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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) => Topic started by: Admin on August 08, 2023, 08:48:37 am



Title: 8: The London Lady
Post by: Admin on August 08, 2023, 08:48:37 am
THE fine weather of the last few days had held and the sun was shining with soft brilliance as on Monday morning French made his way to Staines. Travelling down in the train was like setting out for a day’s holiday. French, thinking of his recent job at Whitechapel, congratulated himself on his good fortune. It was worth something to exchange the dreadful sordid streets of London’s slums for this idyllic country.

As the train ambled gently forward he went over in his mind what he already knew of this phase of the enquiry. It did not amount to much. Earle had left St. Kilda in his car on Thursday, October 6th, at about 10 a.m. At 12.30 p.m. he was seen by Ursula Stone picking up a lady in Seymour Place and then driving westwards across Edgware Road. About 7 he arrived home. That was all. But French felt with satisfaction that the Staines discovery justified his deductions as to the distance the two had driven from London, and with a good deal of eagerness he looked forward to testing the correctness of his other conclusions also.

On reaching the historic little town, he called at the police station, partly to express his appreciation of the work the local men had done for him, and partly to learn where Halloway’s Park was. Five minutes later he reached the park itself.

“Good morning,” he greeted the attendant. “I’m a police officer from Scotland Yard. Was it from you the local police got some information about the parking of a car on last Thursday week?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good,” said French, taking from his pocket-book the scrap of paper he had found in Earle’s coat pocket. “Is that a bit of one of your dockets?”

“Yes, sir,” the man repeated, producing his book for French’s inspection. There was no doubt the fragment had been taken from it, and when the man turned over the leaves and found that the correspondingly numbered carbon copy bore the magic sign, PE 2157, French noted with delight that at least one point in this nebulous case was definitely fixed.

French had taken the precaution of providing himself with a number of photographs of persons as like Earle as he could find. He now handed the lot to the attendant, and had the further satisfaction of seeing him pick out Earle’s without the least hesitation.

“When did the car come in?” he asked.

“You’ll see that, sir, from the docket block,” the man replied. “One-fifteen.”

“Was the man alone?”

“No, sir, there was a lady with him.”

“Can you describe her?”

The attendant hesitated. “I don’t know that I can, sir,” he said slowly. “You see, I wasn’t speaking to her, but to the gentleman only. She got out while I was filling up the docket, and I didn’t even get a good look at her.”

“Never mind,” said French. “They got out and I presume the man paid for his car. Then what happened?”

“Nothing more, sir; they just walked away.”

“They asked you no questions nor made any remarks?”

“No, sir.”

“Which direction did they go off in?”

“That way, sir, along the street.”

“And where does that lead to?”

“Well, just the town, the railway stations, the hotels.”

“Quite. Now tell me: supposing they wanted lunch, where would people of that type go?”

“To the Queen, sir, I should think, or perhaps to the Romney. Those are the two best hotels.”

“Good,” said French again. “Then when did they come back?”

“The gentleman came back by himself, sir; I didn’t see the lady again. He came back about, about a quarter to six, I should think. I’m not just sure.”

“From what direction?”

“The same that he had gone in.”

“I see. Well, I’m much obliged to you. You’d better give me your address in case any other point arises. By the way, what kind of mood did they seem in? Quite normal?”

“Quite, sir.”

The time of arrival at the park worked in admirably with that at which Ursula Stone had seen the car in London. Earle and his companion must have run straight down to Staines. But French was puzzled by a point which had occurred to him when making his analysis. Why had they parked in a town park? They must surely have had lunch somewhere, and it would have been natural for them to park where they lunched. However, there might be some reason for it that as yet he couldn’t see.

That they must have lunched, however, was pretty certain. French turned back into the town to try the hotels.

At his very first call he was successful. The head waiter, shown Earle’s photograph, remembered his having been in for lunch and tea somewhere about the date in question. Earle had been accompanied by a lady and had engaged a private room. The head called the waiter who had served them.

This man also recognised Earle’s photograph. More than this, he had noticed the lady and was able to give a reasonably complete description of her. She was an attractive-looking woman, about thirty, he imagined.

“Did you hear their names? What did they call each other?” French asked.

The waiter hadn’t heard.

“Did you hear anything they said?”

