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Chapter 28

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« on: January 30, 2023, 09:14:39 am »

SHE was conscious that the revelation that her father had been killed by Mr. Holymead was a less shock than the revelation that her father had dishonoured the great friendship of his life by seducing his friend's wife. Her father had been dead three months, and her grief had run its course. The shock caused by the discovery that he had been murdered had passed away, and she had begun to accept his violent death as part of her own experience of life. But the discovery that he had betrayed his best friend, in a way that a pure-minded woman regards as the most dishonourable way possible, was a fresh revelation to her of human infamy.

The knowledge that her father had been a man of immoral habits was not new to her. His predilection for fast women had long ago made it impossible for her to live in the same house with him for more than a week at a time. But that he had trampled in the mire the lifelong friendship of an honourable man for the sake of an ignoble passion revealed an unexpected depth of shame. That Mr. Holymead had killed him seemed almost a natural result of the situation. It was not that she felt that a just retribution had overtaken her father, but rather that she was glad his shameful conduct had come to an end. As she thought of her dead father—dead these three months—she gave a sigh of relief. The wretched guilty woman, who had shared with him the shame of his ignoble intrigue, had said that if her father could make his wishes known he would plead for the life of the friend he had dishonoured. But it was not her father's plea for the life of his friend that would have impressed her so much as a plea to bury the whole unsavoury scandal from the light. She had promised to save Mr. Holymead if she could, but that promise had sprung less from the spirit of mercy than from the desire to save her father's name from a scandal, which would hold him up to public obloquy.

She greeted Crewe with friendly warmth in spite of the feeling of oppression caused by the consciousness of the situation in front of her. He did not sit down again after greeting her, but stood with one hand resting on an inlaid chess table, with wonderful carved red and white Japanese chessmen ranged on each side, which he had been examining when she entered the room.

"I came down to make my report to you because I think my work is finished," he said.

"You have found out who killed my father?" she asked quietly.

Crewe had sufficient personal pride to feel a little hurt when he saw the calm way in which she accepted the result of his investigations, instead of congratulating him on his success in a difficult task.

"I think so," he said. "Before I tell you who it is you must prepare yourself for a great shock."

"I know who it is" she said—"Mr. Holymead."

There was no pretence about his astonishment.

"How on earth did you find out?"

She smiled a little at such a revelation of his appreciation of his own cleverness in having probed the mystery.

"I did not find it out," she said. "I had to be told."

"And who told you, Miss Fewbanks?" he asked. "Has he confessed to you? How long have you known it?"

"I have known it only a few minutes," she said. "Will you tell me how you got on the track and all you have done? I am greatly interested. You have been wonderfully clever to find out. I should never have guessed Mr. Holymead had anything to do with it—I should never have thought it possible. When you have finished I will tell you how I came to know. The story is extremely simple—and sordid."

The fact that the key of the mystery had been in her hands only a few minutes was a solace to Crewe, as it detracted but little from the story he had to tell of patient investigations extending over weeks.

He pieced together the story of the tragedy as he had unravelled it. Hill, he said, had conceived the idea of blackmailing her father after he had discovered the existence of some letters in a secret drawer of Sir Horace's desk. The fact that Sir Horace had kept these letters instead of destroying them as he had destroyed other letters of a somewhat similar kind showed that he was very much infatuated with the lady who wrote them. That lady, as doubtless Miss Fewbanks had guessed, was Mrs. Holymead—a lady with whom Sir Horace had been on very friendly terms before she married Mr. Holymead.

"What became of the letters?" asked Miss Fewbanks. "Have you got them?"

"I think they are destroyed," he said. "Mrs. Holymead removed them from the secret drawer the day after the discovery of the murder. She removed them when the police had charge of the house, and almost from under the eyes of Inspector Chippenfield. It was a daring plan and well carried out."

Miss Fewbanks heaved a sigh of relief on learning the fate of the letters. It had been her intention to endeavour to obtain them if they were in Crewe's possession, and destroy them.

Crewe explained that Hill was afraid to take the letters and then boldly blackmail Sir Horace. The butler conceived the plan of getting Birchill to break into the house. He did not take Birchill into his confidence with regard to the blackmailing scheme, but in order to induce Sir Horace to believe the burglar had stolen the letters he told Birchill to force open the desk, as he would probably find money or papers of value there. But in order to prevent Birchill getting the letters if he should happen to stumble across the secret drawer, Hill removed them the day before. His plan was to go to Riversbrook in the morning after the burglary, and after leaving open the secret drawer which had contained the letters, to report the burglary to the police. When Sir Horace came home unexpectedly Hill had just removed the letters and had them in his possession. Hill was greatly perturbed at his master's unexpected return, and had to get an opportunity to replace the letters in the secret drawer, but Sir Horace told him to go home, as he was not wanted till the morning. Hill went to that girl's flat in Westminster, and there saw Birchill. He told Birchill that Sir Horace had returned unexpectedly, but he urged Birchill to carry out the burglary as arranged, and assured him that as Sir Horace was a heavy sleeper there would be no risk if he waited until Sir Horace went to bed. Hill's position was that if the burglary was postponed Sir Horace might make the discovery that the letters had been stolen from the secret drawer. In that case Sir Horace would immediately suspect Hill, who, he knew, was an ex-convict. It was just possible that Sir Horace, before going to bed, would discover that the letters had been stolen—that is, if he went to bed before Birchill got into the place—but Hill had to take that risk.

