The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum

Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) => Topic started by: Admin on August 09, 2023, 05:53:02 am



Title: 14: Slade's Sunday
Post by: Admin on August 09, 2023, 05:53:02 am
AS French drove through the pleasant Surrey lanes his thoughts switched over from the Lawes sisters to another of his former suspects, Reggie Slade. Could Slade have had anything to do with this second mystery?

He had, of course, thought of Slade directly he had heard of Ursula’s disappearance, just as he had thought of Julia and Marjorie. But now the possibility of Slade’s guilt must be seriously considered.

That Slade alone should have encompassed the kidnapping or death of Ursula he didn’t think likely. For one thing, he did not see how Slade could have entered the study. Nor did he believe Slade could have prevailed on Ursula to meet him there. But if one assumed that Slade and Julia had been acting in concert, these difficulties vanished.

Suppose Slade and Julia had agreed to murder Ursula---leaving the possible motive out of account for the moment. Suppose they worked out a plan by which Julia was to get Ursula down to the study and there murder her and carry her body out to a prearranged place: the first thicket. This would be Julia’s part in the affair. Slade would then come into the picture. He would carry the body from the Thicket No. 1 to Thicket No. 2, where he would leave it while he went for his car. Returning, he would lift it on board and run it to its final destination.

This theory at first sight seemed to cover the facts. But further thought showed that it didn’t quite. It didn’t account for the footprints both behind the bush and on the carpet.

French puzzled over this; then suddenly he saw a possible explanation. If the crime were carried out jointly, would not Slade, rather than Julia, have committed the actual murder? In this case, would not Slade have waited behind the bush for Julia to let him in, Julia then calling Ursula down to the study?

To French this seemed extremely likely. Moreover, it accounted more satisfactorily for the two halts during the passage through the wood. Slade, on getting the body away from the house, would secrete it in the first hiding-place he could find, so that he might return to make sure that Julia was all right and that no traces of the crime remained. He would then carry it to the second thicket, again leaving it hidden while he went for his car.

French was pleased with his progress. His theory was taking shape. Three points, however, remained unaccounted for, and on these he now concentrated.

The first was the motive for this second crime. Why should anyone desire the life of this pleasant, kindly, harmless lady? Of all people in the world Ursula Stone seemed about the last to inspire feelings of fear or hate.

But wait a minute. Was she so harmless as he had supposed? Suddenly French saw that she might be anything but harmless; so dangerous indeed to these two people that they would have a very adequate reason for wishing her dead. Suppose in some way Ursula had discovered the truth about Earle’s disappearance? If Julia and Slade were guilty of Earle’s murder, this would mean nothing less than the hangman for both of them. If so, small wonder that Ursula was sacrificed!

The second difficulty was comparatively trifling: the fact that he, French, had come to the conclusion that both these people, Julia and Slade, were innocent of Earle’s death. But this did not weigh very much with him. His former conclusion was not divinely inspired. He might even have made a mistake.

The third difficulty, however, was overwhelming. What about Nurse Nankivel? If Earle had been murdered, what had happened to the nurse? It was inconceivable that she also had been murdered. There could have been no motive.

As French considered this argument it seemed to grow slowly stronger and more unanswerable. Did it not mean that Earle had not been murdered at all, but that he and the nurse had gone off together, as French had originally concluded? Why, he asked himself, had he changed his mind on this point? Simply because of the possibility that Ursula Stone had been murdered. Was this really convincing?

On second thoughts he believed not. Ursula’s death---if she had died---might not have been connected in any way with Earle or his disappearance. Her murderer---again, if she had been murdered---might purposely have made the crime look like a voluntary disappearance, with the very object of its being erroneously connected with Earle’s.

Then French saw further that if Earle had not been murdered, it invalidated the only motive he had been able to think of for Ursula’s death. Therefore had Earle been murdered after all?

French swore. The thing was a regular dilemma. If Earle had not been murdered, there was no motive for Ursula’s death: if he had, there was no explaining the nurse’s fate.

French turned into the hotel for lunch. As he sat over his roast beef and greens it occurred to him that it might be wise to broadcast for news of Ursula. It was evident that the murderer had not intended suspicion of murder to arise, and it might be no harm to let him think his ruse had been successful.

Accordingly, having sent the necessary application for the broadcast to Scotland Yard, he once again returned to the seat of war. Calling at Altadore, he asked for Slade. The young man was at home, and this time did not keep French waiting. He appeared at once, wishing French good morning in an almost obsequious manner.

