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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 10:36:03 am

Title: 10: Whymper Speaks at Last
Post by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 10:36:03 am
BY the time French had completed his notes the theory he had formed had become cut and dry and detailed. He was immensely delighted with it and with himself for having evolved it. Except for the failure to explain Roper’s death it seemed to him flawless, and for that one weak point he felt sure that a simple explanation existed. In the hope of lighting on some such he decided before putting away his papers to go once more in detail over the whole case as he now saw it.

First there was the character of Roper. Roper was a clever and unscrupulous man with a cynical and discontented outlook on life. He was, in fact, the sort of man who might have planned and carried out the Starvel crime.

His anxiety to get the job at Averill’s was an interesting feature of the case. It must have been a poor job for a man who had been male nurse in the Ransome Institute. It was not only a hard and thankless job in itself, but it meant being buried in one of the bleakest and most barren solitudes of England. Moreover, such a job would lead to nothing, and as Averill was paying, it was unlikely that the salary was other than miserable. Of course after dismissal from the Institute Roper might have been glad of anything, but French did not feel satisfied that this really explained the matter. His thoughts took another line.

The belief in Averill’s wealth was universal and Roper could scarcely have failed to hear of it when inquiring about the place. The feebleness of the old man and the isolation of the house were, of course, patent. Was it too much to conclude that the idea of robbery had been in Roper’s mind from the first? If so, a reason why he had ceased to blackmail Philpot might be suggested. The doctor was the one person in the neighbourhood who knew his real character. If anything untoward happened at Starvel, the doctor would immediately become suspicious. It was, therefore, politic to suggest a reformation of character to Philpot, and the best way in which this could be done was undoubtedly the way Roper had chosen. But he was not going to spoil the affair by haste. This was the one great effort of his life and he was out to make a job of it. No time nor trouble nor inconvenience was too great to devote to it. So he waited for over a year. How many a wife murderer, thought French, has aroused suspicion by marrying the other woman within the twelve months. Roper was not going to make the mistake of acting too soon.

During this time of waiting the man had doubtless been perfecting his scheme. And then another factor had entered into it. He had come to hate his wife. Why not at one fell stroke achieve both wealth and freedom? The same machinery would accomplish both.

In the nature of the case French saw that all this must necessarily be speculative, but when he came to consider the details of the crime he felt himself on firmer ground.

The first move was to get Ruth Averill out of the way, and here the modus operandi was clear. Roper had evidently either heard enough about Mrs. Palmer-Gore from Mr. Averill to give him his idea, or he had discovered her existence from old letters. He had forged the note to her from Averill, and intercepting its reply, had used its enclosure to induce Ruth to go to York. As he couldn’t prevent the girl from visiting her uncle, he had drugged the old man so that the fraud would remain hidden.

His next care was to make sure that Averill’s bank notes could be passed without arousing suspicion; in other words, that their numbers were unknown. To this end the fraud on Whymper was devised. Whymper was to be used to test the matter, and in the event of the theft being discovered, Whymper was to pay the penalty. So Whymper was brought out to the house on the night of the crime and there given the fateful money, being told some yarn which would make him spend it in a mysterious way for which he would be unable to account. That that yarn was connected with something discreditable about Ruth’s parents French shrewdly suspected, and he determined to see Whymper again and try to extract the truth from him.

Whymper duped and sent away from Starvel, French thought he could picture the next sinister happenings in the lonely old house. Averill first! The frail old man would prove an easy victim. Any method of assassination would do which did not involve an injury to the skeleton. A further dose of the drug, smothering with a pillow, a whiff of chloroform: the thing would have been child’s play to a determined man, particularly one with the training of a male nurse in a mental hospital.

Then Mrs. Roper! How the unfortunate woman met her end would probably remain for ever a mystery. But that she died by her husband’s hand French was growing more and more certain.

