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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) => Topic started by: Admin on August 09, 2023, 11:41:33 am

Title: 20: Disappointment
Post by: Admin on August 09, 2023, 11:41:33 am
FRENCH awoke jubilant next morning. At last his case was progressing! All that business of the analysis, with its overwhelming suggestion that Frazer had been poisoned, was a gigantic step forward. By means of his work four appalling murders had been brought to light. And so far as he could see, to bring home the crime to the guilty party should be a fairly quick and straightforward job.

But this matter of the arsenic raised urgently a very delicate question. Should the manner of Frazer’s death not be placed beyond the possibility of doubt? In other words, Should his body not be exhumed?

French went in and discussed it with Sheaf. Sheaf, though impressed with French’s discoveries, was unwilling to apply for an exhumation order unless absolutely unavoidable. “Suppose you’re wrong,” he urged. “Where would I come in? You know it’s a serious matter to exhume a body, particularly the body of a man of Frazer’s position. If we make a bungle over it, what’s going to happen to me?”

French pointed out that the same considerations applied to himself, but urged that neither he nor Sheaf had anything to fear. He argued that it was inconceivable that the medicine analysed could have been other than Frazer’s, and if so, that poison had not been used. Finally he declared that failure to exhume would hold up the case.

Sheaf could not refute his arguments. So much so that then and there he rang up his chief constable and asked him if he could see him on the matter.

The chief constable happened to be in Farnham, and he shortly appeared at the station. He listened to French’s arguments, and was convinced by them.

“I think we’ll have to do what he wants, super,” he declared. “We’re human beings and can only do our best. If this proves a mistake, I’ll stand for it. Go ahead and get your order.”

Two nights later with as much secrecy as possible the exhumation was carried out, and in due course the report of the analyst on the contents of the deceased’s organs was received. French was justified! Frazer had died of arsenical poisoning.

French in this case thought little of the dreadfulness of murder. Murder was always terrible, but here his professional keenness outweighed any feeling for the deceased. This discovery meant full speed ahead again for him. Fortunately his path was clearly defined. He had already considered the way, and he had nothing to do now but follow it. He had noted the obvious point that the person he wanted must have killed Frazer, Nurse Nankivel, Earle and Ursula Stone. Only a very restricted number of persons could be guilty of these crimes, and he had merely to eliminate from the apparent possibles, in order to solve his problem.

As he had seen, the first two of these possibles were Mrs. Frazer and Gates. Could Mrs. Frazer have murdered Frazer, Nurse Nankivel, Earle and Miss Stone? If not, could Gates have done it? If not, and French didn’t believe this contingency would arise, Who else could have done it?

First then, Mrs. Frazer.

It was obvious that Mrs. Frazer could have administered the poison. She usually sat with her husband while Nurse Nankivel was out, and nothing would have been easier than to slip the arsenic into the medicine. Moreover, she worked in the garden, where there was any amount of arsenical weed-killer.

So far as Frazer was concerned, then, Mrs. Frazer remained a possible. Next came Nurse Nankivel. Could Mrs. Frazer have murdered the nurse?

French soon learned that on the Sunday of Earle’s and Nurse Nankivel’s murders Mrs. Frazer was at Budleigh Salterton in Devon. On that day fortnight, when unhappy Ursula Stone met her death, Mrs. Frazer’s cousin, Mrs. Hampton, had been staying in the house, and the two ladies had spent the afternoon and evening together. Though French noted that these statements must be confirmed, in the face of them he had no doubt of Hermione Frazer’s innocence.

Believing that he was on to a more likely proposition, he turned his thoughts to Gates.

So far as the murder of Frazer was concerned, Gates was quite as much a possible as Mrs. Frazer. His motive was just as strong, or stronger, and his opportunities of obtaining and administering the poison equally good. He also sat occasionally with his uncle during the nurse’s afternoon walk, and he was actually in charge of the gardens. The test of Gates’ guilt would lie rather with the other three cases.

French had not succeeded in finding out where Gates had been on the two Sundays in question, and he saw that his first job must be to do so.

With a definite programme in his mind, therefore, he set off after breakfast for Polperro. Gates, he had learnt from judicious pumping of the butler, had acted as a sort of agent for his uncle. He had supervised what farming was done on the little estate, looked after the tenants and their properties, kept a general eye over the gardeners and other outdoor servants, and attended to the old man’s correspondence. He was down now at the farm buildings, where French could see him.

