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Chapter 15

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« on: January 29, 2023, 10:11:14 am »

WHEN Rolfe left Crewe's office he went back to Scotland Yard. He found Inspector Chippenfield still in his office, and related to him the substance of his interview with Crewe. The inspector listened to the recital in growing anger.

"Birchill not the right man?" he spluttered. "Why, of course he is. The case against him is purely circumstantial, but it's as clear as daylight."

"Then you don't think there's anything in Crewe's points?" asked Rolfe.

"I think so little of them that I look upon Birchill as good as hanged! That for Crewe's points!" Inspector Chippenfield snapped his fingers contemptuously. "And I'm surprised to think that you, Rolfe, whose loyalty to your superior officer is a thing I would have staked my life on, should have sat there and listened to such rubbish. I wouldn't have listened to him for two minutes—no, not for half a minute. He was trying to pick our case to pieces out of blind spite and jealousy, because we've got ahead of him in the biggest murder case London's had for many a long day. A man who jaunts off to Scotland looking for clues to a murder committed in London is a fool, Rolfe—that's what I call him. We have beaten him—beaten him badly, and he doesn't like it. But it is not the first time Scotland Yard has beaten him, and it won't be the last."

"I suppose you're right," said Rolfe. "But there's one point he made which rather struck me, I must say—that about Birchill telling Hill he'd found the dead body. Would Birchill have told Hill that, if he'd committed the murder?"

"Nothing more likely," exclaimed the inspector. "My theory is that Birchill, while committing the burglary at Riversbrook, was surprised by Sir Horace Fewbanks. It is possible that the judge tried to capture Birchill to hand him over to the police, and Birchill shot him. I believe that Birchill fired both shots—that he had two revolvers. But whatever took place, a dangerous criminal like Birchill would not require much provocation to silence a man who interrupted him while he was on business bent, and a man, moreover, against whom he nursed a bitter grudge. In this case it is possible there was no provocation at all. Sir Horace Fewbanks may have simply heard a noise, entered the room where Birchill was, and been shot down without mercy. Birchill heard him coming and was ready for him with a revolver in each hand. You've got to bear in mind that Birchill went to the house in a dangerous mood, half mad with drink, and furious with anger against Sir Horace Fewbanks for cutting off the allowance of the girl he was living with. He threatened before he left the flat to commit the burglary that he'd do for the judge if he interfered with him."

"That's according to Hill's statement," said Rolfe.

Inspector Chippenfield glanced at his subordinate in some surprise.

"Of course it's Hill's statement," he said. "Isn't he our principal witness, and doesn't his statement fit in with all the facts we have been able to gather? Well, the murder of Sir Horace, no matter how it was committed, was committed in cold blood. But immediately Birchill had done it the fact that he had committed a murder would have a sobering effect on him. Although he bragged before he left the flat for Riversbrook about killing the judge if he came across him, he had no intention of jeopardising his neck unnecessarily, and after he had shot down the judge in a moment of drunken passion he would be anxious to keep Hill—whom he mistrusted—from knowing that he had committed the murder. But he was fully aware that Hill would be the person who'd discover the body next day, and that if he wasn't put on his guard he would bring in the police and probably give away everything that Birchill had said and done. So, to obviate this risk and prepare Hill, Birchill hit on the plan of telling him that he'd found the judge's dead body while burgling the place. It was a bold idea, and not without its advantages when you consider what an awkward fix Birchill was in. Not only did it keep Hill quiet, but it forced him into the position of becoming a kind of silent accomplice in the crime. You remember Hill did not give the show away until he was trapped, and then he only confessed to save his own skin. He's a dangerous and deep scoundrel, this Birchill, but he'll swing this time, and you'll find that his confession of finding the body will do more than anything else to hang him—properly put to the jury, and I'll see that it is properly put."

Rolfe pondered much over these two conflicting points of view—Crewe's and Inspector Chippenfield's—for the rest of the day. He inclined to Inspector Chippenfield's conclusions regarding Birchill's admission about the body. The idea that he had assisted in arresting the wrong man and had helped to build up a case against him was too unpalatable for him to accept it. But he was forced to admit that Crewe's theory was distinctly a plausible one. Though it was impossible for him to give up the conviction that Birchill was the murderer, he felt that Crewe's analysis of the case for the prosecution contained several telling points which might be used with some effect on a jury in the hands of an experienced counsel. Rolfe had no doubt that Holymead would make the most of those points, and he also knew that the famous barrister was at his best in attacking circumstantial evidence.

