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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 04:55:46 am

Title: 6: Talloires, Lac D’Annecy
Post by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 04:55:46 am
HAVING noted the twenty-four numbers, French hurriedly replaced the notes and with even more speed looked through the remaining drawers. He was now chiefly anxious that Whymper should not suspect his discovery, and as soon as he was satisfied that he had left no traces of his search, he silently unlocked the door and then walked noisily downstairs. As he reached the hall the landlady appeared from the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said politely, “that I cannot wait any longer now. I have another appointment. Please tell Mr. Whymper that I’ll call to see him at the church to-morrow.”

The door closed behind him, but he made no attempt to return to the hotel. Instead he hung about the terrace until he saw Whymper approaching in the distance: Then walking towards him, he hailed him as if their meeting was accidental.

“Good-evening, Mr. Whymper. I’ve just been calling at your rooms to ask if you could see me at the church to-morrow. One or two points occurred to me in connection with our discussion of last night, and I wanted to get your views on them. Unfortunately I have an appointment to-night, and cannot wait now.”

Whymper, evidently not too pleased at the prospect, curtly admitted he would be available, and with a short “Good-night,” passed on.

French went his way also, but when in a few seconds the shadowing constable put in an appearance, he stopped him.

“Look here, Hughes. I have a suspicion that Whymper may try to get rid of some papers to-night. Be specially careful if you see him trying to do anything of the kind, and let me hear from you about it in the morning.”

He reached the hotel and in his pleasant way had a leisurely chat with the landlord before turning in. But when once he reached his room for the night he lit a cigar and settled down to see just where he stood.

It was obvious in the first place that the evidence which he had obtained against Pierce Whymper would have been considered by most police officers sufficient to justify an arrest. To find a man suspected of the theft with the stolen property in his possession was usually reckoned an overwhelming proof of his guilt. And if to this be added the fact that the accused was seen in the neighbourhood of the crime about the time of its commission, having previously denied being there, and further, that his whole bearing when questioned was evasive and embarrassed, any lingering doubt might well have been swept away.

But French was not wholly satisfied. A ripe experience had made him an almost uncanny judge of character and he felt a strong impression that Pierce Whymper was not of the stuff of which thieves and murderers are made. That the young man knew something about the crime he had no doubt; that he was guilty of it he was not so certain.

He racked his brains as to whether there was no other statement of Whymper’s which he could check. Then he remembered that the young architect had admitted having seen Roper on the afternoon of the tragedy. This was a point of contact with Starvel, and French wondered whether more might not have passed between the two men than Whymper had divulged. He decided that it would be worth while trying to find out.

According to his own statement Whymper had met Roper outside the church gate at about 5.30 on the evening in question. Next morning French therefore strolled to the church, and getting into conversation with one of the workmen, learned that the sexton was usually waiting to lock up when the men left at 5.15. From the notice board he learned the sexton’s address, ran him to earth and explained that he wished to speak to him confidentially.

To his customary story of the insurance company who wished to discover the cause of the Starvel fire he added some slight embroidery. At the inquest a suggestion was made of contributory negligence---in other words, drink---and his instructions were to find out what he could about this possibility.

Now he had heard that Roper was seen outside the church gate about 5.30 on the afternoon of the tragedy and he, French, wondered whether the sexton might not have noticed him when locking up.

It was a long shot, but rather to French’s surprise, it got a bull’s eye. The sexton had seen Mr. Roper. Mr. Whymper, the young gentleman in charge of the renovation, had been ten or fifteen minutes late finishing up that evening and he, the sexton, had waited by the gate till he should leave. While there he had noticed Roper. The man seemed to be hanging about as if waiting for some one, and when Mr. Whymper appeared, Roper went up and spoke to him. The two men talked together as if Roper were delivering a message, then they separated, walking off in opposite directions. They talked, the sexton was sure, for two or three minutes. No, he did not observe the slightest sign of drink on Mr. Roper. As a matter of fact the man wished him good-evening and he could swear he was then perfectly sober.

“Well, I’m glad to know that,” French declared, “though I suppose it is really against my company. But I expect we shall have to pay in any case. Now, I think I’d best see this Mr. Whymper you speak of, and get his confirmation of your views.”

