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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 08:58:55 am

Title: 9: The Value of Analysis
Post by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 08:58:55 am
THE next morning was fine and bright, with an invigorating autumn nip in the air. The kind of day for a good walk, thought French, as after breakfast he stood in the hotel coffee room, looking out on the placid life of the little town, exemplified at the moment in the dawdling passage of three tiny children with school satchels over their shoulders. He liked the place. He had taken a fancy to it on that first evening of his arrival, and what he had seen of it since had only confirmed his first impression. The surroundings also seemed attractive, and he hoped to explore them more fully before he left.

As he stood gazing into the main street it occurred to him that for his explorations no time more propitious than the present was likely to offer. For the moment he was at a dead lock in his case. After he had finished writing out the doctor’s statement on the previous evening he had thought over the affair and he had not seen his way clear. What he required was a detailed study of the whole position in the hope of lighting on some further clue or line of research. And what better opportunity for such contemplation could there be than during a long tramp through lonely country? Surely for once duty and inclination coincided?

Whether this latter was strictly true or not, ten minutes later saw him starting out with a stick in his hand and a packet of sandwiches in his pocket. He turned in the Starvel direction, and climbing up the side of the valley, came out on the wide expanse of the moor. Ahead of him it lay, stretching away in irregular undulating waves into the grey-blue distance, with here and there a rounded hill rising above the general level. For miles he could see the ribbon of the road showing white against the browns and greens of the grass where it wound up over shoulders and ridges and mounted the far sides of hollows. Extraordinarily deserted was the country side, a solitude quite astonishing in so densely populated a land as this of England.

For a time French tramped on, his mind occupied with his surroundings, but gradually it turned back to his case and he began reckoning up his progress, and considering how he could best attack what still remained to be done. And the more he thought of it, the less rosy the outlook seemed. Ruefully he had to admit that in point of fact he was practically no further on than when he started. He had done a good deal of work, no doubt, but unfortunately it had brought him only a negative result. His researches into the movements of Whymper and Philpot had been unavoidable, but these had proved side lines and he did not believe that either would help him with the main issue.

He let his mind rest once again on Philpot’s statement. If it were true, Roper showed up very badly. From every point of view he seemed a thorough-paced blackguard. Though this had come out more particularly from the doctor’s story it was fairly well confirmed by what French had been told at Kintilloch. Neither Sergeant MacGregor nor Dr. Ferguson had a good word to say about the man. No one appeared to like him, and in the end he had been dismissed from the Institute for a fault of a particularly serious nature.

But he was a clever rascal also. French was amazed when he considered how he had succeeded in worming himself into old Averill’s confidence. Even making allowances for the old man’s weak-minded senility, it was almost incredible that this shifty scoundrel should have been trusted with a secret which Whymper would risk a murder charge rather than reveal.

French tramped on, pondering over the matter in his careful, painstaking way. Yes, that was the point. Misers were proverbially suspicious, and Averill’s knowledge of Roper’s break at the Ransome would not tend to increase his trust in him. His confidence was certainly rather wonderful.

And then French suddenly stood stock still as an idea flashed into his mind. Was his confidence not too wonderful to be true? Had Roper really wormed his way thus far into old Averill’s confidence? He had not hesitated to blackmail Philpot; had he played some similar trick on Whymper?

As French considered the suggestion, a point which had before seemed immaterial now took on a sinister significance. Though Averill was represented as the moving spirit of the affair, his connection with it had never been directly proved. Roper, and Roper alone, had appeared. It was true that a note purporting to come from Averill had been produced, but in the light of Philpot’s revelation of Roper’s skill as a forger, who had written it? Was there any reason why Roper should not have engineered the whole thing?

French reviewed the circumstances in detail. The first move was Roper’s. He had met Whymper outside the church gate and told him that Mr. Averill wished to see him, asking him to go out there that evening. Secretly, mind you; no one was to know of the visit. Whymper had accordingly gone out. But he had not seen Averill. He had seen Roper, and Roper only. It was true that he was presented with a note purporting to be from Averill, but had Averill written it? French remembered that the handwriting was extremely like Averill’s, but in the absence of any reason for suspecting its authenticity he had not given it the careful scrutiny which he might have done. That was an error he must repair at once, and if the shadow of a doubt was aroused in his mind he must send the papers to the Yard for expert opinion.

