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Chapter 20

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« on: January 30, 2023, 04:33:28 am »

"HILL has bolted!"

Rolfe flung the words at Inspector Chippenfield in a tone which he was unable to divest entirely of satisfaction. "Fancy his being the guilty party after all," he added, with the tone of satisfaction still more evident in his voice. "I often thought that he was our man, and that he was playing with you—I mean with us."

Inspector Chippenfield had betrayed surprise at the news by dropping his pen on the official report he was preparing. But it was in his usual tone of cold official superiority that he replied:

"Do you mean that Hill, the principal witness in the Riversbrook murder trial, has disappeared from London?"

"Disappeared from London? He's bolted clean out of the country by this time, I tell you! Cleared out for good and left his unfortunate wife and child to starve."

"How have you learnt this, Rolfe?"

"His wife told me herself. I went to the shop this afternoon to have a few words with Hill and see how he felt after the way Holymead had gone for him at the trial. His wife burst out crying when she saw me, and she told me that her husband had cleared out last night after he came home from court. The hardened scoundrel took with him the few pounds of her savings which she kept in her bedroom, and had even emptied the contents of the till of the few shillings and coppers it contained. All he left were the half-pennies in the child's money-box. He cleared out in the middle of the night after his wife had gone to bed. He left her a note telling her she must get along without him. I have the note here—his wife gave it to me."

Rolfe took a dirty scrap of paper out of his pocket-book and laid it before Inspector Chippenfield. The paper was a half sheet torn from an exercise-book, and its contents were written in faint lead pencil. They read:

    "Dear Mary:

    "I have got to leave you. I have thought it out and this is the only thing to do. I am too frightened to stay after what took place in the court to-day. I'll make a fresh start in some place where I am not known, and as soon as I can send a little money I will send for you and Daphne. Keep your heart up and it will be all right.

    "Keep on the shop.
    "YOUR LOVING HUSBAND."

"The poor little woman is heartbroken," continued Rolfe, when his superior officer had finished reading the note. "She wants to know if we cannot get her husband back for her. She says the shop won't keep her and the child. Unless she can find her husband she'll be turned into the streets, because she's behind with the rent, and Hill's taken every penny she'd put by."

"Then she'd better go to the workhouse," retorted Inspector Chippenfield brutally. "We'd have something to do if Scotland Yard undertook to trace all the absconding husbands in London. We can do nothing in the matter, and you'd better tell her so."

Inspector Chippenfield handed back Hill's note as he spoke. Rolfe eyed him in some surprise.

"But surely you're going to take out a warrant for Hill's arrest?" he said.

"Certainly not," responded Inspector Chippenfield impatiently. "I've already said that Scotland Yard has something more to do than trace absconding husbands. There's nothing to prevent your giving a little of your private time to looking for him, Rolfe, if you feel so tender-hearted about the matter. But officially—no. I'm astonished at your suggesting such a thing."

"It isn't that," replied Rolfe, flushing a little, and speaking with slight embarrassment. "But surely after Hill's flight you'll apply for a warrant for his arrest on—the other ground."

"On what other ground?" asked his chief coldly.

"Why, on a charge of murdering Sir Horace Fewbanks," Rolfe burst out indignantly. "Doesn't this flight point to his guilt?"

"Not in my opinion." Inspector Chippenfield's voice was purely official.

"Why, surely it does!" Rolfe's glance at his chief indicated that there was such a thing as carrying official obstinacy too far. "This letter he left behind suggests his guilt, clearly enough."

"I didn't notice that," replied Inspector Chippenfield impassively. "Perhaps you'll point out the passage to me, Rolfe."

Rolfe hastily produced the note again.

"Look here!"—his finger indicated the place—"'I'm frightened to stay after what took place in the court to-day,' Doesn't that mean, clearly enough, that Hill realised the acquittal pointed to him as the murderer, and he determined to abscond before he could be arrested?"

"So that's your way of looking at it, eh, Rolfe?" said Inspector
Chippenfield quizzically.

"Certainly it is," responded Rolfe, not a little nettled by his chief's contemptuous tone. "It's as plain as a pikestaff that the jury acquitted Birchill because they believed Hill was guilty. Holymead made out too strong a case for them to get away from—Hill's lies about the plan and the fact that the body was fully dressed when discovered."

"You're a young man, Rolfe," responded Inspector Chippenfield in a tolerant tone, "but you'll have to shed this habit of jumping impulsively to conclusions—and generally wrong conclusions—if you want to succeed in Scotland Yard. This letter of Hill's only strengthens my previous opinion that a damned muddle-headed jury let a cold-blooded murderer loose on the world when they acquitted Fred Birchill of the charge of shooting Sir Horace Fewbanks. Why, man alive, Holymead no more believes Hill is guilty than I do. He set himself to bamboozle the jury and he succeeded. If he had to defend Hill to-morrow he would show the jury that Hill couldn't have committed the murder and that it must have been committed by Birchill and no one else. He's a clever man, far cleverer than Walters, and that is why I lost the case."

