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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) => Topic started by: Admin on August 09, 2023, 04:54:04 am

Title: 13: The Two Depressions
Post by: Admin on August 09, 2023, 04:54:04 am
A FEW minutes sufficed to settle a programme for the search which would cover all the ground. As soon as each man was allotted his area he started off, and soon work was in full swing.

It was a fine morning, but cold and slightly cloudy: a good morning for their task. There was plenty of light to see anything that was to be seen, but no bright sunshine to throw dark shadows in which small objects might be missed. French took the area immediately surrounding the house. He had measured Ursula’s shoes on the previous night and now he began hunting for, among other things, footprints which these might fit.

For some time the monotonous work went on, then a constable called to French.

“I’d like you to have a look here, sir,” he said. “There are some traces which might interest you.”

He led the way through the wood behind the St. Kilda grounds, till in a few yards he struck one of the many paths or tracks leading through the trees. Fifty yards along this path he stopped and pointed into the undergrowth.

“Something’s been in that clump, sir. If you go round that way, so as not to disturb these bushes, you’ll see.”

French followed the advice. Making his way round the clump as the constable directed, he saw that at one point the rough grass was beaten down as if by a weight.

He approached still closer and stood looking down at the marks. Yes, there was no doubt: a weight had lain there, a long narrow weight, perhaps five feet by a foot or fifteen inches, a weight of the shape and size of an average woman’s body.

“ ’Pon my soul, it’s suspicious enough,” said French at last.

“You’ll notice also, sir,” the constable went on, “that someone has passed from the thicket to the path. That’s why I asked you to go round and not straight across.”

“Good man,” French approved. As he examined the place he realised that the officer was right. There was a general appearance of grass and leaves having been dragged lengthwise by the passage of feet. When very close this was not visible, but by going back and stooping he could see the slightly lighter colour of the grass, due to its lying at a flatter angle than the rest.

It certainly looked as if someone had carried a weight along the path, something which he wished temporarily to hide. Seeing this thicket, he had doubtless turned aside and hidden his weight behind the shrubs. Then at a later time he or some other person had come back and removed the object. What was the weight which had been carried?

French went down on his knees and began a meticulous search among the leaves and grass. If a body had lain here, some little object might have dropped out of one of its pockets. Or out of the pockets of the bearer. Or a fragment of cloth might be sticking to a twig. French decided that if there was anything of the kind, he wouldn’t miss it.

For some time he worked away, then as he moved some leaves at one end of the depression, he felt his pulses quicken.

“See this,” he grimly invited the constable. “You’ve got on to something right enough.”

Beneath the leaves were traces of blood; slight traces, not more than three or four drops. But as far as French was concerned, they were as significant as a lake. That Ursula Stone had been murdered and that her body had lain here, seemed now to be beyond possibility of doubt.

Though French was only too well accustomed to murder and sudden death, he nevertheless could not repress a feeling of horror as he contemplated these sinister tokens. Ursula Stone was more to him than a mere name, the peg on which an investigation was hung. He had interviewed her on more than one occasion and in a mild way he had admired her. She had come up to his ideal of a lady: straight, generous, dignified, kindly; in fact in his own word which covered all the virtues, decent. The last person, he would have said, to have been associated with murderers or to have incurred enmity so bitter that it could only be appeased by murder. If this gentle harmless lady had indeed been done to death it meant that something was in progress evil beyond anything he had up to the present imagined.

But an inspector of Scotland Yard engaged on a case cannot allow his feelings to cloud his judgment. Soon the tragic side of the affair gave place to the professional.

He nodded to the constable. “You’ve done well,” he said. “I’ll not forget it. Now carry on and finish your area, then come back to me. I’ll be between this and the house.”

The constable, delighted at the unwonted praise, saluted and withdrew, and French turned once more to his examination of the ground. Because he had found four drops of blood it did not follow that there was nothing else there.

Having marked the place of the bloodstains with a peg, he put the stained leaves in a tin box and dropped the box into his pocket. If the case came to court it would be well to be sure that this was human blood, and not merely a record of the death of some animal.

He continued his researches out to the path in the same patient and thorough way, passing neither shrub nor tuft of grass till he was certain it bore no traces of quarry or victim. Just before he reached the path his care was rewarded again. On the ground was another drop of blood.

Well pleased, he worked on towards the house. Twenty yards farther he found still another drop. It certainly looked as if the body had been carried from the house.