Altogether it undoubtedly looked as if the whole of the Whymper episode might have been Roper’s work. But if so, what about the £500? Surely in this case Roper must have stolen it? And if he had stolen it---French grew almost excited as step after step revealed itself---if Roper had stolen it, did it not follow that he had murdered Averill, rifled the safe, taken out the notes and replaced them with burnt newspapers?

And then French saw a step farther. If he were right so far, Roper’s motive in the Whymper incident became clear as day. If Roper had stolen thousands of pounds’ worth of notes he must find out whether it was safe to pass them. Were the numbers of the notes known? This was a matter of vital importance, and it was one on which he could not possibly ask for information. If suspicion became aroused, to have made inquiries on the point would be fatal. He must therefore arrange for some one else to pass a number of the notes, and preferably a number of those most recently acquired by Averill. Moreover, this person must not, if suspected, be able to account satisfactorily for their possession. Given the knowledge of Whymper’s feeling for Ruth and some acquaintance with Averill’s family affairs, a clever and unscrupulous man like Roper could easily have invented a story to make Whymper his dupe.

All this, French recognised, was speculation. Indeed it was little more than guesswork. But it was at least a working theory which covered all the facts, and he believed it was worth while following it up.

He turned aside off the road, and sitting down in the thin, autumn sunshine with his back against an outcropping rock, slowly filled and lit his pipe as he pursued his cogitations.

If Roper had stolen the notes and put burnt newspapers in the safe, he must have intended to burn the house. And here again the motive was clear. In no other way could he so conveniently get rid of Averill’s body and the traces of his crime. In fact, the plan had actually succeeded. It was not the doings at Starvel which aroused suspicion, but Whymper’s passing of the note some three weeks later. The coroner’s court had brought in a verdict of accidental death. If Tarkington had not kept the numbers of the notes sent out to Averill and advised his headquarters that those notes had been destroyed, no doubts would ever have arisen.

But just here was a snag. Could so able a man as Roper have bungled so hideously as to have allowed himself and his wife to be caught in the trap he had arranged for Averill? Or had he intended to murder Mrs. Roper also? There was certainly no evidence for suspecting this. But whether or not, what terrible Nemesis could have overtaken Roper? Had he really been drunk and paid for his indulgence with his life? French did not think so. He could not devise any convincing explanation of Roper’s death, and he began to wonder if this objection were not so overwhelming as to upset the theory of the man’s guilt which he had been so laboriously building up.

He gazed out over the wide expanse of the moor with unseeing eyes as he dreamily puffed at his pipe and wrestled with the problem. And then a further point occurred to him. Did not this theory of the guilt of Roper throw some light on Ruth Averill’s visit to York? French had noted it as a curious coincidence that she should have left the house on the day before the tragedy. But now he wondered if it was a coincidence. Had her absence been arranged; arranged by Roper? He reconsidered the facts from this new angle.

First, it was significant that all the arrangements had been carried through by Roper. Just as in Whymper’s case, Mr. Averill was supposed to be the prime mover, but his power was manifested only through Roper. Roper it was who handed Ruth the note from Mrs. Palmer-Gore; doubtless a forged note. Roper had produced the ten pounds. Roper had arranged about the journey, and Roper had used his influence to prevent Ruth from seeing her uncle. When she had persisted she found the old man asleep, breathing heavily and looking queer and unlike himself. As to the cause of that appearance and that sleep French could now make a pretty shrewd guess. Roper had been faced with a difficulty. He could not keep Ruth from her uncle without arousing suspicion. Nor could he allow her to have a discussion with him or his plot would have been exposed. He had, therefore, taken the only way out. He had drugged the old man. Ruth could pay her visit, but she would learn nothing from it.

French was thrilled by his theory. It was working out so well. He was congratulating himself that at last he was on the right track, when another snag occurred to him and brought him up, as it were, all standing.

The Palmer-Gore invitation could not have been forged! Had Mrs. Palmer-Gore not written it, the fact would have come out on Ruth’s arrival at York.

Here was a rather staggering objection. But the more French thought over the case as a whole, the more disposed he became to believe in Roper’s guilt. The man was a clever scoundrel. Perhaps he had been able to devise some way to meet this difficulty also.

On the whole French was so much impressed by his theory that he determined to go into it without loss of time in the hope that further research would lead to a definite conclusion.

He ate his sandwiches, then leaving his seat in the lee of the rock, walked back to Thirsby. Among his papers was the letter which Roper had given to Whymper, and this he once again compared with the samples of old Mr. Averill’s handwriting he had obtained from Tarkington.