That night, while walking home, the idea occurred to Rolfe of going over to Camden Town after supper to see if by questioning Hill again he could throw a little more light on what had taken place at Doris Tanning's flat the night Sir Horace Fewbanks was murdered. Hill had been questioned and cross-questioned at Scotland Yard by Inspector Chippenfield concerning the events of that night, and professed to have confessed to everything that had happened, but Rolfe thought it possible he might be able to extract something more which might assist in strengthening what Crewe regarded as the weak points in the police case against Birchill. Rolfe had every justification for such a visit, for, though Hill had not been arrested, he had been ordered by Inspector Chippenfield to report himself daily to the Camden Town Police Station, and the police of that district had been instructed to keep a strict eye on his movements. Inspector Chippenfield did not regard his principal witness in the forthcoming murder trial as the sort of man likely to bolt, but if he permitted him for politic reasons to retain his liberty, he took every precaution to ensure that Hill should not abuse his privilege.

Rolfe lived in lodgings at King's Cross, and, as the evening was fine and he was fond of exercise, he decided to walk across to Hill's place.

As he walked along his thoughts revolved round the murder of Sir Horace Fewbanks, and the baffling perplexities which had surrounded its elucidation. Had they got hold of the right man—the real murderer—in Fred Birchill? Rolfe kept asking himself that question again and again. A few hours ago he had not the slightest doubt on the point; he had looked upon the great murder case as satisfactorily solved, and he had thought with increasing satisfaction of his own share in bringing the murderer to justice. He had anticipated newspaper praise on his sharpness: judicial commendation, a favourable official entry in the departmental records of Scotland Yard, with perhaps promotion for the good work he had accomplished in this celebrated case. These rosy visions had been temporarily dissipated by the conversation he had had with Crewe that morning. If Crewe had not succeeded in destroying Rolfe's conviction that the murderer of Sir Horace Fewbanks had been caught, he had pointed out sufficient flaws in the police case to shake Rolfe's previous assurance of the legal conviction of Birchill for the crime. The way in which Crewe had pulled the police case to pieces had shown Rolfe that the conviction of Birchill was by no means a foregone conclusion, and had left him a prey to doubts and anxiety which Inspector Chippenfield's subsequent depreciation of the detective's views had not altogether removed.

The little shop kept by the Hills was empty when Rolfe entered it, but Mrs. Hill appeared from the inner room in answer to his knock. The faded little woman did not recognise the police officer at first, but when he spoke she looked into his face with a start. She timidly said, in reply to his inquiry for her husband, that he had just "stepped out" down the street.

"Then you had better send your little girl after him," said Rolfe, seating himself on the one rickety chair on the outside of the counter. "I want to see him."

Mrs. Hill seemed at a loss to reply for a moment. Then she answered, nervously plucking at her apron the while: "I don't think it'd be much use doing that, sir. You see, Mr. Hill doesn't always tell me where he's going and I don't really know where he is."

"Then why did you tell me that he had just stepped out down the street?" asked Rolfe sharply.

"Because I thought he mightn't be far away."

"Then, as a matter of fact, you don't know where he is or when he'll be back?"

"No, sir."

Her prompt and uncompromising reply indicated that she did not want him to wait for her husband.

"I think I'll wait," said Rolfe, looking at her steadily.

"Yes, sir."

Daphne appeared at the door of the parlour which led into the shop and her mother waved her back angrily.

"Go to bed this instant, miss; it's long past your bedtime," she said.

It was obvious that Mrs. Hill retained a vivid recollection of how disastrous had been Daphne's appearance during Inspector Chippenfield's first visit to the shop.

"Perhaps your little girl knows where her father is," said Rolfe maliciously.

"No, she doesn't," replied Mrs. Hill with some spirit. "You can ask her if you like."

Rolfe was suddenly struck with an idea and he decided to test it.

"I won't wait—I've changed my mind. But if your husband comes in tell him not to go to bed until I've seen him. I'll be back."

"Yes, sir," she replied.

"Do you think he was going to Riversbrook?" he asked.

The woman flushed suddenly and then went pale. She knew as well as Rolfe that her husband was strictly forbidden, pending the trial, to go near the place of his former employment, and that the police had relieved him of his keys and taken possession of the silent house and locked everything up.

