The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum

Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 07:39:10 am

Title: 7: Posthumous Evidence
Post by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 07:39:10 am
THE cause of Inspector French’s change of outlook on the Starvel case was a note from Sergeant Kent which was waiting for him on his arrival at Scotland Yard. The sergeant wrote enclosing a letter addressed to “The Heirs or Assigns of the late Mr. John Roper, Starvel, Thirsby, Yorkshire, W.R.” The postmaster, he explained, had shown it to him, asking him if he knew to whom it should be forwarded. Though he did not suppose it could have anything to do with the tragedy, the sergeant thought that French should see it.

“No good,” French thought. “Nothing to me.” Nevertheless he slit open the envelope and withdrew the contents.

It was a letter headed “The Metropolitan Safe Deposit Co., Ltd., 25b, King William Street, City,” and read as follows:---

“Dear Sir or Madam,—We beg to remind you that the late Mr. John Roper of Starvel, Thirsby, Yorkshire, W.R., was the holder of a small safe in our strongrooms. The rent of the safe, 30/- (thirty shillings stg.) is now due, and we should be glad to receive this sum from you or alternatively to have your instructions as to disposal of its contents.

“Yours faithfully, For The Metropolitan Safe Deposit Co., Ltd.”

To French it seemed a rather unusual thing that a man in Roper’s position should require the services of a safe deposit company. He could not but feel a certain curiosity regarding the object which required such careful guarding. As things were he supposed he had as much right as anybody to deal with the affair, and as it was but a short distance to King William Street, he decided he would go down and investigate.

Half an hour later he was explaining the position to the manager. As far as was known, Roper had no relatives or heirs. His safe would therefore be given up, and on behalf of Scotland Yard, he, French, would take charge of its contents.

The contents in question proved to be a small sealed envelope, and when French had once again reached the seclusion of his own office he tore it open and ran his eye over its enclosure. As he did so his eyes grew round and he gave vent to a low, sustained whistle. To say that he was at that moment the most astonished man in London would be a very inadequate description of his sensations.

The enclosure consisted of a single sheet of grey note paper with an address, “Braeside, Kintillock, Fife,” printed in small embossed letters at the top. One side was covered with writing, a man’s hand, cultivated, but somewhat tremulous. It read:---

    15th May, 1921.

“I, Herbert Philpot, doctor of medicine and at present assistant on the staff of the Ransome Institute in this town, under compulsion and in the hope of avoiding exposure, hereby remorsefully confess that I am guilty of attempting the death of my wife, Edna Philpot, by arranging that she should meet with an accident, and when this merely rendered her unconscious, of killing her by striking her on the temple with a cricket bat. I do not state my overwhelming sorrow and despair, for these are beyond words.

“May God have mercy on me, Herbert Philpot.”

French swore in amazement as he read this extraordinary document. Dr. Herbert Philpot! Surely that was the Thirsby doctor? He turned to his notes of the case. Yes, the name was Herbert all right. Presumably it was the same man. At all events it would be easy to find out.

But what under the sun did the document mean? Was it really a statement of fact, a genuine confession of murder, written by Philpot? If so, how had it fallen into the hands of Roper, and what had the man been keeping it for? Had he been blackmailing Philpot? Or was the whole thing a forgery? French was completely puzzled.

But it was evident that the matter could not be left where it stood. It must be gone into and its monstrous suggestion must be proved or rebutted.

French’s hand stole toward his pocket and half unconsciously he filled and lit his pipe, puffing out clouds of blue smoke while he thought over this latest development. If the confession were genuine and if Roper were blackmailing Philpot, Philpot would want to get rid of Roper. Could it therefore be possible that Philpot was in some way mixed up with the Starvel crime? Not personally of course; there was medical evidence that the doctor was ill in bed at the time of the tragedy. But could he be involved in some way that French could not at the moment fathom? It seemed too far-fetched to consider seriously, and yet here was undoubtedly a connection with Roper of the most extraordinary kind.

But this was sheer idiocy! French pulled himself together. An inspector of his service ought to know better than to jump to conclusions! Hadn’t bitter experience again and again taught him its folly? Let him get hold of his data first.

And then French recalled the statement of the landlord of the Thirsdale Arms in Thirsby. He had taken all that the landlord had said with a grain of salt---gossips were seldom entirely reliable---but if Philpot had been gambling to the extent of embarrassing himself financially. . . . It was worth looking into anyway.