It was the fact that the burglary Hill had arranged with Birchill took place on the night Sir Horace was killed that had given rise to the false clues which had misled the police. Crewe, as he himself modestly put it, was so fortunate as to get on the right track from the start. His suspicions were directed to Holymead when he saw the latter carrying away a walking-stick from Riversbrook after his visit of condolence to Miss Fewbanks. Crewe explained what tactics he had adopted to obtain a brief inspection of the stick in order to ascertain for his own satisfaction if it had belonged to Holymead. His suspicions against Holymead were strengthened when he discovered that the latter, when driving to his hotel on the night of the tragedy, had thrown away a glove which was the fellow of the one found by the police in Sir Horace's library.

"The next point to settle was whether Holymead had had anything to do with your father's sudden return from Scotland," said Crewe, continuing his story. "If that proved to be the case, and if evidence could be obtained on which to justify the conclusion that these two old friends had had a deadly quarrel, the circumstantial evidence against Holymead as the man who killed your father was very strong. I may say that before I went to Scotland I came across evidence of the estrangement of Holymead and his wife. Do you remember when you and Mrs. Holymead were leaving the court after the inquest that Mr. Holymead came up and spoke to you? He shook hands with you and was on the point of shaking hands with his wife as if she were a lady he had met casually. Then, on the night of the murder, the taxi-cab driver at Hyde Park Corner drove him to his house at Princes Gate, but was ordered to drive back and take him to Verney's Hotel. All this was interesting to me—doubly interesting in the light of the fact that Sir Horace had known Mrs. Holymead before her second marriage, and had paid her every attention.

"I went to Scotland and made inquiries at Craigleith Hall, where Sir Horace had been shooting. My object was to endeavour to obtain a clue to the reason for his sudden journey to London. The local police had made inquiries on this point on behalf of Scotland Yard, and had been unable to obtain any clue. No telegram had been received by Sir Horace, and he had sent none. Of course he had received some letters. He had told none of the other members of the shooting party the object of his departure for London, but he had declared his intention of being back with them in less than a week. It had occurred to me when the crime was discovered that his missing pocket-book might not have been stolen by his murderer, but might have been lost in Scotland. I made inquiries in that direction and eventually found that the man who had attended to Sir Horace on the moors had the pocket-book. His story was that Sir Horace had lost it the day before his departure for London. He had taken off his coat owing to the heat on the moor, and the pocket-book had dropped out. He ascertained his loss before he left for London, and told this man Sanders where he thought the pocket-book had dropped out. Sanders was to look for it, and if he found it was to keep it until Sir Horace came back. He did find it, and after learning of your father's death was tempted to keep it, as it contained four five-pound notes. Sanders is an ignorant man, and can scarcely read. He professed to know nothing of the pocket-book when I questioned him, but I became suspicious of him, and laid a trap which he fell into. Then he handed me the pocket-book, which he had hidden on the moor, under a stone. In the pocket-book I found a letter from Holymead asking your father to come to London at once as there were to be two new appointments to the Court of Appeal, and that Sir Horace had an excellent chance of obtaining one if he came to London and used his influence with the Chancellor and the Chief Justice, who were still in town. The writer indicated that he was doing all that was possible in Sir Horace's interests, and that he would meet Sir Horace at Riversbrook at 9.30 on Wednesday night and let him know the exact position. There is nothing suspicious in such a letter, but my inquiries concerning new appointments to the Court of Appeal suggest that the statements in the letter are false.