"No, sir," she replied, with trembling lips, "Mr. Hill hasn't gone over there."

"How can you be certain, if he didn't tell you where he was going?" asked Rolfe.

"Because it's the last place in the world he'd think of going to," gasped Mrs. Hill. "Such a thought would never enter his head. I do assure you, sir, Mr. Hill would never dream of going over there, sir, you can take my word for it."

Rolfe walked thoughtfully up High Street. Was it possible that Hill had gone to his late master's residence in defiance of the orders of the police? If so, only some very powerful motive, and probably one which affected the crime, could have induced him to risk his liberty by making such a visit after he had been commanded to keep away from the place. And how would he get into the house? Rolfe had himself locked up the house and had locked the gates, and the bunch of keys was at that moment hanging up in Inspector Chippenfield's room in Scotland Yard. But even as he asked that question, Rolfe found himself smiling at himself for his simplicity. Nothing could be easier for a man like Hill—an ex-criminal—to have obtained a duplicate key, before handing over possession of the keys. Rolfe had noticed with surprise when he was locking up the house that the French windows of the morning room were locked from the outside by a small key as well as being bolted from the inside. Hill had explained that the late Sir Horace Fewbanks had generally used this French window for gaining access to his room after a nocturnal excursion.

Rolfe looked at his watch. It was nine o'clock. He decided to go to Hampstead and put his suspicions to the test. It was quite possible he was mistaken, but if, on the other hand, Hill was paying a nocturnal visit to Riversbrook and he had the luck to capture him, he might extract from him some valuable evidence for the forthcoming trial that Hill had kept back. And Rolfe was above all things interested at that moment in making the case for the prosecution as strong as possible.

Rolfe walked to the Camden Town Underground station, bought a ticket for Hampstead, and took his seat in the tube in that state of exhilarated excitement which comes to the detective when he feels that he is on the road to a disclosure. The speed of the train seemed all too slow for the police officer, and he looked at his watch at least a dozen times during the short journey from Camden Town to Hampstead.

When Rolfe arrived at Hampstead he set out at a rapid walk for Riversbrook. It was quite dark when he reached Tanton Gardens. He turned into the rustling avenue of chestnut trees, and strode swiftly down till he reached the deserted house of the murdered man.

The gate was locked as he had left it, but Rolfe climbed over it. A late moon was already throwing a refulgent light through the evening mists, silvering the tops of the fir trees in front of the house. Rolfe walked through the plantation, his footsteps falling noiselessly on the pine needles which strewed the path. He quickly reached the other side of the little wood, and the Italian garden lay before him, stretching in silver glory to the dark old house beyond.

Rolfe stood still at the edge of the wood, and glanced across the moonlit garden to the house. It seemed dark, deserted and desolate. There was no sign of a light in any of the windows facing the plantation.

The moon, rising above the fringe of trees in the woodland which skirted the meadows of the east side of the house, cast a sudden ray athwart the upper portion of the house. But the windows of the retreating first story still remained in shadow. Rolfe scrutinised these windows closely. There were three of them—he knew that two of them opened out from the bedroom the dead man used to occupy, and the third one belonged to the library adjoining—the room where the murder had been committed. The moonlight, gradually stealing over the house, revealed the windows of the bedroom closed and the blinds down, but the library was still in shadow, for a large chestnut-tree which grew in front of the house was directly in the line of Rolfe's vision.

Rolfe remained watching the house for some time, but no sign or sound of life could he detect in its silent desolation. "I must have been mistaken," he muttered, with a final glance at the windows of the first story. "There's nobody in the house."

He turned to go, and had taken a few steps through the pinewood when suddenly he started and stood still. His quick ear had caught a faint sound—a kind of rattle—coming from the direction of the house. What was that noise which sounded so strangely familiar to his ears? He had it! It was the fall of a Venetian blind. Instantaneously there came to Rolfe the remembrance that Inspector Chippenfield had ordered the library blind to be left up, so that when the sun was high in the heavens its rays, striking in through the window over the top of the chestnut-tree, might dry up the stain of blood on the floor, which washing had failed to efface. Somebody was in the library and had dropped the blind.

