosity than anything else that brought Rolfe to Crewe's chambers in Holborn an hour later. Having secured the murderer, he felt curious as to what Crewe's feelings were on his defeat. It was the first occasion that he had been on a case which Crewe had been commissioned to investigate, and he was naturally pleased that Inspector Chippenfield and he had arrested the author of the crime while Crewe was all at sea. It was plain from the fact that the latter had thought it necessary to visit Scotland that he had got on a false scent. It was not Scotland, but Scotland Yard that Crewe should have visited, Rolfe said to himself with a smile.

Crewe, in pursuance of his policy of keeping on the best of terms with the police, gave Rolfe a very friendly welcome. He produced from a cupboard two glasses, a decanter of whisky, a siphon of soda, and a box of cigars. Rolfe quickly discovered that the cigars were of a quality that seldom came his way, and he leaned back in his chair and puffed with steady enjoyment.

"Then you are determined to hang Birchill?" said Crewe, as with a cigar in his fingers he faced his visitor with a smile.

"We'll hang him right enough," said Rolfe. He pulled the cigar out of his mouth and looked at it approvingly. Though the talk was of hanging, he had never felt more thoroughly at peace with the world.

"It will be a pity if you do," said Crewe.

"Why?"

"Because he's the wrong man."

"It would take a lot to make me believe that," said Rolfe stoutly. "We've got a strong case against him—there is not a weak point in it. I admit that Hill is a tainted witness, but they'll find it pretty hard to break down his story. We've tested it in every way and find it stands. Then there are the bootmarks outside the window. Birchill's boots fit them to the smallest fraction of an inch. The jemmy found in the flat fits the mark made in the window at Riversbrook, and we've got something more—another witness who saw him in Tanton Gardens about the time of the murder. If Birchill can get his neck out of the noose, he's cleverer than I take him for."

Crewe did not reply directly to Rolfe's summary of the case.

"I see that they've briefed Holymead for the defence," he said after a pause.

"A waste of good money," said the police officer. Something appealed to his sense of humour, for he broke out into a laugh.

"What are you laughing at?" asked Crewe.

"I was wondering how Sir Horace feels when he sees the money he gave this girl Fanning being used to defend his murderer."

"You are a hardened scamp, Rolfe, with a very perverse sense of humour," said Crewe.

"It was a cunning move of them to get Holymead," said Rolfe. "They think it will weigh with the jury because he was such a close friend of Sir Horace—that he wouldn't have taken up the case unless he felt that Birchill was innocent. But you and I know better than that, Mr. Crewe. A lawyer will prove that black is white if he is paid for it. In fact, I understand that, according to the etiquette of the bar, they have got to do it. A barrister has to abide by his brief and leave his personal feelings out of account."

"That's so. Theoretically he is an officer of the Court, and his services are supposed to be at the call of any man who is in want of him and can afford to pay for them. Of course, a leading barrister, such as Holymead, often declines a brief because he has so much to do, but he is not supposed to decline it for personal reasons."

"His heart will not be in the case," said Rolfe philosophically.

"On the contrary, I think it will," said Crewe. "My own opinion is that, if necessary, he will exert his powers to the utmost in order to get Birchill off, and that he will succeed."

"Not he," said Rolfe confidently. "Our case is too strong."

"You've got a lot of circumstantial evidence, but a clever lawyer will pull it to pieces. Circumstantial evidence has hung many a man, and it will hang many more. But a jury will hesitate to convict on circumstantial evidence when it can be shown that the conduct of the prisoner is at variance with what the conduct of a guilty man would be. I don't bet, but I'll wager you a box of cigars to nothing that Holymead gets Birchill off."

"It's a one-sided wager, but I'll take the cigars because I could do with a box of these," said Rolfe. "You might as well give them to me now, Mr. Crewe."

"No, no," said Crewe with a smile. "Put a couple in your pocket now, because you won't win the box."

"Of course, I understand, Mr. Crewe, why you say Birchill is the wrong man. You feel a bit sore because we have beaten you. I would feel sore myself in your place, and I don't deny that we got information that put us on Birchill's track, and therefore it was easier for us to solve the mystery than it was for you."

"I'm not a bit sore," said Crewe. "I can take a beating, especially when the men who beat me are good sportsmen." He bowed towards Rolfe, and that officer blushed as he recalled how Inspector Chippenfield and he had agreed to withhold information from Crewe and try to put him on a false scent.

"I wish you'd tell me what you consider the weak points of our case against Birchill," asked Rolfe.