Witnesses to the theft removed, the safe must have claimed Roper’s attention next. French in imagination could see him getting the keys from under their dead owner’s pillow, opening the safe, and packing the notes in a suitcase. How it must have gone to Roper’s heart to leave the gold! But obviously he had no other course. Gold wouldn’t burn. It must therefore be found in the safe. Then came the substitution and burning of the newspapers. Here Roper made his first slip. Doubtless he was counting that the safe would fall to the ground level when the floor it stood on burned away and the churning of the sovereigns would reduce the paper ashes to dust. But there he had been wrong. Enough was left to reveal the fraud.

There was plenty of petrol and paraffin in the house and Roper’s next step must have been to spill these about, so as to leave no doubt of the completeness of the holocaust. In that also he was only too successful.

So far, French felt he was on pretty firm ground. He was becoming convinced that all this had happened, substantially as he had imagined it. But now came the terrible snag. Or rather two snags, for the one did not entirely include the other. The first was: What had happened to Roper? The second: Where was the money?

The more French puzzled over the first of these problems the more he came to doubt his first idea that some quite simple explanation would account for it. That nearly every criminal makes some stupid and obvious blunder during the commission of his crime is a commonplace. Still French could not see so astute a man as Roper making a blunder so colossal as to cost him his life. What super-ghastliness had happened upon that night of horrors? Had Roper started the fire before killing his wife and been overcome by fumes while in the act of murder? Had he taken too much drink to steady his nerves and fallen asleep, to meet the fate he had prepared for others? French could think of no theory which seemed satisfactory.

Nor could he imagine where the money might be. Was it burned after all? Had the receptacle in which it had been packed been left in the house and had its contents been destroyed? Or had Roper hidden it outside? Here again the matter was purely speculative, but French inclined to the former theory. All the same he determined that before he left the district he would make a thorough search in the neighbourhood of the house.

There was still the matter of the Whymper episode to be fully cleared up, and French thought that with the help of his new theory he might now be able to get the truth out of the young man. Accordingly he left the hotel and walked up the picturesque old street to the church. Whymper was busily engaged with a steel tape in giving positions for a series of new steps which were to lead up to the altar and French, interested in the operation, stood watching until it was complete. Then the young fellow conducted him for the second time to the vestry room, and seating himself, pointed to a chair.

“As no doubt you can guess, I’ve come on the same business as before,” French explained in his pleasant, courteous tones. “The fact is, I’ve learned a good deal more about this Starvel business since I last saw you, and I want to hear what you think of a theory I have evolved. But first, will you tell me everything that you can of your relations with Roper?”

“I really hadn’t any relations with Roper except what I have already mentioned,” Whymper returned. “Of course I had seen him on different occasions, but the first time I spoke to him was the first time I called on Miss Averill. He opened the door and showed me into the drawing-room. The next time I went we spoke about the weather and so on, but I had no actual relations with him until the night of the tragedy, when he gave me Mr. Averill’s message at the church gate.”

“It never occurred to you to doubt that the message did come from Mr. Averill, I suppose?”

“Of course not,” Whymper answered promptly. “You forget the note Mr. Averill sent me when I got to Starvel.”

“I don’t forget the note. But suppose I were to suggest that Roper had forged the note and that Mr. Averill knew nothing whatever about it? I should tell you that it has been established that Roper was a very skilful forger.”

“Such an idea never occurred to me. Even if Roper was a skilful forger I don’t see why you should think he forged this note. What possible motive could he have had?”

“Well, I think we possibly might find a motive. But let that pass for the moment. Go over the circumstances again in your mind and let me know if you see any reason why Roper should not have arranged the whole business himself.”

Whymper did not at once reply. French, anxious not to hurry him, remained silent also, idly admiring the pilasters and mouldings of the octagonal chamber and the groining of the old stone roof.

“I don’t see how Roper could have done it,” Whymper said presently. “There’s the money to be considered. The £500 couldn’t have been forged.”

“No. But it could have been stolen, and I have no doubt it was.”

“Surely not! You don’t really believe Roper was a thief?”

“At least he might have been. No, Mr. Whymper, you haven’t convinced me so far. Does anything further occur to you?”

“Yes,” said Whymper: “the story he told me. No one could have known it but Mr. Averill.”