"Now let us consider the conduct of Holymead and his wife since the night of the murder. His course of action has not been that of a man anxious to assist the police in the discovery of the murderer of his old friend. We have first of all his secrecy regarding his visit to Riversbrook that night; the fact of the visit being established by the stick, and the glove he left behind. We have the estrangement of husband and wife. We have Mrs. Holymead's visit to Riversbrook on the morning that the first details of the crime appeared in the newspapers. Ostensibly she came to see you and pay her condolences, but as she knew that you had been away in the country she ought to have telephoned to learn if you had come up to London. Instead of telephoning, she went to Riversbrook direct, and when she found you were not there she was admitted to the presence of my old friend, Inspector Chippenfield. He is an excellent police officer, but I do not think he is a match for a clever woman. And Mrs. Holymead is such a fine-looking woman that I feel sure Chippenfield was so impressed by her appearance that he forgot he was a police officer and remembered only that he was a man. She managed to get him out of the room long enough to enable her to open the secret drawer in Sir Horace's desk and remove the letters. No doubt Sir Horace had shown her where he kept them, as their neat little hiding place was an indication of the value he placed upon them. She was under the impression that no one knew about the letters, and her object in removing them was to prevent the police stumbling across them and so getting on the track of her husband. But as I have already told you, Hill knew about the letters, and on the night of the murder had them in his possession. On the night after the murder, while Inspector Chippenfield was making investigations at Riversbrook, Hill had managed to obtain the opportunity to put the letters back. He naturally thought that if the police discovered some of Sir Horace's private papers in his possession they would conclude that he had had something to do with the murder.

"The next point of any consequence is Holymead's defence of Birchill and the deliberate way in which he blackened your father's name while cross-examining Hill. If we regard Holymead's conduct solely from the standpoint of a barrister doing his best for his client his defence of Birchill is not so remarkable. But we have to remember that your father and Holymead had been life-long friends. His acceptance of the brief for the defence was in itself remarkable. The fee, as I took the trouble to find out, was not large; indeed, for a man of Holymead's commanding eminence at the bar it might be called a small one, and he should have returned the brief because the fee was inadequate. We have, therefore, two things to consider—his defence of the man charged with the murder of your father, and his readiness to do the work without regard to the monetary side of it. Much was said at the time in some of the papers about a barrister being a servant of the court and compelled by the etiquette of the bar to place his services at the disposal of anyone who needs them and is prepared to pay for them. A great deal of nonsense has been said and written on that subject. A barrister can return a brief because for private reasons he does not wish to have anything to do with the case. It was Holymead's duty to do his best to get Birchill off whether he believed his client was guilty or innocent. Could Holymead have done his best for Birchill if he had believed that Birchill was the murderer of his lifelong friend? Would he have trusted himself to do his best? No, Holymead knew that Birchill was innocent; he knew who the guilty man was, and, knowing that, knowing that his action in defending the man charged with the murder of an old friend would weigh with the jury, he took up the case because he felt there was a moral obligation on him to get Birchill off. His conduct of the defence, during which he attacked the moral character of your father, was remarkable, coming from him—the friend of the dead man. As the action of defending counsel it was perfectly legitimate. It gave rise to some discussion in purely legal circles—whether Holymead did right or wrong in violating a long friendship in order to get his man off. The academic point is whether he ought to have violated his personal feelings for an old friend, or violated his duty to his client by doing something less than his best for him.

"Apart from the circumstantial and inferential evidence against Holymead, there is the fact that his wife knows that he committed the crime. Her acts point to that; her conduct throughout springs from the desire to shield him. Even the removal of the letters from the secret drawer was prompted more by the desire to save him than to save herself. Their discovery would not have been very serious for her, but it would have put the police on her husband's track. If I remember rightly, she asked you to keep her in touch with all the developments of the investigations of the police and myself. You told me that she was greatly interested in the fact that I did not believe Birchill was guilty, and particularly anxious to know if I suspected anyone. At Birchill's trial she did me the honour of watching me very closely. I was watching both her and her husband. When she discovered through her womanly intuition that I suspected her husband; that I was accumulating evidence against him; she sent round her friend, Mademoiselle Chiron, with some interesting information for me. An extremely clever young woman that—like all her countrywomen she is wonderfully sharp and quick, with a natural aptitude for intrigue. Of course, the information she gave me was intended to mislead me—intended to show me that Mr. Holymead had nothing to do with the crime. But some of it was extremely interesting when it dealt with actual facts, and some of the facts were quite new to me. For instance, I had not previously known that a piece of a lady's handkerchief was found clenched in your father's right hand after he was dead. The police very kindly kept that information from me. Had they told me about it I might have been inclined to suspect Mrs. Holymead and to believe that her husband was trying to shield her. His conduct would bear that interpretation if she had happened to be guilty. The police unconsciously saved me from taking up that false scent.