"Your case is based on Hill's confession, and that to my mind is false in many details," said Crewe. "Take, for instance, his account of how he came into contact with Birchill again. This girl Fanning, after a quarrel with Sir Horace, came over to Riversbrook with a message for Hill which was virtually a threat. Now does that seem probable? The girl who had been in the habit of visiting Sir Horace goes over to see Hill. No woman in the circumstances would do anything of the sort. She had too good an opinion of herself to take a message to a servant at a house from which she had been expelled by the owner, who had been keeping her. How would she have felt if she had run into Sir Horace? It is true that Sir Horace left for Scotland the day before, but it is improbable that the girl who had quarrelled with Sir Horace a fortnight before knew the exact date on which he intended to leave. And how did Hill behave when he got the message? According to his story, he consented to go and see Birchill under threat of exposure, and he consented to become an accomplice in the burglary for the same reason. Sir Horace knew all about Hill's past, so why should he fear a threat of exposure?"

"Hill explained that," interposed Rolfe. "He pointed out that, though Sir Horace knew his past, he couldn't afford to have any scandal about it."

"Quite so. But could Birchill afford to threaten a man who was under the protection of Sir Horace Fewbanks? Would Birchill pit himself against Sir Horace? I think that Sir Horace, knowing the law pretty thoroughly, would soon have found a way to deal with Birchill. If Hill was threatened by Birchill, his first impulse, knowing what a powerful protector he had in Sir Horace Fewbanks, would have been to go to him and seek his protection against this dangerous old associate of his convict days. According to Hill's own story, he was something in the nature of a confidential servant, trusted to some extent with the secrets of Sir Horace's double life. What more likely than such a man, threatened as he describes, should turn to his master who had shielded him and trusted him?"

"I confess that is a point which never struck me," said Rolfe thoughtfully.

"Now, let us go on to the meeting between Hill and Birchill," continued Crewe. "This girl Fanning, discarded by Sir Horace, because he'd discovered she was playing him false with Birchill, is made the ostensible reason for Birchill's wishing to commit a burglary at Riversbrook, because Birchill wants, as he says, to get even with Sir Horace Fewbanks. Is it likely that Birchill would confide his desire for revenge so frankly to Sir Horace's confidential servant, the trusted custodian of his master's valuables, who could rely on his master's protection—the protection of a highly-placed man of whom Birchill stood admittedly in fear, and whom he knew, according to Hill's story, was unassailable from his slander? What had Hill to fear, from the threats of a man like Birchill, when he was living under Sir Horace Fewbanks's protection? All that Hill had to do when Birchill tried to induce him, by threats of exposure of his past, to help in a burglary at his master's house, was to threaten to tell everything to Sir Horace. Birchill told Hill that he was frightened of Sir Horace Fewbanks, the judge who had sentenced him.

"Then Birchill's confidence in Hill is remarkable, any way you look at it. He sends for Hill, whom he had known in gaol, and whom he hadn't seen since, to confide in him that it is his intention to burgle his employer's house. He rashly assumes that Hill will do all that he wishes, and he proceeds to lay his cards on the table. But even supposing that Birchill was foolish enough to do this—to trust a chance gaol acquaintance so implicitly—there is a far more puzzling action on his part. Why did he want Hill's assistance to burgle a practically unprotected house? I confess I have great difficulty in understanding why such an accomplished flash burglar as Birchill, one of the best men at the game in London at the present time, should want the assistance of an amateur like Hill in such a simple job."

Rolfe looked startled.

"Hill says he wanted a plan of the house and to know what valuables it contained."

Crewe smiled.

"And has it been your experience among criminals, Rolfe, that a burglar must have a plan of the place he intends to burgle, and that to get this plan he will give himself away to any man who can supply it? A plan has its uses, but it is indispensable only when a very difficult job is being undertaken, such as breaking through a wall or a ceiling to get at a room which contains a safe. This job was as simple as A B C. And besides, as far as I can make out, Birchill knew—the girl Fanning must have known—that Sir Horace would be going away some time in August and that the house would be empty. Did he want a plan of an empty house? He would be free to roam all over it when he had forced a window."

"He wanted to know what valuables were there," said Rolfe.

"And therefore took Hill into his confidence. If Hill had told his master—even Birchill would realise the risk of that—there would be no valuables to get. Next, we come to Sir Horace Fewbanks's unexpected return. According to Hill's story, he made some tentative efforts to commence a confession as soon as he saw his employer, but Sir Horace was upset about something and was too impatient to listen to a word. Is such a story reasonable or likely? Hill says that Sir Horace had always treated him well; and according to his earlier statement, when he permitted himself to be terrorised into agreeing to this burglary, he told himself that chance would throw in his way some opportunity of informing his master. And he told you that Birchill, mistrusting his unwilling accomplice, hurried on the date of the burglary so as to give him no such opportunity. Well, chance throws in Hill's way the very opportunity he has been seeking, but he is too frightened to use it because Sir Horace happens to return in an angry or impatient mood.