French leaned forward and his face took on an expression of keener interest.

“Ah, now we’re coming to it,” he exclaimed. “I suggest that that whole story was a pure invention of Roper’s and that it had no foundation in fact. Now tell me this.” He raised his hand as Whymper would have spoken. “If the story were true would you not have expected to hear something of M. Prosper Giraud and Mme. Madeleine Blancquart at Talloires?”

Whymper seemed absolutely dumbfounded at the extent of the other’s knowledge.

“Why,” he stammered with all the appearance of acute dismay, “how do you know about that? I never mentioned it.”

“You did,” French declared. “To the police at Talloires. I traced you there and found out about your inquiries. It was perfectly simple. If the story had been true would you not have had an answer to your inquiries?”

A sudden eagerness appeared in the young man’s face. He leaned forward and cried excitedly:---

“My Heavens, I never thought of that! I supposed Roper had made a mistake about the address. Oh, if it could only be so!” He paused for a moment, then burst out again: “You may be right! You may be right! Tell me why you thought it might be Roper’s invention. I must know!”

“In the strictest confidence I’ll tell you everything,” French answered and he began to recount, not indeed everything, but a good many of the reasons which had led him to believe in Roper’s guilt. Whymper listened with painful intensity, and when the other had finished he seemed almost unable to contain his excitement.

“I must know if you are right,” he cried, springing from his chair and beginning to pace the room. “I must know! How can I be sure, Inspector? You have found out so much; can’t you find out a little more?”

“That’s what I came down for, Mr. Whymper,” French said gravely. “I must know too. And there’s only one way out of it. You’ve got to tell me the story. I’ll not use it unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I’ll test it and get to know definitely whether it’s fact or fiction.”

Whymper paused irresolutely.

“Suppose,” he said at length, “suppose, telling you the story involved letting you know of a crime which had been committed---not recently; many, many years ago. Suppose the criminal had escaped, but my story told you where you could find him. Would you give me your word of honour not to move in the matter?”

French glanced at him sharply.

“Of course not, Mr. Whymper. You know it is foolish of you to talk like that. Neither you nor I could have knowledge of that kind and remain silent. If you learn of a crime and shield the criminal, you become an accessory after the fact. You must know that.”

“In that case,” Whymper answered, “I can’t tell you.”

French became once more suave, even coaxing.

“Now, Mr. Whymper, that is quite an impossible line for you to take up. Just consider your own position. I have ample evidence to justify me in arresting you for the theft of Mr. Averill’s money. If I do so, this story that you are trying to keep to yourself will come out: not privately to me, but in open court. Every one will know it then. By keeping silent now you will defeat the very object you are striving for. Attention will be forced on to the very person you are trying to shield. And when it comes out you will be charged as an accessory. On the other hand, if you tell me the whole thing here and in private you will ease your mind of a burden and may clear yourself of suspicion of the theft. And with regard to the other crime we may find that it is a pure invention and that no such thing ever took place. Now, Mr. Whymper, you’ve got to take the lesser risk. You’ve got to tell me. As I say, I’ll not use your evidence unless I must.”

Whymper made no reply and French, recalling his theory that the secret concerned Ruth’s parentage, decided on a bluff.

“Well,” he said, quite sharply for him. “If you won’t speak I shall have to get the information from Miss Averill. I shall be sorry to have to force her confidence about her parents, but you leave me no option.”

The bluff worked better than French could have hoped. Whymper started forward with consternation on his face.

“What?” he cried. “Then you know?” Then realising what he had said, he swore. “Confound you, Inspector, that was a caddish trick! But you won’t get any more out of me in spite of it.”

French tried his bluff again.

“Nonsense,” he answered. “It would be far better for Miss Averill that you should tell me than that she should. But that’s a matter for you. If you like to tell me, well; if not, I shall go straight to her. Look here,” he leaned forward and tapped the other’s arm, “do you imagine that you can keep the affair secret? I’ve only got to trace Mr. Simon Averill’s history and go into the matter of Miss Ruth’s parentage and the whole thing will come out. It’s silly of you.” He waited for a moment, then got up. “Well, if you won’t, you won’t. You’ll come along to the station first and then I’ll go to Miss Averill.”