“You’ll find him in the church, probably in the north transept where they’re rebuilding the window.”

French did not, however, go immediately to the north transept of the church. Instead he found his way to the residence of a certain Colonel Followes, a prominent magistrate with a reputation for discretion, whose name had been given him by Sergeant Kent. He took the colonel into his confidence, made the necessary formal statement and obtained a warrant for the arrest of Pierce Whymper. Whether or not he would execute it would depend on the young man’s answers to his further questions, but he wished to be able to do so if, at the time, it seemed wise.

Returning to the church, French found his quarry superintending the resetting of the stone mullions of the beautiful north transept window. He waited until the young man was free, then said that he would be glad if they could now have their talk.

“Come into the vestry room,” Whymper returned. “I use it as an office and we won’t be disturbed.”

Of all the sights which the groined roof of the old vestry had looked down on during the three centuries of its existence, none perhaps was so out of keeping with the character of the place as this interview between a detective of the C.I.D. and the man whom he half suspected of murder, arson, and burglary. And yet there was nothing dramatic about their conversation. French spoke quietly, as if their business was everyday and matter of fact. Whymper, though he was evidently under strain, gave none of the evidence of apprehension he had exhibited on the previous evening. Rather had he the air of a man who feared no surprise as he had braced himself to meet the worst. He waited in silence for the other to begin.

“I am sorry, Mr. Whymper,” French said at last, “to have to return to the subject we discussed last night, but since then further facts have come to my knowledge which render it necessary. I think it right to tell you that these facts suggest that you may be guilty of a number of extremely serious crimes. I am, however, aware that facts, improperly understood, may be misleading, and I wish, therefore, to give you an opportunity of explaining the matters which seem to incriminate you. I would like to ask you a number of questions, but before I do so I must warn you that if your answers are unsatisfactory I must arrest you, and then anything you have said may be used in evidence against you.”

Whymper had paled slightly while the other was speaking. “I shall try to answer your questions,” he said in a low voice, and French resumed:---

“The main question is, of course, the one I asked you last night: Where did you get the twenty-pound note with which you paid Messrs. Cook? You needn’t tell me that you don’t know. Apart from the improbability of that I have absolute proof that you know quite well. Now, Mr. Whymper, if you are innocent you have nothing to fear. Tell me the truth. I can promise you I will give your statement every consideration.”

“I have already explained that I don’t know where the note came from.”

French paused, frowning and looking inquiringly at the other.

“Very well,” he said at last, “let us leave it at that for the moment. Now tell me: Did you receive any other money from Mr. Averill or Miss Averill, or Roper or Mrs. Roper within three or four days of the fire?”


“There was a matter of a certain £500. It was in Mr. Averill’s safe four days before the fire. All but twenty pounds of it was in your possession last night. Now where did you obtain that money?”

In spite of his being prepared for the worst, Whymper seemed completely taken aback by the question. He did not answer, but sat staring at the Inspector, while an expression of utter hopelessness grew on his face. French went on:---

“You see, Mr. Whymper, I know all about your having that money. And I know that you were at Starvel on the night of the fire. I know also that your interview with Roper outside the church on that same evening involved a good deal more than a mere exchange of good-nights. Come now, I want to give you the chance of making a statement, but I don’t want to press you. If you would like to reserve your replies until you have consulted your solicitor, by all means do so. But in that case I shall have to take you into custody.”

For some moments Whymper did not speak. He seemed overcome by French’s words and unable to reach a decision. French did not hurry him. He had sized up his man and he believed he would presently get his information. But at last, as Whymper remained silent, he said more sternly:---

“Come now, Mr. Whymper, you’ll have to make up your mind, you know.”

His words seemed to break the spell and Whymper replied. He spoke earnestly and without any of the evidences of prevarication which had marked his previous statements. “The truth this time,” said French to himself, and he settled down to listen, thinking that if the other really had a satisfactory explanation of his conduct, it was going to be worth hearing.

“I wanted to keep this matter secret,” Whymper began, “for quite personal reasons. The £500 you speak of, of which the money I paid to Cook was a part, was not stolen. It never occurred to me to imagine I could be accused of stealing it. I don’t see now what makes you think I did. However, I see that I must tell you the truth so far as I can and I may begin by admitting that what I have said up to now was not the truth.”