Obviously the first thing was to make sure that the Philpot of the confession really was the Thirsby doctor. This at least was easy. He sent for a medical directory and traced the Thirsby man’s career. A few seconds gave him his information.

Herbert Philpot was born in 1887, making him now 39 years old. He passed through Edinburgh University, taking his final in 1909. For a year he was at sea and for two more years he worked in one of the Edinburgh hospitals. In 1913 he was appointed junior assistant at the Ransome Institution at Kintilloch, where he remained for eight years. In September 1921---four months after the date of the confession, French noted---he set up for himself in Thirsby.

So that was that. French’s interest grew as he considered the matter. If the confession were genuine, the affair would be something in the nature of a scoop, not only for himself personally, but even for the great organisation of the Yard. It would create a first-class sensation. The powers that be would be pleased and certain kudos and possible promotion would be forthcoming.

French left the Yard and drove to the office of The Scotsman in Fleet Street. There he asked to see the files of the paper for the year 1921, and turning to the month of May, he began a search for news of an accident to a Mrs. Philpot at Kintilloch.

He found it sooner than he had expected. On the 17th May, two days after the date of the confession, there was a short paragraph headed “Tragic Death of a Doctor’s Wife.” It read:---

“The little town of Kintilloch, Fife, has been thrown into mourning by the tragic death on Tuesday evening of Mrs. Edna Philpot, wife of Dr. Herbert Philpot, one of the staff of the Ransome Institute. The deceased lady in some way tripped while descending the stairs at her home, falling down the lower flight. Dr. Philpot, who was in his study, heard her cry and rushed out to find her lying unconscious in the hall. She was suffering from severe concussion and in spite of all his efforts she passed away in a few minutes, even before the arrival of Dr. Ferguson, for whom Dr. Philpot had hurriedly telephoned. Mrs. Philpot took a prominent part in the social life of the town and her loss will be keenly felt.”

“It’s suggestive enough,” French thought, as he copied out the paragraph. “It looks as if she had been alone with him in the house. I must get more details.”

He returned to the Yard and put through a telephone call to the Detective Department of the Edinburgh police, asking that any information about the accident be sent him as soon as possible.

While he was waiting for a reply his thoughts reverted to Whymper. He was rather troubled in his mind about the young architect. While he was now strongly inclined to believe in his innocence, he was still not certain of it, and he hesitated upon starting off on this new inquiry until he had made up his mind definitely about the other matter. But some further thought showed him that there was no special reason for coming to an immediate decision about Whymper. Sergeant Kent was keeping him under police supervision and might well continue to do so for a day or two more.

Two days later French received a voluminous dossier of the case from the authorities in Scotland. There were cuttings from several papers as well as three columns from the Kintilloch Weekly Argus. There was a detailed report from the local sergeant embodying a short history of all concerned, and a copy of Dr. Ferguson’s certificate of “death from concussion, resulting from a fall.” Finally there was a covering letter from the head of the department, marked “confidential,” which stated that, owing to some dissatisfaction in the mind of the local superintendent, the matter had been gone into more fully than might otherwise have been the case, but that this inquiry having evolved no suspicious circumstances, the affair had been dropped.

Considerably impressed and beginning to think he was on a hot scent, French settled down to study the documents in detail. And the more he did so, the more determined he became that he would sift the affair to the bottom. Apart from the possible murder of Mrs. Philpot and the bringing of her murderer to justice, he saw that if such a crime had been committed it might have a very important bearing on the Starvel tragedy. Roper might have been blackmailing Philpot, and though he did not see how, Philpot might have some association with the crime. Therefore, from two points of view it was his duty to carry on.

By the time he had read all the papers twice he had a very good idea in his mind of what at least was supposed to have taken place. Dr. Philpot was third in command on the medical staff of the Ransome Institute, a large mental hospital about a mile from Kintilloch, a small town in Fifeshire. He was a man of retiring disposition, neither popular nor exactly unpopular, and pulling but a small weight in the public and social affairs of the little township. In May 1914 he had married Miss Edna Menzies, the daughter of the manager of a large factory near Dundee. Miss Menzies was a young woman with a vivacious manner and a general favourite, particularly among the athletic and sporting sets of the community.

The Philpots, who had no children, lived at Braeside, a small detached house some half-mile from the town and a few hundred yards from the gate of the Ransome Institute. The only other member of the household was a general servant, Flora Macfarlane, who had been with them for over three years at the date of the tragedy and who was believed to be an efficient servant. But she was “ay one for the lads,” as the local gossips expressed it, and though the breath of scandal had so far passed her by, dark hints were given and heads shaken when her doings came under review.