The man shook his head. “They were talking together, earnestly, as you might say, but I didn’t ’ear what it was about. They didn’t speak when I was near.”

One interesting and suggestive point was that the “parties” had appeared anxious to avoid being seen together. Earle had entered alone, shortly before half-past one, and while he was making the arrangements for lunch, the lady had followed. She had waited in the lounge till the business was complete, and had then allowed him to precede her at some little distance to the private room. They had left in the same way, separately, Earle slightly before the woman. About five they had returned, gone back again singly to the private room, had tea, and left in the same way about half-past five.

From this it was clear to French why they had used the public park. Evidently it was this fear of being seen together. The chances of being recognised were of course much greater in the case of an hotel than of a town park.

Between 5.30 then, when they had left the hotel together, and 5.45, when Earle had returned alone to his car, the friends had parted. Where had the lady gone?

French saw that if Earle was at Staines at 5.30 and had reached home by about 7, he would not have had time to drive via London. The lady must therefore have returned to London by herself---if she did return. Was there a train or bus between 5.30 and 5.45?

French found a time-table in the lounge. Two trains left for London at 5.45, a Southern reaching Waterloo at 6.16 and a Great Western reaching Paddington at 6.27. Buses left at 5.30 and at 6.00.

“How far is it from here to the stations for Town?” French asked the waiter.

“About seven or eight minutes’ walk to each, sir.”

“And how far from the stations to Halloway’s Car Park?”

“About the same from the Southern station and perhaps half of it from the Great Western.”

If, then, the lady had gone by train, the times would work in exactly. Five-thirty leave the hotel; 5.37 or 38 arrive at the station, take the ticket and get into the train; 5.45 the train departs, and about 5.50 Earle reaches the park. The bus times on the other hand wouldn’t work in so well.

But by which line might the lady have travelled? Surely Great Western, if she were returning to where she had been picked up. It was a long way from Waterloo to Seymour Place, but Paddington was comparatively close. Convenience and economy suggested Paddington, and as far as time was concerned, French thought there would be little in it. He would try the Great Western line first. If that failed he could fall back on the Southern.

He walked down to the station and saw the station-master. He wanted to know whether a lady had travelled alone to London by the 5.45 train on Thursday, 6th inst. Could the station-master help him to find out?

The station-master laughed at the idea---very politely. How did the inspector think such a thing would be possible? There was no record of the passengers, and it was unlikely that after so long a time anyone would remember the lady, especially as there was not even a photograph of her.

“Well, let’s see the booking-clerk at all events,” said French, whose reaction was always to proceed in the routine way when no special clue exhibited itself.

The clerk could not remember any individual bookers, but had a record of the bookings. By that train he had issued six firsts and twenty-three thirds to Paddington, all returns, also one first and two third singles. At the singles French’s heart leaped.

“Do you issue many singles?” he asked.

“Very few,” the clerk returned. “Most of the bookings are returns, and one-day returns at that.”

Though French could find no proof that the lady had gone by the 5.45 train, he thought that the balance of probability was in favour of her having done so---he put it no higher than that. But if she had, he might get on her track at Paddington. It was worth trying at all events.

He took the next train to Paddington and began one of his humdrum enquiries. There was no direct tube from Paddington to Seymour Place, and though the distance was not great, it was possible that the lady had taken a taxi. Very well; try the taxi drivers. It was a legitimate clue, though a rather long shot at best.

All that afternoon he worked away, questioning driver after driver, but without success. He was scarcely disappointed; clues of this nebulous type seldom yielded much result. All the same, when next morning came he could not bring himself to give up without a further effort. He would complete the interrogation of all the regular men at the station. If that failed, he would issue from the Yard a general notice to all taximen, and if no result came from that, it would be time enough to turn to something else.

He carried on during the next day till the mere sight of a taximan made him feel ill, and then in the afternoon he got some news which banished all his weariness. A man said he had been engaged by a lady, as near as he could remember, on the day and about the time the inspector mentioned. He could not tell anything about a grey hat, but he thought she had a grey coat.

“Where did you drive her?” French asked.

“To Bryanston Square,” answered the man, “but I’m darned if I can tell you the number.”

French’s heart warmed with pleasure. It really looked as if this long shot was going to get a bull’s-eye! Bryanston Square was just behind Seymour Place!

“Try and find it again,” said French, getting into the vehicle.