French nodded in approval.

“That’s better, Mr. Whymper. I am glad you are taking this line. Believe me, you will find it the best for yourself.”

“I’m afraid I can’t take any credit for it. I needn’t pretend I would have told you if I could have helped myself. However, this is what happened:---

“On that Wednesday evening of the fire, as I left the church about half-past five, I saw Roper outside the gate. He seemed to be waiting for me and he came up and said he had a message for me from Mr. Averill. Mr. Averill wasn’t very well or he would have written, but he wanted to see me on very urgent and secret business. Roper asked could I come out that night to Starvel and see Mr. Averill, without mentioning my visit to any one. I said I should be out there shortly after eight o’clock, and we parted.”

Again French nodded. This was a good beginning. So far it covered the facts.

“I walked out as I had promised. Roper opened the door. He showed me into the drawing-room and asked me to wait until he had informed Mr. Averill. He was absent for several minutes and then he came back to say that Mr. Averill was extremely sorry, but he was feeling too ill to see me. He had, however, written me a note, and Roper handed me a bulky envelope.

“I was fairly surprised when I opened it for it contained banknotes, and when I counted them I was more surprised still. There were twenty-five of them and they were all for £20: no less than £500 altogether. There was a note with them. I don’t remember the exact words, but Mr. Averill said he was sorry he was too unwell to undertake what must be a painful interview, that he didn’t wish to put the facts in writing, that Roper was entirely in his confidence in the matter and would explain it, and that as I should want money for what he was going to ask me to do, he was enclosing £500, to which he would add a further sum if I found I required it.

“Roper then went on to tell me a certain story. I can only say that it is quite impossible for me to repeat it, but it involved a visit to France. Mr. Averill would have preferred to have gone himself, but he was too old and frail, and he could not spare Roper. He asked me would I undertake it for him. The money was for my expenses, if I would go. The matter was, however, very confidential, and this I could see for myself.

“I agreed to go to France, and took the notes. I left Starvel about half-past nine, and walked back to my rooms. Next day came the news of the tragedy. This put me in a difficulty as to the mission to France. But I saw that my duty would be to go just as if Mr. Averill was still alive. So I went, as you seem to know, but I was unable to carry out the work Mr. Averill had wished me to do. Instead, therefore, of spending four or five hundred pounds as I had expected to, the trip only cost me my travelling expenses, and I was left with £480 of Mr. Averill’s money on my hands. At first I thought I had better hand it over to Mr. Oxley, Mr. Averill’s solicitor, but afterwards I decided to keep it and go out again to France and have another try at the business.”

French was puzzled by the story. It certainly hung together and it certainly was consistent with all the facts he had learned from other sources. Moreover, Whymper’s manner was now quite different. He spoke convincingly and French felt inclined to believe him. On the other hand, all that he had said could have been very easily invented. If he persisted in his refusal to disclose his business in France, French felt he could not officially accept his statement.

“That may be all very well, Mr. Whymper,” he said. “I admit that what you have told me may be perfectly true. I am not saying whether I myself believe it or not, but I will say this, that no jury on the face of this earth would believe it. Moreover, as it stands, your story cannot be tested. You must tell the whole of it. You must say what was the mission Mr. Averill asked you to undertake in France. If I can satisfy myself about it there is no need for any one else to know. Now, be advised, and since you have gone so far, complete your statement.”

The hopeless look settled once more on Whymper’s face.

“I’m sorry,” he said despondently. “I can’t. It’s not my secret.”

“But Mr. Averill is now dead. That surely makes a difference. Besides, it is impossible that he could wish to get you into the most serious trouble any man could be in because of even a criminal secret. Tell me in confidence, Mr. Whymper. I’ll promise not to use the information unless it is absolutely necessary.”

Whymper shook his head. “I can’t tell,” he repeated.

French’s tone became a trifle sterner.