This girl, Flora, lived only a short distance from Braeside. For some weeks before the tragedy her mother had been ailing, and she had formed the habit of running over to see her for a few minutes when her duties permitted. About 5.30 on the afternoon of the accident she had asked and obtained permission to make one of these visits, undertaking to be back in time to prepare dinner. This would normally have meant an absence of about half an hour. But as the girl left a heavy shower came on, with the result that, after sheltering under a tree for a few minutes, she abandoned her purpose and returned to the house some fifteen minutes earlier than she had expected. Braeside is built on sloping ground, the hall door being level with the road in front while the basement kitchen has an independent entrance to the lower ground behind. Flora used this lower entrance, and as she passed through she heard Dr. Philpot speaking in a loud and agitated voice. Something in the sound suggested disaster and she ran up the back stairs to the hall to see if anything was wrong. There she found Mrs. Philpot lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs, motionless and the colour of death. As a matter of fact the lady was then dead, though Flora did not know this until later. Dr. Philpot, with an appearance of extreme anguish and despair, was telephoning for help. His call made, he put down the receiver and then, noticing the girl, cried: “She’s dead, Flora! She’s dead! She has fallen downstairs and been killed!” He was terribly upset and indeed seemed hardly sane for some hours. Presently Dr. Ferguson, the senior medical officer of the Institute, arrived and a few minutes later Sergeant MacGregor of the local police.

Dr. Philpot afterwards explained that he was writing letters in his study when he heard a sudden scream from his wife and a terrible noise like that of a body falling down the stairs. He rushed out to find Mrs. Philpot lying in a heap at the bottom of the lower flight. She was unconscious and a large contusion on her temple showed that she had struck her head heavily on the floor. He laid her on her back and tried everything that his knowledge suggested to bring her round, but it was evident that she had been fatally injured and in a minute or two she was dead. The doctor had been so busy attending to her that he had not had a moment to summon aid, but directly he saw that all was over he telephoned for his chief and the police.

The lower flight consisted of sixteen steps. At the top was a small landing. On this the stair carpet was worn and there was a tiny hole. After the tragedy the edge of this hole next the lower flight was found to be raised and torn. That, coupled with the fact that the deceased lady was wearing very high-heeled shoes, suggested the theory that she had met her death by catching her heel in the carpet while descending the stairs.

Such was the gist of the story as understood by French. He thought it over in some doubt, considering it from various angles. The tale certainly hung together, and there was nothing impossible in it. Everything indeed might well have taken place exactly as described, and French felt that had he not known of the confession, no suspicion of foul play would have entered his mind. But in the light of the confession he saw that the events might bear another interpretation. Philpot was alone with his wife at the time of the occurrence; and he probably knew beforehand that he would be alone, that Flora had obtained half an hour’s leave of absence. When Flora returned Mrs. Philpot was dead. There was no witness of the accident. No one other than Philpot knew how the lady died. To have staged the accident would have been easy, and a blow on the temple with some heavy weapon such as a cricket bat would have produced a bruise similar to that caused by a fall. Moreover, a resourceful man could have produced the suggestion that she had tripped by deliberately raising the edge of the carpet at the hole. Yes, it could all have been done exactly as the confession suggested.

Were these the considerations, French wondered, which had caused the dissatisfaction in the mind of the local superintendent, or were there still further circumstances throwing suspicion on Philpot? Whether or not, he felt the case against the doctor was strong enough to justify a visit to Kintilloch.

But one point---a vital one---he could settle before starting, or so he believed. Walking down the Embankment to Charing Cross, he went to the writing room of the station hotel and wrote a letter on the hotel paper.

“5th November. Dear Sir,---I should be grateful if you would kindly inform me if a man named Henry Fuller ever worked for you as gardener, and if so, whether you found him satisfactory. He has applied to me for a job, giving you as a reference.

“Apologising for troubling you, Yours faithfully, Charles Musgrave.”

French addressed his letter to “Herbert Philpot, Esq., M.D., Thirsby, Yorkshire, W.R.” and dropping it into the hotel letter box, returned to the Yard.

Two days later he called for the reply, explaining to the porter that he had intended to stay in the hotel but had had to change his plans. Dr. Philpot wrote briefly that there must be some mistake, as no one of the name mentioned had ever worked for him.