In Bryanston Square the driver suddenly pulled in to the kerb and stopped. “It were in this ere block,” he declared, “but I’m blessed if I can say which ’ouse.”

“All right,” French said after giving him time for thought, “if you can’t, you can’t. Try and fix limits for me. Go a little further in each direction than it could have been, so as to make sure it lies between the two places.”

This was more successful, and French dismissed the taxi with the belief that the unknown lady had entered one of a group of nine houses.

A very familiar phase ensued. He began calling at house after house to enquire for a lady with a Grecian nose and a grey coat and hat, and who was away from the house between the hours of 12.30 and 6.30 on the 6th inst.

At the fifth or middle house, No. 129B, he struck oil, showing what an extraordinarily good guess the taximan had made. Here the door was opened by an enquiring maid.

“I’m a police officer from Scotland Yard,” said French, entering upon his little saga. “I wish to make some enquiries about a lady----”

The girl stared. “What’s that?” she interrupted. “Surely not another! Why, the other man got everything.”

It was now French’s turn to stare. “I don’t follow,” he said. “What other man?”

“Why, the other officer,” she declared. “Inspector Tanner his name was. He came and got all the particulars.”

Here was something unexpected. His good old friend Tanner on the same job! Or was it the same? French concealed his surprise.

“I see that something has happened of which I am not aware,” he explained. “Will you tell me what it is? Has anything gone wrong here?”

The girl tossed her head. “I thought you would have known, seeing you come from the same place,” she said pertly, and then as French did not reply, went on: “It was the nurse; Nurse Nankivel. She’s gone.”

“A nurse? Gone? I didn’t know of it. I’m evidently on another case. What do you mean by ‘gone’? Left her employment?”

“I mean gone,” the girl returned. “Left her employment, if you like. She’s just gone and nobody knows where she’s gone to.”

“Oh,” said French with a sudden thrill, “you mean disappeared?”

“Anything you like. I called it ‘gone’ and I calls it ‘gone’ still.”

“You surprise me very much,” said French with truth. “What was she like, this Nurse Nankivel?”

The girl looked at him pityingly. “Why, she were an or’nary-looking woman enough,” she answered. “I suppose some people would have called her good-looking, but I never thought much of that kind. Too much of a dresser, if you ask me. If you’re a nurse, you should wear a nurse’s uniform, so I say. But she would never go out without dressing herself up as a fine lady. Fine lady indeed!” Jealousy peeped out of her close-set eyes.

“As a matter of fact,” French declared confidentially, “I quite agree with you. Just how did she dress when she went out?”

“Mostly in grey, as you said. Grey coat, grey hat, red brooch in hat, grey shoes and stockings, grey bag: oh,” bitterly, “all very complete and like a nurse.”

“It sounds like a nurse,” said French to humour her. “Now can you tell me if she was out on the afternoon of Thursday the 6th; that’s Thursday week?”

The girl nodded. “You’ve got it in one,” she returned.

“Between what hours?”

“The most of the day. From half-past twelve to half-past six, as I’m a sinner. She wasn’t here long before she was wanting time off. Different to other people who ’ave to do their work steady and not go gadding about as if they weren’t being paid for their time.”

“Well,” said French consolingly, “it might have been better for her if she had stayed at home. When did she come here?”

“Saturday three weeks,” the girl returned after thought. “The General was took ill on the Friday, and on Saturday they sent for a nurse.”

“And how is he?”

“Pretty bad, but they think he’ll pull through now.”

“By the way what’s his name?”

“Hazzard. Brigadier-General Sir Ormsby Hazzard, C.M.G., D.S.O., no less.”

“Ah, of course,” said French, though he had never heard the name before. “Now tell me, when did Nurse Nankivel disappear?”

“Sunday week.” French felt a further little thrill of interest. “On Sunday week she went out after lunch. It was her day out, I suppose, though after the Thursday anybody’d ’ave thought she wouldn’t ’ave wanted another day so soon.” She gave a contemptuous sniff. “She went out after lunch and she just didn’t come back. Nice way to leave ’er ladyship! She was up all that afternoon and evening with the General, and then next morning she rang up the nursing-’ome for another nurse.”

“And you never heard anything more of Nurse Nankivel?”

“Never another word.”

“And who applied to Scotland Yard?”