“I wonder if you quite understand the position. It has been established that some person or persons went to Starvel on the evening we are speaking of, murdered Mr. Averill and Roper and his wife,” Whymper gave an exclamation of dismay, “stole Mr. Averill’s fortune and then set fire to the house. So far as we know, you alone visited the house that night, some of the stolen money was found in your possession, and when I give you the chance of accounting for your actions, you don’t take it. Do you not understand, Mr. Whymper, that if you persist in this foolish attitude you will be charged with murder?”

Whymper’s face had become ghastly and an expression of absolute horror appeared on his features. For a moment he sat motionless, and then he looked French straight in the face.

“It’s not my secret. I can’t tell you,” he declared with a sudden show of energy and then sank back into what seemed the lethargy of despair.

French was more puzzled than ever. The facts looked as bad as possible, and yet if Whymper’s tale were true, he might be absolutely innocent. And French’s inclination was to believe the story so far as it went. The secret might be something discreditable affecting, not Mr. but Miss Averill, which would account for the man’s refusal to reveal it. On the other hand could Whymper be hiding information about the Starvel crime? Was he even shielding the murderer? Could he, learning what had occurred and finding proof of the murderer’s identity, have himself set fire to the house with the object of destroying the evidence? Somehow, French did not think he was himself the murderer, but if he knew the identity of the criminal he was an accessory after the fact and guilty to that extent.

Whether or not he should arrest the young man was to French a problem which grew in difficulty the longer he considered it. On the whole, he was against it. If Whymper turned out to be innocent such a step would, of course, be a serious blunder, but even if he were guilty there were objections to it. Arrest might prevent him from doing something by which he would give himself away or at least indicate the correct line of research. Free, but with arrest hanging over him, the man would in all probability attempt to communicate with his accomplice---if he had one---and so give a hint of the latter’s identity. French made up his mind.

“I have more than enough evidence to arrest you now,” he said gravely, “but I am anxious first to put your story to a further test. I will, therefore, for the present only put you under police supervision. If you can see your way to complete your statement, I may be able to withdraw the supervision. By the way, have you got the note Mr. Averill enclosed with the £500?”

“Yes, it is in my rooms.”

“Then come along to your rooms now and give it to me. You had better hand over the notes also, for which, of course, I’ll give you a receipt. I shall also want a photograph of yourself and a sample of your handwriting.”

When French reached the hotel he took out some samples of Mr. Averill’s handwriting which he had obtained from Mr. Tarkington and compared them with that of Whymper’s note. But he saw at a glance that there was nothing abnormal here. All were obviously by the same hand.

That evening after racking his brains over his problem it was borne in on him that a visit to Annecy was his only remaining move. It was not hopeful, but as he put it to himself, you never knew. He felt there was nothing more to be learned at Thirsby, but he might find something at Annecy which would give him a lead.

He saw Sergeant Kent and urged him to keep a close watch on Whymper’s movements, then next day he went up to town and put the case before Chief Inspector Mitchell. That astute gentleman smiled when he heard it.

“Another trip to the Continent, eh, French?” he observed dryly. “Fond of foreign travel, aren’t you?”

“It’s what you say, sir,” French answered, considerably abashed. “I admit it’s not hopeful, but it’s just a possibility. However, if you think it best I shall go back to Thirsby, and----”

“Pulling your leg, French,” the Chief Inspector broke in with a kindly smile. “I think you should go to France. You mayn’t learn anything about the tragedy, but you’re pretty certain to find out Whymper’s business and either convict him or clear him in your mind.”

That evening at 8.30 French left Victoria and early next morning reached Paris. Crossing the city, he bathed and breakfasted at the Gare de Lyon, and taking the 8.10 a.m. express, spent the day watching the great central plain of France roll past the carriage windows. For an hour or two after starting they skirted the Seine, a placid, well wooded stream garnished with little towns and pleasant villas. Then through the crumpled up country north of Dijon and across more plains, past Bourg and Amberieu and through the foothills of the Alps to Culoz and Aix. At Aix French changed, completing his journey on a little branch line and reaching Annecy just in time for dinner. He drove to the Splendid, where Whymper had stayed, a large hotel looking out across a wide street at the side of which came up what looked like a river, but which he afterwards found was an arm of the lake. Scores of little boats lay side by side at the steps along the road, and on the opposite side of the water stood a great building which he saw was the theatre, with behind it, the trees of a park.