"He led Hill into a trap about the plan of Riversbrook," said Rolfe. "When I saw that Hill had been trapped on that point I felt we had lost the jury."

"Only because the jury were a pack of fools who knew nothing about evidence. Granted that Hill lied about the plan—that he drew it up voluntarily in his spare time to assist Birchill—it proves nothing. It doesn't prove that Hill committed the murder. It only proves that Hill was going to share in the proceeds of the burglary; that he was a willing party to it. The one big outstanding fact in all the evidence, the fact that towered over all the others, is that Birchill broke into the house on the night Sir Horace Fewbanks was murdered. The defence made no attempt to get away from that fact because they could not do so. But Holymead vamped up all sorts of surmises and suppositions for the purpose of befogging the jury and getting their minds away from the outstanding feature of the case for the prosecution. We proved that Birchill was in the house on a criminal errand. What more could they expect us to prove? They couldn't expect us to have a man looking through the window or hiding behind the door when the murder was committed. If we could get evidence of that kind we could do without juries. We could hang our man first and try him afterwards. I don't think a verdict of acquittal from a befogged jury would do so much harm in such a case."

"You are still convinced that Birchill did it?" said Rolfe questioningly.

"I have never wavered from that opinion," said his superior. "If I had, this note of Hill's would restore my conviction in Birchill's guilt."

"Why, how do you make out that?" replied Rolfe blankly.

"Hill says he's clearing out of the country because he's frightened. What's he frightened of? His own guilty conscience and the long arm of the law? Not a bit of it! Hill's an innocent man. If he had been guilty he'd never have stood the ordeal of the witness-box and the cross-examination. Hill's cleared out because he was frightened of Birchill."

"Of Birchill?"

"Yes. Didn't Birchill tell Hill, just before he set out for Riversbrook on the night of the murder, that if Hill played him false he'd murder him? Hill did play him false, not then, but afterwards, when he made his confession and Birchill was arrested for the murder in consequence. When Birchill was acquitted at the trial his first thought would be to wreak vengeance on Hill. A man with one murder on his soul would not be likely to hesitate about committing another. Hill knew this, and fled to save his life when Birchill was acquitted. That's the explanation of his letter, Rolfe."

"So that's the way you look at it?" said Rolfe.

"Of course I do! It's the only way Hill's flight can be looked at in the light of all that's happened. The theory dovetails in every part. I'm more used than you to putting these things together, Rolfe. Hill's as innocent of the murder as you are."

"And where do you think Hill's gone to?"

"Certainly not out of London. He's too much of a Cockney for that. Besides, he's a man who is fond of his wife and child. He's hiding somewhere close at hand, and I shouldn't wonder if the whole thing's a plant between him and his wife. Have you forgotten how she tried to hoodwink us before? I'll go to the shop to-morrow and see if I can't frighten the truth out of her. Meanwhile, you'd better put the Camden Town police on to watching the shop. If he's hiding in London he's bound to visit his wife sooner or later, or she'll visit him, so we ought not to have much difficulty in getting on to his tracks again."

Rolfe departed, to do his chief's bidding, a little crestfallen. He was at first inclined to think that he had made a bit of a fool of himself in his desire to prove to Inspector Chippenfield that he had been hoodwinked by Hill into arresting Birchill. But that night, as he sat in his bedroom smoking a quiet pipe, and reviewing this latest phase of the puzzling case, the earlier doubts which had assailed him on first learning of Hill's flight recurred to him with increasing force. If Hill were innocent he would have been more likely to seek police protection before flight. Hill's flight was hardly the action of an innocent man. It pointed more to a guilty fear of his own skin, now that the man he had accused of the murder was free to seek vengeance. Chippenfield's theory seemed plausible enough at first sight, but Rolfe now recalled that he knew nothing of the missing letters and Hill's midnight visit to Riversbrook to recover them. Rolfe had concealed that episode from his superior officer because he lacked the courage to reveal to him how he had been hoodwinked by Mrs. Holymead's fainting fit the morning he was conducting his official inquiry at Riversbrook into the murder.

"It's an infernally baffling case," muttered Rolfe, refilling his pipe from a tin of tobacco on the mantelpiece, and walking up and down the cheap lodging-house drugget with rapid strides. "If Birchill is not the murderer who is? Is it Hill?"