“Ask me an easier one. ’Ow should I know? The next thing was this Inspector Tanner was ’ere and asking every kind of fool question that came into his head.”

“Like me?” said French.

The girl looked at him sulkily, as if not sure whether this was a joke.

“I suppose you know your own business best,” she answered at length.

“I hope so,” said French, “but I’m not always sure. Well, miss, I’m much obliged for what you’ve told me. I’ll say good-bye for the present.” He smiled, raised his hat, and left her looking sulkily puzzled, as if this was the strangest specimen of a policeman she had ever seen.

As he took a bus to the Yard French was keenly delighted with this new development. There could now be little doubt as to what had happened at Farnham. Earle and this nurse had gone off together. On the Thursday they had met to complete their plans, and on the Sunday they had put them into effect. Now that he had identified the woman, proof should not be hard to get, and proof once obtained, his case would be done.

Though he could not refrain from putting the questions he had to Brigadier-General Sir Ormsby Hazzard’s unpleasant servant, French was in hopes that no investigation would be necessary in so far as the nurse was concerned. Tanner was in charge of the case, and French knew Tanner. If Tanner had gone into the affair there would be nothing left for anyone else. He would know everything that there was to know.

It was with an eager spring in his steps that French ran up the stairs to Tanner’s room. Once again his luck was in. Tanner was seated writing at his desk.

“Hullo, old son. What brings you here?” he greeted French, glancing up from his work. “Thought you were down at Farnham?”

“I was down at Farnham,” French admitted. “I came up when I found you were sneaking my case.”

“I like that,” said Tanner, sitting back and putting down his pen. “I wouldn’t touch your childish little case with a barge pole. What’s bitten you?”

“Ever heard the name of Nankivel?” French asked, striding up and down in pleasurable excitement. “Oh you have, have you? Well, she’s mine.”

“Good Lord!” Tanner looked shocked. “And what about Mrs. French?”

“On Sunday evening, the 9th instant,” French went on, ignoring this question, “Dr. James Earle of St. Kilda, Hampton Common, near Farnham, disappeared. On Sunday evening, the 9th instant, Nurse Nankivel, employed at 129B Bryanston Square, disappeared. On Thursday, the 6th instant, three days earlier, Dr. James Earle and Nurse Nankivel had a long and more or less secret interview at Staines. Now do you know what’s bitten me?”

“Good Lord!” said Tanner again. “I say, French, that’s very interesting.”

“Of course it’s interesting! Isn’t it my story?”

Tanner took a cigarette-case from his pocket and held it out. “Tell me,” he invited.

“The very words I was going to use to you.” French produced a lighter, operated it without result, cursed and struck a match. “There’s never any petrol in this confounded thing,” he remarked, continuing oblivious of Tanner’s enquiry as to why he didn’t occasionally fill it. “It’s you who must tell the story, Tanner. I’ve finished mine. It’s about the nurse we want to know. What happened about her?”

“I don’t think this interest in the nurse is seemly for a married man,” Tanner said severely. “However, I’ll tell you all I know: it isn’t much.” He turned and took a loose-leaf cover from a shelf, turning to page 1. “Her name,” he went on, “is Helen Nankivel and she comes from Cornwall, some little village near Redruth. She is aged 30, and trained in the usual way---details herein. Two years ago she went on the staff of Sister Austin’s nursing-home at 23 St. George’s Terrace, Redhill Road, Chelsea. She’s a good nurse, competent at her job, no fool, liked by her patients and the staff. There was no trouble with her; no ‘undesirable acquaintances’, to give Miss Austin’s phrase; a nurse with a future, if you understand me; the last nurse in the world to go and make a break with an elderly doctor. She nursed in the home at times, but was generally out on jobs. Miss Austin, in fact, looked upon her as one of her best nurses, and she was sent to important cases.”

French chuckled. This was Tanner. He had known that if Tanner was in charge, the spadework would all be done.

“On Tuesday morning, a week ago to-day,” resumed Tanner, “a ’phone came through from the nursing-home to say that one of their nurses had disappeared, and they would like a man. I wasn’t doing more than six or eight jobs at the time, so was sent. I saw Miss Austin, who seems a good enough sort of woman, and she told me that on Saturday, the 24th of last month, Saturday three weeks, a ’phone had come in from Dr. Clark---address and qualifications herein---saying that General Hazzard, of 129B Bryanston Square, was ill, and to send a nurse at once. It happened that the Nankivel had just returned from a case, and she was sent. They had the usual reports, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly. I’ve seen Dr. Clark, and he was satisfied with her in every way.”