Possibly because of the doubt now existing in his mind, this time he felt less certain of its authenticity. After some study he thought that some further samples of the genuine handwriting might be helpful, and walking down to Oxley’s office, he asked if the solicitor could oblige him with them. Oxley handed him four letters, and when French had critically examined these he found his suspicions strengthened. While by no means positive, he was now inclined to believe Whymper’s was a forgery. He therefore sent the lot to the Yard, asking for an expert opinion to be wired him.

In the meantime he decided he would concentrate on a point which he felt would be even more conclusive than forged letters: the matter of Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s invitation to Ruth. If Roper had got rid of Ruth so that the coast might be clear for the robbery, he had provided the invitation. He had either written it himself or he had arranged the circumstances which caused Mrs. Palmer-Gore to do so. If he had done either of these things he was pretty certain to be guilty.

The only way to learn the truth was to interview Mrs. Palmer-Gore. French therefore took the evening train to York, and nine o’clock found him at Oakdean, Ashton Drive, asking if the lady of the house could see him.

Mrs. Palmer-Gore was a big, rather untidy, kindly-looking woman of about fifty. French, rapidly sizing her up, introduced himself in his real character, apologised for his late call and begged her kind offices. If she wouldn’t mind his not giving her the reason of his inquiry for the moment, he should like to ask a question. Would she tell him just why she had asked Miss Ruth Averill to York some eight weeks previously?

Mrs. Palmer-Gore was naturally surprised at the inquiry, but when she understood that the matter was serious she answered readily.

“Why, I could scarcely have done anything else. Mr. Averill’s note was phrased in a way which would have made it difficult to refuse.”

“Mr. Averill’s note? I didn’t know he had written.”

“Yes, he wrote to say that he hoped he was not presuming on an old friendship in asking me whether I would invite Ruth to spend a day or two. He explained that she had recently been rather run down and depressed, and that the one thing she wanted---a day or two of cheerful society---was just the thing he couldn’t give her. If I would condone a liberty and take pity on her he did not think I would regret my action. He went on to say Ruth was greatly interested in roses, and as he was sure I was going to the flower show, he wondered if I would add to my kindness by allowing her to accompany me. He said that Ruth was longing to see it, but that he had no way of arranging for her to go.”

“I’m quite interested to hear that,” French returned. “It rather falls in with a theory I have formed. Had you often had Miss Ruth to stay with you?”

“Never before. In fact I had only seen her three or four times. Some twelve years ago I spent a day at Starvel and she was there. Besides that I met her with Mr. Averill a couple of times in Leeds.”

“But you were pretty intimate with Mr. Averill surely? I don’t want to be personal, but I want to know whether your intimacy was such that you might reasonably expect him to ask you to put his niece up?”

Mrs. Palmer-Gore seemed more and more surprised at the line the conversation was taking.

“It’s a curious thing that you should have asked that,” she declared. “As a matter of fact, I was amazed when I read Mr. Averill’s letter. He and I were friendly enough at one time, though I don’t know that you could ever have called us intimate. But we had drifted apart. I suppose we hadn’t met for five or six years and we never corresponded except perhaps for an exchange of greetings at Christmas. His letter was totally unexpected.”

“You thought his asking for the invitation peculiar?”

“I certainly did. I thought it decidedly cool. So much so, indeed, that I considered replying that I was sorry that my house was full. Then when I thought what a terrible life that poor girl must have led I relented and sent the invitation.”

“It was a kind thing to do.”

“Oh, I don’t know. At all events I am glad I did it. Ruth is a sweet girl and it was a pleasure to have her here and to let my daughters meet her. I would have given her as good a time as I could if she had not been called away.”

“You haven’t kept Mr. Averill’s letter?”

“I’m afraid not. I always destroy answered letters.”

“You recognised Mr. Averill’s handwriting, of course?”

“Oh yes. I knew it quite well.”

“Now, Mrs. Palmer-Gore, I am going to ask you a strange question. Did you ever suspect that that letter might be a forgery?”

The lady looked at him with increasing interest.

“Never,” she answered promptly. “And even now when you suggest it I don’t see how it could have been. But, of course, it would explain a great deal. I confess I can hardly imagine Mr. Averill writing the note. He was a proud man and the request was not in accordance with my estimate of his character.”

“That is just what I wanted to get at,” French answered as he rose to take his leave.