Whymper looked startled.

“Are you going to arrest me?”

“What else can I do?” French returned.

Whymper wrung his hands as if in despair, then motioned the Inspector to sit down again.

“Wait a minute,” he said brokenly. “I’ll tell you. I see I can’t help myself. It is not that I am afraid for myself, but I see from all you say that I have no alternative. But I trust your word not to use the information if you can avoid it.”

“I give you my word.”

“Well, I suppose that is as much as I can expect.” He paused to collect his thoughts, then went on: “I have already explained to you about Roper meeting me when I reached Starvel and his saying that Mr. Averill was too ill to see me, and you have seen the letter that I took to be from Mr. Averill, stating that he did not wish to put the matter in question in writing, that Roper was his confidential attendant, that he understood the affair in question and had been authorised to explain it to me. Of course on receipt of that letter I was prepared to believe whatever I heard, and I did believe it.”

“Quite natural,” French admitted suavely.

“Roper began by saying that his part in the affair was very distasteful to him, that he felt he was intruding into a family and very private matter, but that he had no alternative but to carry it through as Mr. Averill had given him definite instructions to do so. He added that he was particularly sorry about it, as the matter was bound to be very painful to me. It was about Miss Averill.”

Whymper was evidently very reluctant to proceed, but he overcame his distaste after a moment’s hesitation and in a lower voice continued:---

“He went on to ask me, again with apologies, whether Mr. Averill was correct in believing I wished to marry Miss Averill. If I did not, he said the information would be of no interest to me and he need not proceed with the matter. But if I did wish to marry her there was something I should know.

“As a matter of fact, I wanted the marriage more than anything else on earth, and when I said so to Roper he gave me the message. He told me that, a few days before, Mr. Averill had received a letter which upset him very much and, Roper thought, had brought on his illness. But before I could appreciate the significance of the letter he would have to explain some family matters.

“Mr. Simon Averill had a brother named Theodore---I shall call them Simon and Theodore to distinguish them. As a young man Theodore had all the promise of a brilliant career. He had gone into business in London and held a very good position as French representative of his firm. He had married a French lady of old family and great beauty. One child was born, a daughter, Ruth.

“But unfortunately he was not steady, and as time passed he grew wilder and wilder and his relations with his wife became more and more strained. At last when Ruth was four years old and they were living in London, there was some fearful trouble which finished him up.

“Roper did not know the details, but it was a scandal in some illicit gambling rooms in London. Theodore was caught cheating. They were all half drunk and in the row that followed a man was killed. It was never known who actually fired the shot, but Theodore was suspected. At all events he disappeared and was never heard of again. It was the last straw for his wife and she collapsed altogether. She brought Ruth, a child of four, to Simon, begged him to look after her, and then committed suicide.

“Nothing more was heard of Theodore Averill and every one concerned believed him dead. Simon’s surprise may be imagined then, when during the last two or three days he received a letter from him. This was the letter which I told you had upset him so much.

“I didn’t see the letter, but Roper told me it said that Theodore was living under the name of Prosper-Giraud at Talloires in Savoy. He had escaped from London to Morocco and after wandering about for a year or two had entered the French Foreign Legion. After serving several years he left that and went to Talloires, where he supported himself by writing short stories for the magazines. He did fairly well, and was comfortable enough, but recently a disastrous thing had happened to him. He had been in poor health for some time and had begun to talk in his sleep. His old housekeeper, Mme. Madeleine Blancquart, must have listened and heard something which gave his secret away, for one morning she came to him and said she had discovered all, and asked what he was going to pay to have the matter kept from the English police. He was unable to give what she demanded and for the sake of his family he prayed his brother Simon to help him. If Simon wouldn’t do so, nothing could save him. He would be brought to England and perhaps executed, and Simon and Ruth would have to bear the shame.”

The recital of these facts was evidently very painful to Whymper, but he went on doggedly with his statement.