But French was not interested in the career of the hypothetical Henry Fuller. Instead he laid the letter down on his desk beside the confession and with a powerful lens fell to comparing the two.

He was soon satisfied. The confession was a forgery. The lens revealed a shakiness in the writing due to slow and careful formation of the letters which would not have been there had it been written at an ordinary speed. French had no doubt on the matter, but to make assurance doubly sure he sent the two documents to the Yard experts for a considered opinion. Before long he had their reply. His conclusion was correct, an enlarged photograph proved it conclusively.

But even if the confession were forged, French felt that the circumstances were so extraordinary that he could not drop the matter. The whole affair smacked of blackmail, and if blackmail had been going on he thought it might in some way have a bearing on the Starvel tragedy. At all events, even though a forgery, the confession might state the truth. It seemed necessary, therefore, to learn all he could about the affair and he went in and laid the whole matter before his Chief for that officer’s decision.

Chief Inspector Mitchell was surprised by the story.

“It’s certainly puzzling,” he admitted. “If the document were genuine one could understand it a bit. It’s possible, though it’s not easy, to imagine circumstances under which it might have been written. It might, for example, be that Roper had proof of the doctor’s guilt, which he held back on getting the confession to enable him to extort continuous blackmail. Even in this case, however, it’s difficult to see why he couldn’t have blackmailed on the proof he already held. But none of these theories can be the truth because the document is not genuine. A forged confession is useless. Why then should Roper value it sufficiently to store it in a safe deposit? I confess it gets me, French, and I agree that you should go into it further. I don’t see that it will help you in any way with the Starvel affair, but you never know. Something useful for that too may come out. Say nothing to Philpot in the meantime, but get away to this place in Scotland and make a few inquiries.”

That night French took the 11.40 sleeping car express from King’s Cross. He changed at Edinburgh next morning and, having breakfasted, continued his journey into Fifeshire in a stopping train. Eleven o’clock saw him at Cupar, the headquarters of the Kintilloch district, and fifteen minutes later he was seated in the office of the superintendent, explaining to that astonished officer the surprising development which had taken place.

“They told me from Headquarters that you were not satisfied about the affair when it occurred,” French concluded. “I wondered if you would tell me why?”

“I will surely,” the other returned, leaning forward confidentially, “but you’ll understand that we hadn’t what you’d call an actual suspicion. There was, first of all, the fact that it wasn’t a very common kind of accident. I’ve heard of an occasional person falling downstairs, but I’ve never heard of any one being killed by it. Then there was nobody there when it happened except Philpot: there was no one to check his statement. What’s more, he knew the servant was going out. The girl’s statement was that Mrs. Philpot was with the doctor in the study when she asked permission to go. It all looked possible, you understand. But the thing that really started us wondering was that the Philpots were supposed to be on bad terms, and it was whispered that Philpot was seeing a good deal of one of the nurses up at the Institute. It’s only fair to say that we couldn’t prove either of these rumours. The only definite things we got hold of were that the Philpots never went anywhere together, Mrs. Philpot being socially inclined and he not, and that he and the nurse were seen one day lunching in a small hotel in Edinburgh. But of course there was nothing really suspicious in these things and the rest may have been just gossip. In any case he didn’t marry the nurse. The talk made us look into the affair, but we thought it was all right and we let it drop.”

French nodded. The superintendent’s statement was comprehensive and he did not at first see what more there was to be learned. But he sat on, turning the thing over in his mind, in his competent, unhurried way, until he had thought out and put in order a number of points upon which further information might be available.

“I suppose that other doctor---Ferguson, you called him---was quite satisfied by the accident theory?”

“Sergeant MacGregor asked him that, as a routine question. Yes, there was no doubt the blow on the temple killed her and in his opinion she might have received it by falling down the stairs.”

“And the servant girl had no suspicion?”

“Well, we didn’t exactly ask her that in so many words. But I’m satisfied she hadn’t. Besides, her story was all right. There was nothing to cause her suspicion---if she was telling the truth.”

“Is she still in the town?”

“I don’t know,” the superintendent returned. “I have an idea that she married shortly afterwards and left. But Sergeant MacGregor will know. Would you have time to go down to Kintilloch and see him? I could go with you to-morrow, but I’m sorry I’m engaged for the rest of to-day.”

“Thank you, I’d like to see the sergeant, but I shouldn’t think of troubling you to come. I think indeed I shall have to see all concerned. It’s a matter of form really; I don’t expect to get anything more than your people did. But I’m afraid I shall have to see them to satisfy the Chief. You see, there may be some connection with this Starvel case that I’m on. You don’t mind?”