"I have detained you a long time in dealing with these points, Miss Fewbanks, but I wanted to make everything clear. I have all but reached the end. Let us take in chronological order what happened on the night of the tragedy. We have your father's sudden return from Scotland. Hill was at Riversbrook when he arrived, and having the secret letters in his possession, was greatly perturbed by the unexpected return of Sir Horace. He went to Doris Fanning's flat in Westminster to see Birchill. In his absence Holymead arrived. It is probable that he took the Tube from Hyde Park Corner to Hampstead and walked to Riversbrook. He rang the bell; was admitted by your father, and, leaving his hat and stick in the hall-stand as he had often done before, the two went upstairs to the library. There was an angry interview, Holymead accusing your father of having wronged him and demanding satisfaction. My own opinion is that there was an irregular sort of duel. Each of them fired one shot. It is quite conceivable that Holymead, in spite of his mission, being that of revenge, gave your father a fair chance for his life. A man in Holymead's position would probably feel indifferent whether he killed the man who had ruined his home or was killed by him. But whereas your father's shot missed by a few inches, Holymead's inflicted a fatal wound. When he saw your father fall and realised what he had done, the instinct of self-preservation asserted itself. He grabbed at the gloves he had taken off, but in his hurry dropped one on the floor. He ran downstairs, took his hat from the hall-stand, but left his stick. Then he rushed out of the house, leaving the front door open. He made his way back to Hampstead Tube station, got out at Hyde Park and took a cab to his hotel.

"Within a few minutes of Holymead's departure from Riversbrook the Frenchwoman arrived. She may have passed Holymead in Tanton Gardens, or Holymead, when he saw her approaching, may have hidden inside the gateway of a neighbouring house. She had come up from the country on learning that Holymead had come to London. She caught the next train, but unfortunately it was late on arriving at Victoria owing to a slight accident to the engine. I take it that she was sent by Mrs. Holymead to follow her husband if possible and see if he had any designs on Sir Horace. She took a cab as far as the Spaniards Inn and then got out, and walked to Riversbrook. When she arrived at the house she found the front door open and the lights burning. There was no answer to her ring and she entered the house and crept upstairs. Opening the library door, she saw your father lying on the floor. She endeavoured to raise him to a sitting posture, but it was too late to do anything for him. With a convulsive movement he grasped at the handkerchief she was holding in one hand, and a corner of it was torn off and remained in his hand. When she saw he had breathed his last she laid him down on the floor. Since she had been too late to prevent the crime, the next best thing in the interests of Mrs. Holymead was to remove traces of Holymead's guilt. She picked up the revolver, which she thought belonged to Holymead, turned off the light in the room, went downstairs, turned off the light in the hall, and closed the hall door as she went out.

"She behaved with remarkable courage and coolness, but she overlooked the glove in the room of the tragedy, and Holymead's stick in the hall-stand. Later in the night we have Birchill's entry into the house, his alarm at finding your father had been killed, and his return to the flat where Hill was waiting for him."

When Crewe had finished he looked at the girl. She had followed his statement with breathless interest.

"You have been wonderfully clever," she said. "It is perfectly marvellous."

Crewe's eyes had wandered to the inlaid chess-table and the Japanese chessmen set in prim rows on either side. Mechanically he began to arrange a problem on the board. His interest in the famous murder mystery seemed to have evaporated.

"I was very fortunate," he said absently, in reply to Miss Fewbanks.
"Everything seemed to come right for me."

"You made everything come right," she replied. "I do not know how to thank you for giving so much of your time to unravelling the mystery."

"It was fascinating while it lasted," he replied, his fingers still busy with the chessmen. "Of course, I am pleased with my success, but in a way I am sorry the work has come to an end. I thought that the knowledge that Holymead was the guilty man would come as a great shock to you. But I am glad you are able to take it so well."

"A few minutes before you arrived I learned that it was Mr. Holymead. But what has been more of a shock to me, Mr. Crewe, is the discovery that my father had ruined his home. Oh, Mr. Crewe, it is terrible for me to have to hold my dead father up to judgment, but it is more terrible still to know that he was not faithful even to his lifelong friendship with Mr. Holymead."

"Your nerves are unstrung," he said. "You want rest and quiet—you want a long sea voyage."

"Yes, I want to forget," she said. "But there are others who want to forget, too. Cannot we bury the whole thing in forgetfulness?"

Crewe's growing interest in the chessboard and his problem suddenly vanished. His eyes became instantly riveted on her face in a keen, questioning look.

"What is it to me or you that Mr. Holymead should be publicly proved guilty of this terrible thing?" she went on, passionately. "Why drag into the light my father's conduct in order to make a day's sensation for the newspapers? For his sake, what better thing could I do than let his memory rest?"

"Do you mean that Holymead should be allowed to go free?" he asked, in astonishment.

"Yes."

"I'm extremely sorry," he said slowly.

"Won't you let it all drop?" she pleaded.

"I could not take upon myself the responsibility of condoning such a crime—the responsibility of judging between your father and his murderer," he said solemnly. "But even if I could it is too late to think of doing so. There is already a warrant out for Holymead's arrest"

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