“Simon in his delicate state of health was much upset by the whole thing, so Roper said. If the story was true he was willing to make some allowance, both because he didn’t wish to have his brother come to such an end and also for his own and Ruth’s sake. He had, therefore, replied sending twenty pounds, and saying that he would either go over himself to Talloires or send a representative within a month to discuss the situation.

“He found he was too feeble to go himself and for the same reason he couldn’t well spare Roper, so he cast round for some one who could do it for him, and he thought of me. He thought that if I wanted to marry Miss Averill the secret would be safe with me and also I should be just as anxious to have the matter settled as he was.

“Of course I agreed to go. You can understand that I really hadn’t any option, though as far as I was concerned myself I didn’t care two pins what Theodore had done or hadn’t done. Roper said Simon would be extremely relieved to hear my decision. He said also that Simon did not wish me to go for about three weeks, lest it would look too eager and Mme. Blancquart would think she had frightened us.

“Roper went on to say that Simon was giving me £500. Out of this I was to take my expenses and the balance was to buy off Mme. Blancquart. He did not want me to give her a lump sum, but to arrange a monthly payment which she would know she would lose if she informed. I was to find some one in Talloires who would take the money and dole it out for a percentage. The curé possibly might do it, or I could employ a solicitor. He left the arrangements to my judgment. In any case I was to make the best bargain I could with the woman.

“That was all on the Wednesday night before the fire started. Then came the tragedy. With Simon dead I didn’t know what on earth to do. Of course I saw that I must carry out my promise just the same, and go out to Talloires and try to arrange for Theodore’s safety, but I thought that if Simon’s money went to Ruth, Theodore might try to make trouble with her. However, I could do nothing until I saw him and Mme. Blancquart, and I arranged to go to Talloires at the end of the three weeks as Simon had asked me.

“You can guess the rest. I took the money and went to Talloires. But as you know, I could find no trace either of Prosper Giraud or Mme. Blancquart.

“I was in a difficulty then. I had no doubt that the message was really Simon’s. It never occurred to me that Roper could invent the story or steal the money, and when I failed to find the people I simply thought he had made a mistake in the address. I was pretty bothered, I can tell you. I was expecting every day to read of Theodore’s arrest, and I could do nothing to prevent it.” The young man was very earnest as he added: “I swear to you that what I have told you is the literal truth. I don’t know whether you will believe me, but whether or not, I am glad I’ve told you. It is a tremendous weight off my mind, and if you can prove that the story was only Roper’s invention I’ll be ten thousand times more relieved.”

French felt that he might very well believe the statement. Not only had Whymper’s manner changed and borne the almost unmistakable impress of truth, but the story he told was just the kind of story French was expecting to hear. No tale that he could think of would have better suited Roper’s purpose: to make this young fellow change stolen bank notes the possession of which he could not account for. The more French thought it over in detail, the more satisfied he felt with it. It was true that there were two minor points which he did not fully understand, but neither would invalidate the tale, even if unexplained. Of these the first was: Why had Roper asked Whymper to wait three weeks before going to France? And the second: If the young man was as enamoured of this girl as he pretended to be, why had he not proposed to her so as to be in a proper position to offer her his protection?

A little thought gave him the answer to the first of these problems. Evidently no suspicion must fall on Whymper other than through the notes. If he were to rush away directly the tragedy occurred, any general suspicion which might have been aroused might be directed towards him for that very reason. That would be no test of the safety of passing the notes. But if three weeks elapsed before he made a move, suspicion must depend on the notes alone.

With regard to the second point French thought he might ask for information.

“I don’t want to be unnecessarily personal, Mr. Whymper, but there is just one matter I should like further light on. You were, I understand you to say, anxious to marry this young lady and desired to protect her from trouble with Mme. Blancquart. If that were so, would it not have been natural for you to propose to her and so obtain the right to protect her?”

Whymper made a gesture of exasperation.