The path was approaching the St. Kilda grounds at an angle of forty-five degrees. It did not actually reach the grounds, but passed round the corner behind the house and so to the road. There was, however, a very faint track from it to the grounds, a track made probably by Earle himself. This track reached the grounds at a point nearly opposite the study window. The boundary fence was merely two strands of fencing wire, and served only to mark position, being practically no obstruction to passage.

When French reached the faint track he turned along it towards the house. At the fence, again on a leaf, he found another drop of blood.

He was about to pass through the fence when he happened to notice marks on a small patch of sand behind a furze bush. He went over. This sand, which had evidently been thrown up by a rabbit, was the only sand in the immediate neighbourhood. It lay on the farther side of the bush from the house, the bush being about twenty feet from the building and almost exactly opposite the study window. The marks were undoubtedly footmarks, and fresh at that. They had obviously been made on the Sunday, because they were free from water pitting and Saturday night had been very wet. The sand was too soft to hold details. All that seemed clear was that they had not been made by high-heeled shoes. This, however, did not prove they were a man’s, as many women wear low heels in the country. French, pleased with his progress, thought whimsically that if now he only had the great Sherlock’s luck, he would find the end of a cigar which would lead him direct to the person who had waited behind the bush. But though he looked everywhere about, he found neither a cigar-end nor anything else.

With renewed zeal he began searching round the house. If he could find blood actually at the house it would show that Ursula had been murdered, or at least attacked, inside, whereas if no further trace were visible there would be nothing to prove that she had not walked out and been killed in the wood. It was a more important point than appeared at first sight, as if the murder had taken place in the house, it would be difficult to exonerate Julia---and perhaps Marjorie---from complicity, while if Ursula had somehow been enticed out into the wood, the chances were the sisters were innocent.

The most meticulous search all round the building, however, revealed no further traces and French transferred his operations to the inside. He began in the hall, connecting the flex of his powerful electric lamp to the ceiling holder. Here, though he was extremely careful, he had no luck. He moved on to the drawing-room, again without result. Then he thought that of all rooms in the house, Ursula’s own bedroom was the one most likely to have been the scene of the tragedy, and he went up and made a much more thorough examination of the floor and furniture than he had on the previous evening. But again he found nothing of interest.

A good deal disappointed, he turned his attention to the stairs. No result. Then doggedly he set to work to complete the house. He did the dining-room. Again no result. Next he moved to the study. And here, almost immediately, he found more blood!

Locking the door, he began systematically crawling over the floor with his lamp. Yes, here was a drop of blood. And another. And another. Three drops of blood on the carpet!

The study was a small oak-panelled room about ten feet by twelve. In one of the shorter sides was a bow-window, the centre portion forming a double-doored french window. Facing into the room from the window, the fireplace was in the middle of the right side and the door to the left of the wall opposite. On the left wall, opposite the fireplace, were bookshelves.

Two of the drops were close together in the corner between the fireplace and the door; the other was just inside the french window. French stood gazing down at them, thinking deeply.

Was there not something suggestive in the position of these drops? The single one near the french-window was easy to understand: it had probably fallen while the body was being carried out. But the other two were not, as might have been expected, in the line between the door and the window. They were much too near the corner. They had certainly not fallen while the body was being carried through the room.

Did it not rather look as if the murder must have been committed in the study itself? For a few moments French continued standing in thought, then registering the idea for future consideration, he continued his search. But almost at once he stopped again and began whistling tunelessly.

He had withdrawn to the corner of the room and was glancing about in the hope of seeing something suggestive, when he noticed what he thought were sandy footmarks on the carpet. When bending over the carpet with his lamp he had missed these, but now looking from a distance they showed faintly. Stooping down so as to look along the surface brought them out more clearly. Yes, there was no doubt someone with sandy shoes had walked across the carpet from the french window to the corner where the two drops had fallen. He examined the marks as carefully as he could, but they were very vague and he could not even tell whether they had been made by a man or a woman. He brushed up some of the sand and put it in an envelope, also taking a sample of that behind the bush for comparison.

His first thought was that these traces had been made by the murderer when entering to attack Ursula Stone, but in a moment he saw that the discovery was not necessarily so significant. The footprints need not have been connected with the murder at all. They might have been made in a hundred perfectly innocent ways. However, it was a matter to be borne in mind.