He didn’t seem to be doing very much when French found him, all the same French apologised courteously for interrupting his business. French had been bothered by the question of how to approach Gates. He could not very well ask him to account for his time at the critical periods without giving away that the police had connected in their minds all these four murders, which he didn’t wish to do. He therefore determined to bluff.

“It’s just a little matter of routine,” he went on; “a little misunderstanding or error on someone’s part, which as a matter of routine must be cleared up. You can do it for me, I have no doubt, in a moment. The point is this. On that Sunday when Nurse Nankivel and Dr. Earle disappeared, well, sir, not to put too fine a point on it, you are supposed to have been seen with a car meeting the nurse on the Hog’s Back. That was about six o’clock in the evening. Now, sir”---he held up his hand as Gates would have spoken---“I do not believe this story, because I feel sure that if you had seen her you would have come forward and said so. At the same time there is the statement, and it has got to be met. I want you, sir, to be good enough to meet it for me.”

As French spoke Gates seemed to be getting fuller and fuller of suppressed fury, and when French reached his peroration, the storm broke. Gates cursed and swore with a picturesque richness of expression, finally wanting to know the name of the blanked blank who had told this blanked lie against him. French let him get off steam, then brought him to earth by suggesting quietly that if there was all that difficulty about it, Gates must have something to hide, and he would have to ask him to come in to the police station to make a formal statement before the superintendent.

“Better let’s have the whole thing, Mr. Gates, when you’re at it,” French went on quickly, before the effect of his remark had worn off. “Put it this way: Where were you on those two Sunday afternoons; the Sunday on which the doctor and the nurse disappeared, and the Sunday fortnight, when Miss Stone vanished? Sorry to trouble you, but I must have answers. If you give them to me completely, I hope you will not be troubled again.”

In spite of French’s pacific approach, Gates made a great show of resenting the questions. He asked if French suspected him of the murder of these three persons. If he did, he, Gates, was not going to answer, for the Lord knew how his replies might be twisted. If on the other hand French did not suspect him, the questions did not arise.

French, in reply to this, took up the attitude of the official in one of its most asinine manifestations. These were the questions that he was accustomed to ask. It was the regular routine, hallowed by tradition: he couldn’t contemplate or visualise any other course but to ask them. If they did not apply, he couldn’t help it; enquiries were made in this way. Tradition was better than reason because it saved thought and because those in high places preferred it.

As he had hoped and expected, this attitude so infuriated Gates, that after cursing French and the British police and institutions bell, book and candle, to get rid of him he told him what he wanted to know.

It seemed that on the first Sunday, the day of the murder of the nurse and of Earle, Gates had left Polperro in his car, a small Riley, about midday. He had driven alone to Winchester, where he had arrived about or shortly before half-past one. He had there lunched with some friends, people named Hutchinson. He had remained with them for tea, leaving about half-past five. He had driven straight home, arriving at Polperro about seven.

This, French saw at once, would if true have made it impossible for him to meet the nurse on the Hog’s Back.

“And what, sir, did you do then?” French went on.

On reaching home Gates had dined alone, Mrs. Frazer being at the sea in Devon. After dinner he felt a bit stale from sitting about all day and he went out for a walk. He walked about five miles, then read for a couple of hours and went to bed.

French, naturally interested in the walk, made further enquiries.

Gates had left Polperro after dinner. “It happened,” he explained, “that I was without a book, and as I like to read for a while after I go to bed, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and walk round to my friend, Owen Galbraith, and borrow one which he had promised me. Then it occurred to me that he usually went out on a Sunday evening, so I rang him up and asked him if he was going out to leave the book with his housekeeper and I’d call for it. He said he was going out, but would leave the book. So I walked over, got the book and walked back again.”

French pressed for still further details.

“When did I start and when did I get back?” Gates repeated. “How in hades do I know? Think I go about with a notebook recording everything I do? Ask me an easier one.”

“This is the one I’m asking you,” French declared doggedly, “and this is the one I want an answer to. Come on, Mr. Gates, put your mind into it and no doubt you’ll get it all right.”

After some more blasphemy, which seemed to be the normal accompaniment of his conversation, Gates put his mind into it. As a result he was able to state the times fairly accurately. He had dined at half-past seven. He was a quick eater, especially when alone, and he had finished before eight. He went out as soon as he had rung up Galbraith. If the time were fixed at eight o’clock, it couldn’t be more than a minute or two wrong.

As to the hour of his return, he was not so certain. He would say about 9.30. The butler might possibly be able to help there, for the first thing he did on reaching home was to ring for a whisky and soda.