"Let us take Birchill's attitude when Hill tells him that Sir Horace has unexpectedly returned from Scotland. Birchill is suspicious that Hill has played him false, and naturally so, but Hill, instead of letting him think so, and thus preventing the burglary from taking place, does all he can to reassure him, while at the same time begging him to postpone the burglary. That was hardly the best way to go about it. Let us charitably assume that Hill was too frightened to let Birchill remain under the impression that he'd played him false, and let us look at Birchill's attitude. It is inconceivable that Birchill should have permitted himself to be reassured, when right through the negotiations between himself and Hill he showed the most marked distrust of the latter. Yet, according to Hill, he suddenly abandons this attitude for one of trusting credulity, meekly accepting the assurance of the man he distrusts that Sir Horace Fewbanks's unexpected return from Scotland on the very night the burglary is to be committed is not a trap to catch him, but a coincidence. Then, after drinking himself nearly blind, he sets forth with a revolver to commit a burglary on the house of the judge who tried him, on Hill's bare word that everything is all right. Guileless, trusting, simple-minded Birchill!

"Hill is left locked up in the flat with the girl; for Birchill, who has just trusted him implicitly in a far more important matter affecting his own liberty, has a belated sense of caution about trusting his unworthy accomplice while he is away committing the burglary. The time goes on; the couple in the flat hear the clock strike twelve before Birchill's returning footsteps are heard. He enters, and immediately announces to Hill and the girl, with every symptom of strongly marked terror, that while on his burglarious mission, he has come across the dead body of Sir Horace Fewbanks—murdered in his own house. Mark that! he tells them freely and openly—tells Hill—as soon as he gets in the flat. Allowing for possible defects in my previous reasoning against Hill's story, admitting that an adroit prosecuting counsel may be able to buttress up some of the weak points, allowing that you may have other circumstantial evidence supporting your case, that is the fatal flaw in your chain: because of Birchill's statement on his return to the flat no jury in the world ought to convict him."

"I don't see why," said Rolfe.

Crewe fixed his deep eyes intently on Rolfe as he replied:

"Because, if Birchill had committed this murder, he would never have admitted immediately on his returning, least of all to Hill, anything about the dead body."

"But he told Hill that he didn't commit the murder," protested Rolfe.

"But you say that he did commit the murder," retorted the detective. "You cannot use that piece of evidence both ways. Your case is that this man Birchill, while visiting Riversbrook to commit a burglary which he and Hill arranged, encountered Sir Horace Fewbanks and murdered him. I say that his admission to Hill on his return to the flat that he had come across the body of Sir Horace Fewbanks, is proof that Birchill did not commit the murder. No murderer would make such a damning admission, least of all to a man he didn't trust—to a man who he believed was capable of entrapping him. Next you have Birchill consenting to a message being sent to Scotland Yard conveying the information that Sir Horace had been murdered. Is that the action of a guilty man? Wouldn't it have been more to his interest to leave the dead man's body undiscovered in the empty house and bolt from the country? It might have remained a week or more before being discovered. True, he would have had to find some way of silencing Hill while he got away from the country. He might have had to resort to the crude method of tying Hill up, gagging him, and leaving him in the flat. But even that would have been better than to inform the police immediately of the murder and place his life at the mercy of Hill, whom he distrusted."

"Looked at your way, I admit that there are some weak points in our case," said Rolfe. "But you'll find that our Counsel will be able to answer most of them in his address to the jury. If Birchill didn't commit the murder, who did? Do you deny that he went up to Riversbrook that night?"

"The letter sent to Scotland Yard shows that some one was there besides the murderer. If Birchill was there and helped to write the letter—and so much is part of your case—he wasn't the murderer. In short, I believe Birchill went up there to commit a burglary and found the murdered body of Sir Horace."

"Do you think that Hill did it?" asked Rolfe.

"That is more than I'd like to say. As a matter of fact I have been so obtuse as to neglect Hill somewhat in my investigations. In fact, I didn't know until I got hold of a copy of his statement to the police that he was an ex-convict. Inspector Chippenfield omitted to inform me of the fact."

"I didn't know that," said Rolfe, without a blush, as he rose to go. "He ought to have told you."

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