Before turning from this general inspection to examine details French got out his dusting apparatus and went over everything which he thought might bear finger-prints, particularly the handle, key and edges of the french-window and of the door between the study and the hall.

On the latter he got prints, several of them, but the handles and key of the french-window were absolutely clean. With his little flashlight camera he made records of all the prints he had come on.

The french window next secured his attention. It was locked, but the key was in the door. French unlocked it and opened it. The second half of the door was fastened at top and bottom by running bolts which engaged with the lintel and step respectively. All the fittings were of strong construction and in good order.

French closed and relocked the window, then going out through the hall door, he tried to open it from the outside. It was as he had thought. No one could have entered without a key.

He had just returned to the study when Lucy knocked at the door. She understood he had had no breakfast, and if he liked she would bring him in something on a tray.

French was really grateful, and said so. Breakfast was becoming quite a problem. He didn’t want to take the time necessary to go into Farnham for it, but he knew that when he grew hungry the quality of his work fell off. On the other hand, he did not like to ask for anything in a house in which he was a potential enemy.

He seized the opportunity of Lucy’s arrival with the tray to make some enquiries. She had, she said, gone over the floor with the vacuum sweeper on the Friday, and she was satisfied that no sand could possibly have been left on it then. At the same time she had dusted the furniture. It was her business to see that the window was secure every night, and she had always done so. The study was now but little used, and so far as she was aware, the french window had not been unlocked for a week. Yes, she had looked at the window on Saturday night, and it was then locked. She had not actually touched it; it was not necessary. You could, as she pointed out, see the bolt of the lock between the two doors. No, she had no objection to French taking her finger-prints to see whether they were the same as those on the door to the hall.

His meal finished, French interviewed the other members of the house. At once he obtained important information. Julia told him that she had both opened and closed the french window on the previous day, the Sunday of the disappearance. She had gone into the study during the morning; she could not say the exact time, but she thought about twelve; and it had seemed to her stuffy and unaired. She had therefore opened both halves of the window. She had gone in again just before lunch, and she had then closed and locked both halves. She had not actually passed out through the window; she had merely opened and closed it.

French then enquired if any other member of the household had passed in or out through the window since the floor had been swept on the Friday. No one appeared to have done so, except possibly unhappy Ursula Stone herself. This, however, was considered unlikely by everyone. French agreed with them for the simple reason that all Ursula’s shoes bore fairly high heels, and it was therefore improbable that she was the person who had left the sandy traces.

All this, if true---and French had no reason to doubt it---was significant. If Julia had opened and closed the window about lunch-time on the Sunday, her fingerprints should still be on it. As they were not, it followed that someone afterwards had opened and closed it and, moreover, that this person had either worn gloves or had taken the precaution to wipe the handles after use.

French, rapidly thinking over his next step, decided that he should spend no more time in the house. If other traces of the tragedy remained, they would last longer under cover than they would in the open. Better to see first if he could pick up anything more outside.

Suppose Ursula had been murdered in the study and her body carried out and hidden in the thicket: were there any indications as to the direction in which the remains might afterwards have been taken? French thought there were.

If Earle had been murdered and the method of this latter crime were the same as that of his case, the bodies would have been disposed of in the same way. Now French did not believe that Earle’s body had been hidden in the wood. The search had been too thorough. It must then have been removed by car, for the fact that he had been unable to find a possible car was not really evidence that one had not been used. The same considerations would obviously apply in Ursula’s case.

The path past where the body had been laid ran out on the road just at the back of St. Kilda. Here the starting of a car would be clearly heard by anyone within. It was unlikely therefore that that end of the path had been used. Nor did French think the other end would have been employed, as this debouched on a road more than a mile away: too far to have carried the body. But French remembered that another path crossed this one at right angles a little farther into the wood, and came out on the St. Kilda road four or five hundred yards nearer Farnham. This was surely the most suitable place. These were the only paths near the house.

French decided to try the end of this cross path before going farther afield. He therefore retraced his steps to opposite where the depression in the grass had been found, and continued along the path in the direction of Farnham.

Though he did not examine the ground so meticulously as before, he kept a sharp look-out for bloodstains or other marks. But without result. He saw no signs of blood, and though there were plenty of footprints in the patches where the grass had given place to sand, these were so poorly defined as to be useless.

He reached the cross path, and, turning to the right, continued till he came within a few yards of the road. Then once again he began his thorough inspection of every inch of the ground.