“Where does Mr. Galbraith live, Mr. Gates?”

“About half-way between Farncombe and Shackleford.”

French brought out his map. “That would be about two miles from here?”

“Nearer three.”

“I suppose it would,” French agreed, as he scaled along the roads. “That would be a walk of between five and six miles?”

“If it’s nearly three miles away and I walked there and back, it would seem so,” Gates returned with heavy sarcasm.

“Quite,” French admitted. “Now who did you see at Mr. Galbraith’s?”

“The housekeeper. There’s no one else there. He’s not married.”

French thought quickly. This seemed to be all the information he required. If this tale was true, Gates was also innocent of Earle’s murder.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Gates,” he said. “That’s all I want about the first Sunday. Now if you’ll just give me similar information about the second Sunday, when Miss Stone disappeared, that will complete all I want to ask.”

For some reason this seemed to re-arouse all Gates’ annoyance. “I suppose you think I murdered the lady?” he growled with a choice string of oaths.

French stolidly repeated his platitudes on the subject of routine. Gates shook his head with a hopeless gesture.

“You and your routine and your red tape and all the rest of your blanked tommy-rot,” he jeered. “Can you never do anything except what you’ve done before?”

“Not very often,” French admitted. “What were you doing on that Sunday, Mr. Gates?”

“That’s right. That’s the question to ask. Precedent lays it down and therefore irrespective of the circumstances the question’s asked. Have you asked the Lord Chief Justice what he was doing on Sunday afternoon?”

“No,” said French, “but I will if you prove he knows anything about this job.”

“Why drag that in?” Gates returned with bitter scorn. “What has knowing anything about the thing got to do with it? He knows as much about it as I do. I don’t see why you don’t go up to Town and ask him now.”

After a good deal of rather stupid blustering Gates came to earth sufficiently to answer French’s question. It seemed that after lunch on that second Sunday he had read the Sunday Times, enjoying a little sleep at intervals. Shortly after four he had tea with Mrs. Frazer and her cousin who was staying in the house. He went out for a walk, getting back about half-past six. From then till dinner he sat with the ladies. After dinner he took a gentle stroll in the grounds while smoking a pipe, say from half-past eight till nine or thereabouts.

Pressed for details of his afternoon walk, he gave with unwillingness the itinerary. He had taken a round, out along the Hog’s Back and home by Puttenham and Compton. The distance was about five miles.

In accordance with precedent the usual search for confirmation followed. French took the first Sunday first. A visit to Winchester confirmed beyond question Gates’ statement about his call on the Hutchinsons’. The man therefore was definitely innocent of the murder of the nurse.

The critical time in the case of Earle was in the evening, the doctor having disappeared about 8.40. Gates’ statement was that he left Polperro about eight o’clock, returning about 9.30. If Gates had not walked to Galbraith in that period he might have committed the murder. Was his statement true?

From the butler French learned that dinner on that first Sunday had been at 7.30, and that Gates had eaten it quickly, as was his habit when alone, and had gone out after it. The butler had heard him telephoning before he did so. He didn’t know what the conversation was about, but he had overheard Gates say, “Well, leave it with the housekeeper and I’ll call for it.” Gates had returned at or before half-past nine. The butler did not hear him coming in, but he had rung for a whisky and soda and half-past nine had struck while the butler was crossing the hall.

So far, so good. The next question was: Had Gates really walked as he said, or had he taken out a car?

French went out to the yard and saw the chauffeur. This man, Potter, was not nearly so communicative as the butler, but French gradually overcame his scruples and at last he answered his questions.

Just as at the Dagger-Slade establishment, there were three cars, a large and a small one belonging to Mrs. Frazer, and Gates’ Riley. On that first Sunday of Earle’s and the nurse’s death, Mrs. Frazer had taken the small car to Devon, driving herself and her cousin. The large one had not been out. Gates’ Riley had been ordered for twelve o’clock, and Potter had taken it round to the front door at that hour. Gates had brought it back about seven and it had not been out again on that day. Oh yes, Potter was positive of that. Like the Daggers’ chauffeur, he lived beside the garage, and he was absolutely certain that neither car had been out on that Sunday evening.

There then remained the question of whether Gates had really walked to Galbraith’s house. This would be French’s next enquiry.