What he had learned was extraordinarily satisfactory. It looked very much as though his theory about Roper was correct. The great snag in that theory had been Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s invitation, and now it was evident that Roper could have arranged for it to be given. Some remark of Mr. Averill’s had probably given the man Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s name, and by skilful questions he could have learned enough about her to enable him to construct his plot.

As French sat in the smoking room of his hotel, not far from the great west front of the minster, he suddenly saw a way by which he could establish the point. The letter Mrs. Palmer-Gore had received had stated that Ruth was longing to see the flower show. Was she? If she was, the letter might be genuine enough. If not, Averill could scarcely have written it, and if Averill had not written it no one but Roper could have done so.

It was with impatience at the slowness of the journey that French returned next morning to Thirsby to apply the final test. He was lucky enough to catch Ruth as she was going out and she took him into the drawing-room.

“I was talking to a friend of yours a little while ago, Miss Averill,” French said when they had exchanged a few remarks: “Mrs. Palmer-Gore, of York.”

“Oh yes?” Ruth answered, her face brightening up. “How is she? She was so kind to me, especially when the terrible news came. I can never forget her goodness.”

“I am sure of it. In the short time I was with her I thought she seemed most attractive. You went to York to see the flower show?”

Ruth smiled.

“That was the ostensible reason for her asking me. But, of course, show or no show, I should have been delighted to go.”

“I dare say; most people like to visit York. You hadn’t then been looking forward to the show?”

“I never even heard of it until Mrs. Palmer-Gore mentioned it in her letter. But naturally I was all the more pleased.”

“Naturally. You’re a skilful gardener, aren’t you, Miss Averill?”

She smiled again and shook her head.

“Oh, no! But I’m fond of it.”

French, in his turn, smiled his pleasant, kindly smile.

“Oh, come now, I’m sure you are not doing yourself justice. Mr. Averill thought a lot of your gardening, didn’t he?”

“My uncle? Oh, no. I don’t think he knew anything about it. You remember he was an invalid. He hadn’t been in the garden for years.”

“But do you mean that you never discussed gardening with him? I should have thought, for example, you would have talked to him of this York flower show.”

“But I thought I explained I didn’t know about that until Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s letter came, and after it came my uncle was too ill to speak about anything.”

Here was the proof French had hoped for!

With some difficulty keeping the satisfaction out of his voice, he continued his inquiries.

“Of course I remember you told me that. But I must get on to business. I’m sorry to have to trouble you again, Miss Averill, but there are one or two other questions I have thought of since our last meeting. Do you mind if I ask them now?”

“Of course not.”

French leaned forward and looked grave.

“I want to know what kind of terms Roper was on with his wife. You have seen them together a good deal. Can you tell me?”

Ruth’s face clouded.

“I hate to say anything when the two poor people are dead, but if I must tell the truth, I’m afraid they were not on good terms at all.”

“I can understand what you feel, but I assure you my questions are necessary. Now please tell me what exactly was the trouble between those two?”

“Well,” Ruth said slowly, and an expression almost of pain showed on her face, “they had, I think---what is the phrase?---incompatibility of temperament. Mrs. Roper had a very sharp tongue and she was always nagging at Roper. He used to answer her in a soft tone with the nastiest and most cutting remarks you ever heard. Oh, it was horrible! Roper really was not a nice man, though he was always kind enough to me.”

This was really all that French wanted, but he still persisted.

“Can you by any chance tell me---I’m sorry for asking this question---but can you tell me whether Roper was attached to any other woman? Or if you don’t know that, have you ever heard his wife mention another woman’s name in anger? Just try to think.”

“No, I never heard that.”

“Have you ever heard them quarrelling?”

“Once I did,” Ruth answered reluctantly. “It was dreadful! Roper said, ‘By ----,’ he used a terrible curse---‘I’ll do you in some day if I swing for it!’ And then Mrs. Roper answered so mockingly and bitterly that I had to put my hands over my ears.”

“But she didn’t make any definite accusation?”

“No, but wasn’t it dreadful? The poor people to have felt like that to one another! It must have been a terrible existence for them.”

French agreed gravely as he thanked Ruth for her information, but inwardly he was chuckling with delight. He believed his theory was proved, and once it was established, his case was over. If the murderer lost his life in the fire Scotland Yard would no longer be interested in the affair and he, French, could go back to town with one more success added to the long list which already stood to his credit.

He returned to the Thirsdale Arms, and getting a fire lighted in his room, settled down to put on paper the data he had amassed.