His search was soon rewarded. Behind a clump of bushes, in a place hidden both from road and path, was another depression in the grass similar to that found by the constable. French was delighted. This was the kind of achievement which always filled him with satisfaction. He had thought what might have occurred, he had tested his idea, and now his investigations had proved that his guess was correct. That was the way to use one’s imagination! And that, he told himself, was where most of his confrères came short.

The body then had been carried here from its first resting-place, and here it had lain till its removal by car had been made possible. So far French felt no doubt as to the sequence of events.

He spent a solid hour searching the ground about this second depression, but without result. There were no further traces of blood and no one concerned seemed to have dropped anything. The absence of blood he could understand. The body, immediately after the murder, had been carried to the first thicket. But it had lain there for some time, during which all bleeding would have ceased.

He was about to give up and return to St. Kilda when he made a further discovery. On a branch of furze at the side of the road he found a tiny strand of light green wool.

Light green wool! He remembered that in the description of Ursula sent to the Yard one of the items was, “dressed in light green woollen jumper”. An important find!

This discovery practically proved his assumption that the body had been removed in a car. French began searching for wheel-marks. Yes, there they were! A car had pulled in towards the edge of the road where the path debouched. But unfortunately the marks were too blurred to be of any use in identifying the vehicle.

Well satisfied with his progress, French returned to St. Kilda to find that Sheepshanks and his helpers had completed their work and were waiting to see him before taking their departure. They had found nothing of interest.

“Well, I’ve got something,” said French, and he told the sergeant about the second depression, the wool and the wheel-marks. “You might report to the super and get all enquiries pushed on about cars seen on the roads last night. The super’ll know what’s wanted. I’ll follow you into Farnham presently.”

When the police had gone French re-entered the house. One or two small points still remained to be seen to. He asked for Julia.

“Sorry to trouble you again, Mrs. Earle, but I wanted to get a little further information, this time about Miss Stone. Can you tell me anything of her general history and circumstances?”

Julia told him what she knew: that Ursula had been at school with herself and her sister; that she was the daughter of a clergyman long since dead; that she had a little money; that she lived in a small cottage on Bathwick Hill, Bath, and that she interested herself in the local children’s hospital.

French, having noted these details, turned to his next point. Going once more to the garage, he examined the car with scrupulous care. He wondered whether it could have been the vehicle used. Sheepshanks had told him that one of the first things he had done on arriving at St. Kilda had been to feel the radiator. It was then cold. That had been at a few minutes past nine. As once again French made sure that the water had not been changed, he wondered how long it would take to cool.

He did not know. It depended on many factors: the level of the water, how hot it had been, how cold the night was, how far the garage protected it; all superimposed on some kind of constant for the make of car. He guessed from three to four hours, but he had no idea if this was correct.

Three to four hours would mean that the car could have been used up to about six o’clock and still show no traces of heat. Supposing Julia---and possibly Marjorie---were guilty, when could they have used it?

Lucy had gone out at half-past three and had testified that at that hour Ursula was alive and well. How long would the murder have taken?

French did not believe the sisters would have made a move till Lucy had gone some time, lest the girl should have forgotten something and come back. Suppose they had waited for half an hour and at four the fateful blow had been struck. Ursula’s body could have been carried to its resting-place in the first thicket inside five minutes, and the two criminals could have been back at the house by 4.15. When could the body have been taken on the second stage of its journey?

That it had lain in that first thicket for some time seemed evident from the condition of the grass, and also because if it had not lain there for some time it was difficult to see any reason for its having been put there at all. Suppose it had lain for half an hour. It could then undoubtedly have been carried on to the second halting-place, and Julia and/or Marjorie could have returned to St. Kilda before the Campions’ arrival at 5.15. After their departure at six the car could have been taken out and the body finally disposed of.

French saw that while the suggested timing was tight, this theory was possible, and yet as a theory he was not pleased with it. It did not somehow seem likely. As a matter of fact, while he didn’t feel so sure about Julia, he could not picture Marjorie Lawes as a party to such a crime.

Did the two women, he wondered, know the Campions were coming that afternoon, so as to fit their operations in with the visit? This seemed an important point and he asked both. They denied it, convincingly enough. He took a note, however, to see the Campions on the matter.

Reserving judgment on the possible guilt or innocence of the sisters, French decided that his most pressing line was the tracing of the car by which the body had been conveyed. He would slip into Farnham for some lunch while he considered how this could best be done.