Rolfe hurriedly retraced his steps to the edge of the plantation, and raced across the Italian garden, feeling for his revolver as he ran. Some instinct told him that he would find entrance through the French windows on the west side of the morning room, and thither he directed his steps. He pulled out his electric torch and tried the windows. They were shut, and the first one was locked. The second one yielded to his hand. He pulled it open, and stepped into the room. Making his way by the light of his torch to the stairs, he swiftly but silently crept up them and turned to the library on the left of the first landing. The door was closed but not locked, and a faint light came through the keyhole. Rolfe pushed the door open, and looked into the room. A man was leaning over the dead judge's writing-desk, examining its contents by the light of a candle which he had set down on the desk. He was so engrossed in his occupation that he did not hear the door open.

"What are you doing there?" demanded Rolfe sternly. His voice sounded hollow and menacing as it reverberated through the room.

The man at the desk started up, and turned round. It was Hill. When he saw Rolfe he looked as though he would fall. He made as if to step forward. Then he stood quite still, looking at the officer with ashen face.

"Hill," said Rolfe quietly, "what does this mean?"

The butler had regained his self-composure with wonderful quickness. The mask of reticence dropped over his face again, and it was in the smooth deferential tones of a well-trained servant that he replied:

"Nothing, sir, I just slipped over from the shop to see if everything was all right."

"How did you get into the house?"

"By the French window, sir. I had a duplicate key which Sir Horace had made."

"And I see you also have a duplicate key of the desk. Why didn't you give these keys up with the others to Inspector Chippenfield?"

"I forgot about them at the time, sir. I found them in an old pocket this evening, and I was so uneasy about the house shut up with a lot of valuable things in it and nobody to give an eye to them that I just slipped across to see everything was all right."

"You came here after dark, and let yourself in with a private key after you had been strictly ordered not to come near the place? You have the audacity to admit you have done this?"

"Well, it's this way, sir. I was a trusted servant of Sir Horace's. I knew a great deal about his private life, if I may say so. I know he kept a lot of private papers in this room, and I wanted to make sure they were safe—I didn't like them being in this empty house, sir. I couldn't sleep in my bed of nights for thinking of them, sir. I felt last night as if my poor dead master was standing at my bedside, urging me to go over. I am very sorry I disobeyed the police orders, Mr. Rolfe, but I acted for the best."

"Hill, you are lying, you are keeping something back. Unless you immediately tell me the real reason of your visit to this house tonight I will take you down to the Hampstead Police Station and have you locked up. This visit of yours will take a lot of explaining away after your previous confession, Hill. It's enough to put you in the dock with Birchill."

Hill's eyes, which had been fixed on Rolfe's face, wavered towards the doorway, as though he were meditating a rush for freedom. But he merely remarked:

"I've told you the truth, sir, though perhaps not all of it. I came across to see if I could find some of Sir Horace's private papers which are missing."

"How do you know there are any papers missing?"

"As I said before, Mr. Rolfe, Sir Horace trusted me and he didn't take the trouble to hide things from me."

"You mean that he often left his desk open with important papers scattered about it?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you made a practice of going through them?"

"I didn't make a practice of it," protested Hill. "But sometimes I glanced at one or two of them. I thought there was no harm in it, knowing that Sir Horace trusted me."

"And some papers that you knew were there are now missing. Do you mean stolen?"

"Yes, sir."

"When did you see them last?"

"Just before Inspector Chippenfield came—the morning after the body was discovered. You remember, sir, that he came straight up here while you stayed downstairs talking to Constable Flack."

"Do you mean to suggest that Inspector Chippenfield stole them?"

"Oh, no, sir, I don't think he saw them. Sir Horace kept them in this little place at the back of the desk. Look at it, sir. It's a sort of secret drawer."

Rolfe went over to the desk, and Hill explained to him how the hiding place could be closed and opened. It was at the back of the desk under the pigeonholes, and the fact that the pigeonholes came close down to the desk hid the secret drawer and the spring which controlled it.

"What was the nature of these papers?" asked Rolfe.

"Well, sir, I never read them. Sir Horace set such store by them that I never dared to open them for fear he would find out. They were mostly letters and they were tied up with a piece of silk ribbon."

"A lady's letters, of course," said Rolfe.

"Judging from the writing on the envelopes they were sent by a lady," said Hill.

Rolfe breathed quickly, for he felt that he was on the verge of a discovery. Here was evidence of a lady in the case, which might lead to a startling development. Perhaps Crewe was right in declaring that Birchill was the wrong man, he said to himself. Perhaps the murderer was not a man, but a woman.

"And who do you think stole them?" he asked Hill.

"That is more than I would like to say," replied the butler.