“By Heaven, I only wish I had! It might have come out all right. But, Inspector, I have been a coward. To be strictly truthful, I was afraid. I’ll tell you just what happened. After the tragedy I was very much upset by this whole affair. And it made me awkward and self-conscious with Miss Averill to have to keep secret a thing which concerned her so closely. I tried not to show it in my manner, but I don’t think I quite succeeded. I think my manner displeased her. At all events she grew cold and distant, and---well! there it is. I didn’t dare to speak. I was afraid I would have no chance. I thought I would wait until I found something out about her father. Then when this began to seem impossible, I determined to risk all and speak, but then you came threatening me with arrest for theft. I couldn’t propose until that was over. And the question is, is it over now? Are you going to arrest me or how do I stand?”

“I’m not going to arrest you, Mr. Whymper. You have given me the explanations I asked for, and so far I see no reason to doubt your story. I am glad you have told me. But though I believe you, I may say at once that I believe also the whole thing was Roper’s invention. Why did he not show the letter he alleged Theodore Averill had written?”

“I don’t know. I assumed there was something further in it which Mr. Averill wished to keep from Roper and me.”

French shook his head.

“Much more likely it didn’t exist and he wanted to save the labour and risk of forging it. Now, Mr. Whymper, there is only one thing to be done. You or I, or both of us together must go to Miss Averill and ask her the truth. I do not mean that we must tell her this story. We shall simply ask her where her father lived, and where she was born. Records will be available there which will set the matter at rest.”

Whymper saw the common sense of this proposal, but he said that nothing would induce him to ask such questions of Miss Averill. It was, therefore, agreed that French should call on her and make the inquiries.

Ruth was at home when French reached the Oxleys’, and she saw him at once. French apologised for troubling her so soon again, and then asked some questions as to the possible amount of petrol and paraffin which had been at Starvel on the night of the fire. From this he switched the conversation on to herself, and with a dexterity born of long practice led her to talk of her relatives. So deftly did he question her, that when in a few minutes he had discovered all he wished to know, she had not realised that she had been pumped.

In answer to his veiled suggestions she told him that her father’s name was Theodore Averill, that he had lived in Bayonne, where he had held a good appointment in the wine industry, and that he had married a French lady whom he had met at Biarritz. This lady, her mother, had died when she was born and her father had only survived her by about four years. On his death she had come to her uncle Simon, he being her only other relative. She was born in Bayonne and baptised, she believed, by the Anglican clergyman at Biarritz. Her father was a member of the Church of England and her mother a Huguenot.

“This,” French said when, half an hour later, he was back in the vestry room of the old church, “will lead us to certainty. I will send a wire to the Biarritz police and have the records looked up. Of course, I don’t doubt Miss Averill’s word for a moment, but it is just conceivable that she might have been misled as to her birth. However, we want to be absolutely sure.”

He wired that evening and it may be mentioned here that in the course of a couple of days he received the following information:---

1. Mr. Theodore Averill was a wine merchant and lived at Bayonne.

2. Mr. Averill and Mlle. Anne de Condillac had been married in the English church at Biarritz on the 24th of June, 1905.

3. Mrs. Averill had died on the 17th of July, 1906, while giving birth to a daughter.

4. This daughter, whose name was Ruth, was baptised at the Anglican church, Biarritz, on the 19th of August, 1906.

5. Mr. Theodore Averill had died on the 8th of September, 1910, his little four-year old daughter then being sent to England.

So that was certainty at last. Roper was the evil genius behind all these involved happenings. He it was who had got Ruth away from the doomed house; he had sent Whymper off to pass the stolen notes so that he might learn if their numbers were known; he had murdered Simon Averill; he had stolen the notes from the safe; he had murdered his wife; he had burned the house. All was now clear---except the one point at which French, trembling with exasperation, was again brought up. What had happened to Roper? What blunder had he made? How had he died? And again; where was the money? Was it hidden or was it destroyed?

As French went down to the police station to tell Sergeant Kent he might withdraw his observation on Whymper, he determined that next morning he would begin a meticulous and detailed search of the ground surrounding the ruins in the hope of finding the answer to his last question.

But next morning French instead found himself contemplating with a growing excitement a new idea which had leaped into his mind and which bade fair to change the whole future course of his investigation.