He lit his pipe, closed the window, opened his pocket-book and sat down to peruse the notes he had taken during his investigation of Sir Horace Fewbanks's murder. He read and re-read them, earnestly searching for a fresh clue in the pencilled pages. After spending some time in this occupation he took a clean sheet of paper and a pencil, and copied afresh the following entries from his notebook:

August 19. Went Riversbrook. Saw Sir H.F.'s body. Discovered fragment of lady's handkerchief clenched in right hand.

August 22. Made inquiries handkerchief. Unable find where purchased.

September 8. Found Hill at Riversbrook searching Sir H.F.'s papers. Told me about bundle of lady's letters tied up with pink ribbon which had been taken from secret drawer. Says they disappeared morning after murder when investigation was taking place. C.'s visitors that day: Dr. Slingsby / Seldon to arrange inquest / newspaper men / undertaker's representatives / Crewe. C. saw one visitor alone, Hill says. Mrs. H——, who fainted. C. fetched glass of water, leaving her alone in room. Hill suggests her letters indicate friendly relations between her and Sir H.F. Sir H.F. expected visit, probably from lady, night of murder. Hurried Hill off when he returned from Scotland. Mem: Inadvisable disclose this to C.

Underneath his entries of the case Rolfe had written finally:

Points to be remembered:

(1) Crewe said before the trial that Birchill was not the murderer and so would be acquitted. Birchill was acquitted.

(2) Crewe suggested we had not got the whole truth out of Hill. So Hill disappears the night after the trial. Is Hill the murderer?

(3) The handkerchief and the letters point to a woman in the case, although this was not brought out at the trial. Is it possible that woman is Mrs. H.?

Rolfe realised that the chief pieces of the puzzle were before him, but the difficulty was to put them together. He felt sure there was a connection between these facts, which, if brought to light, would solve the Riversbrook mystery. Without knowing it, he had been so influenced by Crewe's analysis of the case that he had practically given up the idea that Birchill had anything to do with the murder. His real reason for going to Hill's shop that morning was to try and extract something from Hill which might put him on the track of the actual murderer. He believed Hill knew more than he had divulged. Hill, before his disappearance, had placed in his hands an important clue, if he only knew how to follow it up. That incident of the missing letters must have some bearing on the case, if he could only elucidate it.

Should he disclose to Chippenfield Hill's story of the missing letters? Rolfe dismissed the idea as soon as it crossed his mind. He knew his superior officer sufficiently well to understand that he would be very angry to learn that he had been deceived by Mrs. Holymead, and, as she was outside the range of his anger, he would bear a grudge against his junior officer for discovering the deception which had been practised on him, and do all he could to block his promotion in Scotland Yard in consequence. Apart from that, he could offer Chippenfield no excuse for not having told him before.

Should he consult Crewe?

Rolfe dismissed that thought also, but more reluctantly. Hang it all, it was too humiliating for an accredited officer of Scotland Yard to consult a private detective! Rolfe had acquired an unwilling respect for Crewe's abilities during the course of the investigations into the Riversbrook case, but he retained all the intolerance which regular members of the detective force feel for the private detectives who poach on their preserves. Rolfe's professional jealousy was intensified in Crewe's case because of the brilliant successes Crewe had achieved during his career at the expense of the reputation of Scotland Yard. Rolfe had an instinctive feeling that Crewe's mind was of finer quality than his own, and would see light where he only groped in darkness. If Crewe had been his superior officer in Scotland Yard, Rolfe would have gone to him unhesitatingly and profited by his keener vision, but he could not do so in their existing relative positions. He ransacked his brain for some other course.

After long consideration, Rolfe decided to go and see Mrs. Holymead and question her about the packet of letters which Hill declared she had removed from Riversbrook after the murder. He realised that this was rather a risky course to pursue, for Mrs. Holymead was highly placed and could do him much harm if she got her husband to use his influence at the Home Office, for then he would have to admit that he had gone to her without the knowledge of his superior officer, on the statement of a discredited servant who had arranged a burglary in his master's house the night he was murdered. Nevertheless, Rolfe decided to take the risk. The chance of getting somewhere nearer the solution of the Riversbrook mystery was worth it, and what a feather in his cap it would be if he solved the mystery! He was convinced that Chippenfield had shut out important light on the mystery by doggedly insisting, in order to buttress up his case against Birchill, that the piece of handkerchief which had been found in the dead man's hand was a portion of a handkerchief which had belonged to the girl Fanning, and had been brought by Birchill from the Westminster flat on the night of the murder. It was more likely, in view of Hill's story of the letters, that the handkerchief belonged to Mrs. Holymead. Rolfe had not made up his mind that Mrs. Holymead had committed the murder, but he was convinced that she and her letters had some connection with the baffling crime, and he determined to try and pierce the mystery by questioning her. Having arrived at this decision, he replaced his notebook in his coat pocket, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and went to bed.

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