"Are you sure they were in this hiding place when Inspector Chippenfield took charge of everything?"

"Yes, sir. I dusted out the room the morning you and he came to Riversbrook together, and the papers were there then, because I happened to touch the spring as I was dusting the desk, and it flew open and I saw the bundle there."

"Why didn't you tell Inspector Chippenfield about the papers and the secret drawer?"

"That is what I intended to do, sir, if he didn't find them himself. But when I had found they had gone I didn't like to say anything to him, because, as you may say, I had no right to know anything about them."

"When did they go: when did you find they were missing?"

"When Inspector Chippenfield went out for his lunch. I looked in the desk and found they had gone."

"Who could have taken them? Who had access to the room?"

"Well, sir, Mr. Chippenfield had some visitors that morning."

"Yes. There were about a dozen newspaper reporters during the day at various times. There were Dr. Slingsby and his assistant, who came out to make the post-mortem: Inspector Seldon, who came to arrange about the inquest, and there was that man from the undertakers who came to inquire about the funeral arrangements. But none of these men were likely to take the papers, and still less to know where they were hidden. In any case, no visitor could get at the desk while Mr. Chippenfield was in the room. And he is too careful to have left any visitor alone in this room—it was here that the murder was committed."

"He left one of his visitors alone here for a few minutes," said Hill in a voice which was little more than a whisper.

"Which one?" asked Rolfe eagerly.

"A lady."

"Who was she?"

"Mrs. Holymead."

"Oh!" Rolfe's exclamation was one of disappointment. "She is a friend of the family. She came out to see Miss Fewbanks—it was a visit of condolence."

"Yes, sir," said the obsequious butler. "She was a friend of the family,
as you say. She was a friend of Sir Horace's. I have heard that Sir
Horace paid her considerable attention before she married Mr.
Holymead—it was a toss up which of them she married, so I've been told."

Rolfe saw that he had made a mistake in dismissing the idea of Mrs. Holymead having anything to do with the missing papers. "Do you think that she stole these letters—these papers?" he asked. "Do you think she knew where they were?"

"While she was in the room, Inspector Chippenfield came rushing downstairs for a glass of water. He said she had fainted."

"Whew!" Rolfe gave a low prolonged whistle. "And after she left you took the first opportunity of looking to see if the papers were still there, and you found they were gone?"

"Yes, sir."

"What made you suspect Mrs. Holymead would take them?"

"Well, sir, I didn't suspect her at the time. I just looked to see if Inspector Chippenfield had found them. I saw they had gone, and as I couldn't see any sign of them about anywhere else I concluded they must have been taken without Inspector Chippenfield knowing anything about it. The reason I came over here to-night was to have another careful look round for them."

Rolfe was silent for a moment.

"What would you have done with the papers if you had found them?" he asked suddenly.

"I would have handed them over to the police, sir," said the butler, who obviously had been prepared for a question of the kind.

"And what explanation would you have given for having found them—for having come over here in defiance of your orders from Inspector Chippenfield?"

"The true explanation, sir," said the butler, with a mild note of protest in his voice. "I would have told Inspector Chippenfield what I have already told you. And it is the simple truth."

Rolfe was plainly taken back at this rebuke, but he did not reply to it.

"In your statement of what took place when Birchill returned to the flat after committing the murder, he said something about having seen a woman leave the house by the front door as he was hiding in the garden—a fashionably dressed woman I think he said."

"Yes, sir, that was it."

"Do you believe that part of his story was true?"

"Well, sir, with a man like Birchill it is impossible to say when he is telling the truth, and when he isn't."

"There was no lady with Sir Horace when you left him that night when he returned from Scotland?"

"No, sir."

"I think you said he was in a hurry to get you out of the house, and told you not to come back?"

"That is what I thought at the time, sir."

"Well, Hill," said Rolfe, resuming his severe official tone; "all this does not excuse in any way your conduct in coming over here and forcing your way into the house in defiance of the police; opening this desk, and prying about for private papers that don't concern you. The proper course for you to adopt was to come to Scotland Yard and tell your story about these missing papers to Inspector Chippenfield or myself. However, I don't propose to take any action against you at present. Only there is to be no more of it. If you come hanging about here again on your own account, you'll find yourself in the dock beside Birchill. Hand me over the duplicate key of the door by which you came in, and also the key of the desk which you had still less right to have in your possession. Say nothing to anyone about those papers until I give you permission to do so."
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