“Sorry to trouble you again, Mr. Slade, but it’s the same business over again. This affair of Miss Stone is so like that of Mr. Earle that we have to go on the same lines in each case. I hope you’ll help me all you can.”

Slade nodded. “I understand, inspector. I’ll help you all I can and all that. But I expect it won’t be much. Don’t know anything about the affair, you know.”

“I don’t suppose you know anything directly,” French returned smoothly, “but you may be able to help me indirectly. You were at St. Kilda in the afternoon, quite possibly only a short time before Miss Stone disappeared. Though you may not have seen her, you may have seen someone else who did, and from whom I might get my information.”

“Didn’t see a soul. I’d tell you at once if I had, but I met no one.”

“Just what time were you at St. Kilda?”

“ ’Bout three. Don’t know exactly, not within a few minutes, you know; but about three.”

“Quite. And what did you do after you left?”

“Went to Petersfield. I’ll tell you.” Slade was speaking almost eagerly. “Dagger and my sister went over to spend the day with some people at Arundel, so I was by myself for lunch. It was pretty ghastly all alone, and after lunch I took out the Bentley and went over to St. Kilda to try and get Mrs. Earle to come out for a run. That was why I went over, you know.” He paused expectantly, but French not replying, went on. “But she wouldn’t come. So I was at a loose end again. I thought I’d go over to Petersfield and see some people. So I did. The man I wanted to see was out, but I did find a couple of chaps I knew. We had some drinks and so on. I soon got fed up with it, so I came back, back here. I had a wash-up and a change and then I went back to the golf club. It wasn’t so bad there. I found some chaps and we had a spot of bridge. We dined together and played on till the place closed at eleven. Then I came home and went to bed. That all you want?”

“Very nearly,” French returned. “That statement is perfectly satisfactory to me, and all I require is a bit more detail. Now first”----And he began in his painstaking way to dissect the evidence. Amplified, the statement amounted to the following:

Slade had reached St. Kilda about 3 p.m. and left about 3.15. He had seen Lucy, who had opened the door, and Julia, Marjorie and Ursula, who were in the drawing-room. He had driven to Petersfield, reaching his friends about four. He had stayed about an hour, leaving about five. The drive back took another three-quarters of an hour and he was about a quarter of an hour changing. That brought it about six. As soon as he had changed he went to the club, only of course two or three minutes in the car. He parked his car at the club and drove home about eleven. Then followed a list of persons who might witness on his behalf.

French was a good deal impressed by the statement. So much of it could apparently be vouched for that he scarcely saw how it could be false. All these people could not be accomplices. And if the statement were true it looked as if Slade must be innocent.

What had French to check? First the time of Slade’s arrival in Petersfield. French had an idea of the distance and he felt sure the run could not have been made in less time than Slade had said. If Slade therefore had arrived about four, he couldn’t possibly have committed the murder before his trip.

Again, if he had filled in his time even approximately as he had said, he would not have had time to dispose of the body between his return from Petersfield and his departure for the golf club. And he would scarcely have attempted it after eleven, when he would expect the search to be in progress.

It would be necessary, of course, to get these key hours checked, and French decided that he would take this on next. Accordingly next morning he went out again to Altadore and asked to see the servants.

As on the day of Earle’s disappearance, only the cook had been on duty on this Sunday. When he had previously interrogated her French had been impressed with her straightforwardness. Now as he talked to her again he received the same impression.

When therefore she told him that Slade had been out all Sunday afternoon and had returned at quarter to six, leaving again in some fifteen minutes, French believed her. All the same, he asked how she remembered the hour so clearly. She had, she explained, supposed Mr. Slade would be in for dinner, and at six o’clock she would have begun preparations for the meal. She was therefore watching the time, and noted exactly when the young man had arrived. When she had heard him go out it had occurred to her that it was just the time she would have been starting work, had he not done so. The cook also stated that during the fifteen minutes Slade was changing, she had seen the Bentley standing at the door.

French then went on and saw his friends the chauffeur and his wife. The chauffeur could not entirely answer his questions, as he had been at Arundel with Colonel and Mrs. Dagger on the Sunday. They had left about midday, and up to that time all three cars had been in the garage. When he returned about 10.30 in the evening the small car was there, but the Bentley was out. Mr. Slade brought in the Bentley about eleven, and he, the chauffeur, put it away.