“Of course not. I’ll give you a note to MacGregor. These country bumpkins become jealous easily.”

“Thank you. I think there’s only one other thing I should like to ask you, and that’s about Roper. Do you know anything of him?”

“I don’t, but he might have lived at Kintilloch all his life for all that. I don’t know the local people very well. The sergeant will help you there. He is a useful man for his job---a shrewd gossip. There’s not much happens in his district that he doesn’t know about.”

A short run in a local train brought French to Kintilloch and he was not long in finding the local police station and introducing himself to Sergeant MacGregor. That worthy at first displayed a canny reserve, but on seeing his superintendent’s note became loquacious and informative. With the exception of two pieces of information, he had little to tell of which French was not already aware. Those two items, however, were important.

The first was that he had known John Roper well. Roper had been for six years an attendant at the Ransome Institute. He had been, the sergeant believed, directly under Dr. Philpot. At all events he and the doctor knew each other intimately. As to the man’s character; MacGregor knew nothing against him, but he had not liked him, nor indeed had many other people. Roper was an able man, clever and efficient, but he had a sneering, satirical manner and was unable to refrain from making caustic remarks which hurt people’s feelings and made him enemies. He left his job and the town some three or four years after Dr. Philpot as a result of trouble at the Institute, and so far as the sergeant could tell, no one was very sorry to see the last of him. The sergeant had supposed he had gone to Brazil, as he had applied for a passport for that country. He had informed the sergeant that he had a brother in Santos and was going out to him.

The second piece of news was that Flora Macfarlane, the Philpots’ maid, had been married a month or so after Mrs. Philpot’s death, and to no less a person than John Roper. The girl who had all but witnessed her mistress’ tragic death had herself five years later been a victim in that still more terrible tragedy at the old house in Starvel Hollow.

As French shortly afterwards walked up the long curving drive of the Ransome Institute, he felt that he was progressing. He was getting connections which were binding the isolated incidents of this strange episode into a single whole, and if that whole was not yet completely intelligible, he hoped and believed it soon would be. There was first of all the confession. He had started with the confession as a single fact, connected incomprehensibly with Roper through the medium of possession, but not connected with Philpot at all. Now the connection between Roper and Philpot had been demonstrated. Roper had first-hand information about the doctor from their respective positions on the staff of the Institute, and he had as good as first-hand information about the doctor’s household from the girl he afterwards married. It all looked bad. Every further fact discovered increased the probability that Roper was blackmailing Philpot, and that the confession was a true statement of what had happened.

French’s interview with Dr. Ferguson was disappointing. He asked first about Roper and received very much the same information that Sergeant MacGregor had given him. Roper had been attendant to an invalid gentleman, a great traveller, with whom he had been over most of Europe and America. On the invalid’s death he had applied for a job at the Ransome. He was a fully qualified nurse, very intelligent and efficient, but he had not been personally liked. He seemed rather inhuman and did not mind whom he offended with his sharp tongue. He was, however, good with the patients, except for one thing. On two occasions he had been found giving troublesome patients unauthorised drugs to keep them quiet. The first case was not a bad one, and on promising amendment, he was let off with a caution. When the second case was discovered he was immediately dismissed. He had not asked for, nor been given, a discharge.

Anxious to see whether Roper’s handwriting contained any idiosyncrasies which had been reproduced in the forged documents, French with some difficulty obtained some old forms which he had filled up. These he put in his pocket for future study.

He then turned the conversation to Philpot. But he was here on difficult ground and had to be very wary and subtle in his questions. Between doctors, he knew, there is a considerable freemasonry, and he felt sure that if Ferguson imagined Philpot was suspected of murder, he would take steps to put him on his guard; not in any way to take the part of a murderer, but to see that a colleague in trouble had a fair chance. That Philpot should get any hint of his suspicions was the last thing French wanted, as he hoped the man’s surprise at an unexpected question would force him into an involuntary admission of guilt.

At all events Ferguson told him nothing about Philpot that he had not known before. He asked and obtained permission to interrogate a number of the staff who remembered the two men, but from none of these did he learn anything new about either.

He could see nothing for it, therefore, but to interview Philpot forthwith, and returning to the station, he caught the last train to Edinburgh. There he stayed the night, and next day took a train which brought him through the Border country to Carlisle and thence in due course to Hellifield and Thirsby.