Then French became doubtful that this information was really required. If Gates had not had a car on that Sunday night, he could not have run Earle’s body to the by-pass. There was a bicycle in the establishment certainly---he had seen it in the yard---but even with a bicycle he could not have carried the remains. Moreover, that bicycle, though obtainable in the daytime, was locked up in the yard about half-past seven, and the chauffeur declared it had so been locked up on that Sunday evening. However, to put the thing beyond doubt, he would go over and see this housekeeper of Galbraith’s.

It occurred to him that when he was about it, he should confirm the time it took to walk the distance. He therefore left the sergeant’s bicycle at Polperro, and set off on foot.

A delightful walk he found it, and a base temptation assailed him to forget the sergeant’s bicycle when he came into these parts in future, so as to have more walks. He had no difficulty in finding his objective, and soon he was knocking at Mr. Galbraith’s door.

It was opened by a little white-haired old woman, with a pair of the most intelligent eyes French ever remembered to have seen. A determined little woman, too, from the strength of her jaw and the set of her features. She looked at French dubiously.

“Can I see Mr. Galbraith?” he asked.

Mr. Galbraith was at his business in Godalming and would not be home till the evening, and her manner seemed to suggest that anyone who was any good would also have been at his business at that hour.

“Perhaps then, madam, you could tell me what I want to know,” French went on, producing his official card.

“You’d better come in,” she said, leading the way to an aggressively tidy sitting-room and pointing to a chair. French sat down.

The old lady made no difficulty about answering his questions. Yes, she was Mr. Galbraith’s housekeeper. Mr. Galbraith was a lawyer in Godalming and lived here alone. Yes, she remembered the Sunday night of Dr. Earle’s disappearance. Mr. Galbraith usually went out on Sunday evenings to play cards with some friends. She didn’t hold with cards, particularly on a Sunday evening. However, that wasn’t what the inspector wanted to know. Before Mr. Galbraith went out he gave her a book; one of those trashy novels, it was; and told her that Mr. Gates would call for it later. Mr. Gates did call and she gave it to him. She went then to bed at her usual time, but before she was asleep she heard Mr. Galbraith letting himself in with his latchkey. In fact, everything that evening passed as usual.

“That’s just what I wanted to know,” French said, complimenting her on her clear statement. “I suppose you couldn’t say just what time Mr. Gates called?”

Not to a minute, she couldn’t, but approximately she could. She had finished all the work of the house for that evening at about half-past eight, and had settled down with a book to enjoy a comfortable read. She hadn’t been reading more than ten or fifteen minutes when Mr. Gates came. That would make it about a quarter to nine; say from twenty minutes to ten minutes to nine.

This clinched the matter. Gates had left home about eight. He had returned about half-past nine, or an hour and a half altogether. From French’s own experience it took about three-quarters of an hour to walk between the two houses. Two three-quarters of an hour, there and back, would just make up the time. As in addition to this Gates had called at his objective at the middle of the period, confirmation was complete.

Not only so, but there was even more convincing proof of Gates’ innocence in this little old lady’s statement, than the mere confirmation of his story. At almost the very time that the murder of Earle had been committed, Gates was on the doorstep of Galbraith’s house, some four miles away.

French was by this time tired of Gates and all his works, as he had worn round to the belief that he was not his man. However, there still remained the checking of Gates’ statement as to how he had spent the second Sunday, the Sunday of Ursula Stone’s death. French felt a little inclined to get these two Sunday afternoons mixed up, and he therefore consulted his notebook to make sure he was clear on the matter.

On that second Sunday Gates had stated he had gone out for a walk immediately after tea, which he had with Mrs. Frazer and her cousin. He had returned about half-past six, and he had given the itinerary of his walk.

French had recourse once again to his friend the butler, and once again he got adequate confirmation. The man distinctly remembered Gates having tea with the two ladies on Sunday. Tea was at 4.15, a little earlier than usual, as supper was earlier on Sundays. He had not seen Gates after tea till about 6.30, when the man had come in. As to Gates’ statement that he went for a stroll in the grounds after dinner, the butler was able to confirm that he was out for certainly not more than an hour. The chauffeur stated definitely that on that Sunday none of the cars were out.

French sighed as he turned away. He had now checked up his two most promising suspects, and in each case he had drawn a blank. At least he had no doubt he would do so, for he had yet to confirm the visit of Hermione Frazer to Budleigh Salterton.

This, however, was soon accomplished. A run down to Devon, armed with a description and photograph, set the matter at rest. Mrs. Frazer had unquestionably stayed there during the critical week-end.

Once again feeling rather up against it, French sat down in the hotel to post his notes to date.