The chauffeur’s wife, however, was able to give further information. She had been about the premises during the entire day and stated positively that no cars could have been taken out or left in unknown to her. Mr. Slade had come to the yard about three, and had taken out the Bentley. The small car had not been taken out at all, and the Bentley had not been brought back till the time her husband stated---namely, eleven.

“Well, that’s pretty useful to me,” French declared cheerily. “Have you cleaned the Bentley since Sunday?”

The chauffeur looked slightly shocked. He had been cleaning the Daimler and adjusting its brakes on Monday, and it surely wasn’t expected that he could have dealt with the Bentley as well? Besides, the Bentley wasn’t dirty. He had been over her thoroughly on Saturday, and she was quite all right.

French saw that he had been injudicious. He agreed that the Daimler was more than enough for anyone, and then said he would like to have a look at the Bentley. If Ursula’s green wool would catch on twigs, a strand might stick to the cushions of a car.

But no strand had done so. French was very thorough in his examination and he found nothing suggesting Ursula’s presence. The only thing he noted was that Slade at some time must have been walking on muddy ground, as traces of yellow clay showed in the pile of the carpet at the driver’s seat.

So far everything that French had learned corroborated Slade’s statement. French, however, could not be content with corroboration of a part of the statement; he must check it all. The golf club was close at hand and he would take it next.

The club-house was situated on the road running between Hampton Common cross-roads and the village of Seale. It was a low rambling house of mellow red brick walls and mellower red roof tiles, with half timbering on the upper story. It looked genuinely old, as if two or three cottages had been knocked into one. There was a U-shaped drive, forming an entrance, a sweep before the door, and an exit. Round at the side of the building, hidden by a screen of trees both from the windows and the road, was a macadamised area used as a car park. Between the drives was a grass plot with flower-beds and shrubs. At the other side of the building from the park was the first tee.

It happened that the secretary was in his office when French arrived, and he saw him at once. French had to put his questions delicately. He wanted to check the alibi of a man who was not under suspicion. Making official red tape the scapegoat therefore, he besought the secretary’s good offices.

Curiously enough it happened that the secretary himself had seen Slade’s arrival on the Sunday evening. He happened to be on the steps in front of the building when Campion drove up. Campion went into the club-house, remaining for a couple of minutes only. On his reappearance the two men exchanged a few words, and while they were doing so Slade arrived in his sports Bentley. He parked and entered the building. As he passed the others he asked if certain other members were in the club, saying he had come for an evening’s bridge. Campion then drove off and the secretary went home. The latter reached his house a few minutes past six, and as it was only seven or eight minutes’ walk, Slade must have arrived at the club about six.

Though this was all the secretary knew personally, he continued to be extremely helpful. He called waiters and attendants from whom French was able to get conclusive testimony that Slade had remained in the club-house till it closed at eleven.

There remained now only the enquiry at Petersfield, and in the afternoon French took a bus thither. Here the information he obtained was equally conclusive. He interviewed two members of the family on whom Slade had called and they confirmed the young man’s statement on every point. He had turned up almost exactly at four o’clock and had stayed for just an hour.

All this testimony seemed to French to constitute overwhelming proof of Slade’s innocence. At no time before eleven would he have had an opportunity either to commit the murder or to dispose of the body. And French could not bring himself to believe that he would have left any part of the dreadful scheme over till this hour, as he would have foreseen the presence of police in the neighbourhood. Besides this, of course, there was the testimony of the chauffeur and his wife that all cars were in the garage by eleven o’clock and remained there all night.

No, Slade was out of it. And if Slade was out of it, French believed that Julia was out of it too. And he had never believed that Marjorie was in it. This whole line of suspicion must be erroneous and the truth must lie in some totally different direction. What possible direction could that be? French recognised creeping over him that dreadful baffled feeling which had so often oppressed him when a promising clue petered out.

He sighed. Curse it all! If Julia and Slade were innocent, who was guilty? French really suspected no one. But someone must have done it. What had gone wrong with him was that he was so bankrupt of ideas. He might not be able to obtain proof of guilt, but he should at least know whom to suspect.

In the hope of something having resulted from the local men’s activities, he went in to see Sheaf. Their results, however, could be covered by the one word, Nil. No one, either walking or driving a car, had been seen on the roads or in the vicinity of St. Kilda, nor had anything affecting the case been discovered.

Pessimistically French returned to his hotel to write up his notes.