“A paragon,” French suggested.

“In brief, a paragon,” Tanner agreed. “All the same, there appears to have been something not entirely right about the woman. Some curious little incidents happened, which aren’t very easy to explain. The first occurred five days after she went there. On that day something upset her. Up till then she had seemed slightly depressed or anxious; nothing remarkable; but from then she was undoubtedly a good deal worried. I tried, of course, to find out what had upset her, and I came to the conclusion it must have been a letter: at least, I couldn’t find anything else. She had had a letter that day, the housemaid thinks. Unfortunately the girl’s not sure. I had a look for the letter, but couldn’t find it.”

“Did that depression continue till she disappeared?”

“No,” said Tanner, “it didn’t. On Thursday week, 6th instant, she obtained leave of absence to attend to urgent private business. She left the house about 12.30 and returned about 6.30. I didn’t know where she had gone, but you tell me it was to meet Dr. Earle at Staines. That meeting cured her, or partially cured her, at all events. Lady Hazzard told me she noticed that after it a great deal of the depression and worry seemed to have gone, but instead the Nankivel was excited. She seemed to be on edge, expecting something to happen. Of course Lady Hazzard may have been talking through her hat, but that’s how it seemed to her. This state of excitement continued till the nurse left after lunch on Sunday week: that is, left for the last time.”

French took another cigarette.

“It doesn’t seem so hard to account for that,” he suggested. “She and Earle are in love. On that first day she gets a letter from him suggesting a mutual disappearance to a more salubrious clime. She hasn’t made up her mind and it worries her. On the Thursday she meets him at Staines and they fix it up. Her main anxiety is therefore gone, though there still remains the excitement of the affair to look forward to.”

Tanner nodded. “You may be right,” he admitted. “I didn’t think of that, but of course I didn’t know about this Dr. Earle. Another small point. On the Wednesday afternoon, about six, the parlourmaid thought, the nurse was called to the ’phone. It was a man’s voice, so the parlourmaid said---a quite poisonous woman, by the way. She evidently tried to listen, but all she heard was the Nankivel saying: ‘Well, I’ll arrange it somehow. Twelve-thirty.’ Obviously the appointment for next day. No doubt you could now trace if the caller was Earle.”

“No doubt.”

“A couple more points,” Tanner went on. “One day earlier in the week before she disappeared---the maid couldn’t remember which day, but thought it was Tuesday---the nurse received an official-looking business letter. The maid didn’t know what was in it, but she thinks it must have been something of importance, as nurse seemed very eager to get it. Of course that may be only the girl’s talk. Then on the Saturday evening, just before dinner, a telegram came for her. You might get a trace of that, particularly if it was from Earle about Sunday.”

“I might,” agreed French. “You haven’t gone into any of these things?”

“No. I put out a description and the chief thought we’d give it a chance first. I suppose you’ll do it now?”

“I suppose so. We’d better see the chief, hadn’t we?”

“Right. But it’ll be you all the same.”

French ground out the stub of his cigarette. “Let’s see that I’ve got all that straight first,” he said. “This woman goes to nurse in Bryanston Square. She is in a slightly depressed frame of mind on arrival, and this persists for five days, when she becomes seriously worried, as the result, so you believe, but you have not proved, of a letter. On the Tuesday a business letter comes for her and she claims it with a great deal of interest. On the Wednesday evening she receives a telephone message, presumably from Dr. Earle, to which she replies: ‘Twelve-thirty. I’ll arrange it somehow.’ On the Thursday she spends the afternoon with Earle at Staines. On the Saturday evening she gets a telegram, and on the Sunday both she and Earle disappear. That right?”

“That seems to be the sequence of events,” Tanner admitted.

“And what do you make of it?”

“What you make of it, I think. I imagine we’re investigating the completion of plans for a departure in company for another and more congenial sphere.”

French nodded. “There’s motive for it so far as he was concerned. Unhappy at home: wife uncongenial and running after another man and all that. Come along and let’s see the chief and I’ll get started.”

Ten minutes later Tanner was officially relieved of further participation in the case, and his folio was handed over to French.