After dinner French asked for the manager, and producing his photograph of Whymper, inquired if any one resembling it had recently stayed at the hotel. But yes, the manager remembered his guest’s friend perfectly. He had stayed, he could not say how long from memory, but he would consult the register. Would monsieur be so amiable as to follow him? Yes, here it was. M. Whymper?---was it not so? M. Whymper had arrived on Friday the 8th of October and had stayed for three nights, leaving on Monday the 11th. No, the manager could not tell what his business had been nor how he had employed his time. Doubtless he had gone on the lake. To go on the lake was very agreeable. All the hotel guests went on the lake. By steamer, yes. You could go to the end of the lake in one hour, and round it in between two and three. But yes! A lake of the greatest beauty.

French had not expected to learn more than this from the manager. He remembered that in his original letter to Cook Whymper had asked for Talloires, and he now spoke of the place. Talloires, it appeared, was a small village on the east side of the lake, rather more than half-way down. A picturesque spot, the manager assured him, with no fewer than three hotels. If monsieur wished to visit it he should take the steamer. All the steamers called.

Next morning accordingly French took the steamer from the pleasant little Quay alongside the park. French thought the lake less lovely than that of Thun, but still the scenery was very charming. High hills rose up steeply from the water, particularly along the eastern side, while towards the south he could see across the ends of valleys snow peaks hanging in the sky. Villas and little hamlets nestled in the trees along the shore.

Right opposite the pier at Talloires was a big hotel and there French, having ordered a drink, began to make inquiries. But no one had seen the original of the photograph, or recollected hearing a name like Whymper.

Another large hotel was standing close by, and French strolled towards it beneath a grove of fine old trees which grew down to the water’s edge. This hotel building had been a monastery and French enjoyed sauntering through the old cloisters, which he was told, formed the salle à manger during the hot weather.

Having done justice to an excellent dejeuner, he returned to business, producing his photograph and asking his questions. And here he met with immediate success. Both the waiter who attended him and the manager remembered Whymper. The young architect had, it appeared, asked to see the manager and had inquired if he knew where in the neighbourhood a M. Prosper Giraud had lived. When the manager replied that no such person had been there while he had been manager---over five years---Whymper had been extremely disconcerted. He had then asked if a Mme. Madeleine Blancquart was known, and on again receiving a negative reply, had been more upset than ever. He had left after lunch and the manager had heard that he had repeated his questions to the police.

In ten minutes French was at the local gendarmerie, where he learned that not only had Whymper made the same inquiries, but had offered a reward of 5000 francs for information as to the whereabouts of either of the mysterious couple. Interrogations on the same point had been received from the police at Annecy, so presumably Whymper had visited them also.

This supposition French confirmed on returning to the little town. Whymper had made his inquiries and offered his reward there also and had seemed terribly disappointed by his failure to locate the people. He had left his address and begged that if either of the persons was heard of a wire should be sent him immediately.

As French made his way back to London he felt that in one sense his journey had not been wasted. Whymper’s actions seemed on the whole to confirm his story. French did not believe he would have had the guile to travel out all that way, and to show such feeling over a failure to find purely imaginary people. He felt sure that M. Prosper Giraud and Mme. Madeleine Blancquart did really exist and that Mr. Averill had mentioned them. If Whymper had invented these people he would have spoken of them so that his inquiries might be discovered in confirmation of his statement. If Whymper, moreover, had had sufficient imagination to devise such a story, he would certainly have had enough to complete it in a convincing manner.

The more French considered the whole affair, the more likely he thought it that there really was a secret in the Averill family, a secret so important or so sinister that Whymper was willing to chance arrest rather than reveal it. And if so, it could concern but one person. Surely for Ruth Averill alone would the young man run such a risk. And then French remembered that until the fire, that was, until Whymper’s visit to Starvel, the courtship of the young people had been going strong, whereas after the tragedy the affair had seemed at a standstill. There was some secret vitally affecting Ruth. French felt he could swear it. And what form would such a secret be likely to take? French determined that on his return he would make some guarded inquiries as to the girl’s parentage.

But when he reached London he found a fresh development had taken place, and his thoughts for some time to come were led into a completely new channel.