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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 12:24:35 pm



Title: 13: The Piece of Yellow Clay
Post by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 12:24:35 pm
ALL that day Inspector French’s thoughts kept reverting to that tense moment in the cemetery when the lid of the coffin had been raised and his theory had been so dramatically established. The memory filled his mind with a deep satisfaction. He felt that he had achieved nothing less than a veritable triumph. Other cases he had handled well, indeed he thought he might say brilliantly. But in no previous case had he solved his problem by such a creative effort of the imagination. He had imagined what might have happened, he had tested his theory, and he had found it had happened. The highest kind of work, this! His superiors could not fail to be impressed.

But there was more than that in it. Seldom had he known of a case which contained such arresting and dramatic features. When the facts became known they would make something more than a nine days’ wonder. The old miser, living meanly in his decaying house at the bottom of that sinister hollow on the lonely moor; the hoarded thousands in his safe; the terrible conflagration which wiped out in a night the whole building and everything it contained; the discovery that the tragedy was no accident, but that murder lurked behind it; the other murder, when Markham Giles was done to death for a purpose too dreadful and gruesome to contemplate without a thrill of horror; these things would make the Starvel Hollow crime re-echo round the world. It would be the crime of the century. No one could fail to be moved by it.

And all would react to his, French’s advantage. For a moment he allowed himself to dream. Chief Inspector Armstrong was getting old. He must soon retire . . . French ran over in his mind his possible successors. Yes, it was conceivable . . . With this brilliant case to his credit it was almost likely . . . A ravishing prospect!

But French was at heart too sound a man to waste time in day-dreaming while there was work to be done. He had pulled off a coup and had every reason to be pleased with himself, but he had not completed his case. He had solved his problem, but he had not found his criminal. Until Roper was under lock and key he could not relax his efforts or look for his reward.

As he went over, point by point, all that he knew of the missing man, he saw that there were two matters upon which he should obtain further information before starting his search. Roper’s statement to the undertaker was capable of verification. Had Dr. Emerson stated that Giles’ body required to be coffined without delay? If Roper had lied on this point, it would still further confirm the case against him. The second matter was a search of Giles’ cottage. It was not a hopeful line of inquiry certainly, but it could not be neglected. Some clue to the tragedy might be forthcoming.

First, then, it was necessary to see Dr. Emerson, and a few minutes later French was seated once again in his consulting-room. The doctor greeted him anxiously.

“I’m glad you called, Inspector,” he exclaimed. “I was going up to the hotel to look for you. This is a terrible development.”

“You’ve heard then, Dr. Emerson?”

“Just this moment. I met Kent and he told me. It is an amazing affair, almost incredible. What does it all mean, Mr. French? Can you understand it?”

“I am afraid, sir, it means what I said on my last call; that Mr. Giles was murdered.”

Dr. Emerson made an impatient gesture.

“But good gracious, man, that doesn’t explain it! Suppose he was murdered: where is his body? Have you a theory?”

French hesitated. He felt tempted to disclose his suspicions to this old man, whose interest and good faith were so self-evident. But his habit of caution was too strong.

“I have a theory, Dr. Emerson,” he answered, “but so far it is only a theory and I don’t like to discuss it until I am reasonably sure it is true. I shall know in a short time and then I will tell you. In the meantime perhaps you will excuse me. But I want to ask you one more question. Roper saw you about the funeral arrangements?”

“Yes. He said that Giles had given him some money for the purpose and that he would see that the best use was made of it.”

“You thought it necessary, I understand, to have the coffining done without delay?”

Dr. Emerson looked up sharply.

“I thought it necessary? Certainly not. You’re mistaken there.”

“Is that so?” French returned. “I thought you had told Roper that it must be hurried on. You didn’t?”

“Never. I never even discussed the matter with him. I never thought of it. As a matter of fact there was no need to depart in any way from the usual procedure.”

“That’s all right, doctor. Now there is one other point. Let us assume that murder was committed. I want you to tell me from the appearance of the body how that murder might have been done. If you are able to do so it might lead me to a clue.”

Emerson sprang to his feet and began pacing the room.

“Merciful powers! That’s a nice question to ask me, after my giving a certificate of death from myocarditis!” he exclaimed.

“I know, doctor.” French spoke soothingly. “But none of us are infallible, and if you made a mistake it’s only what every one does at one time or another. Your reasons for giving the certificate were very convincing, and if they were not sound in this case it is only because this case is one in a million. Don’t worry about the certificate. Instead, just sit down and recall the appearance of the body and see if you can think of another cause of death. If you’re not able to give a definite opinion we can still get something by elimination. I take it, for example, the man’s skull was not battered in nor his throat cut? That limits the affair. You see what I mean?”

“Oh, I see right enough, and naturally I’ll give you all the help I can. But tell me first, have you found the body?”

“No, nor have I the faintest idea where to look. That will be my next job, I suppose. I don’t even say it’s murder. But it may be, and if you can answer my question it might be a considerable help.”

Dr. Emerson thought for some moments.

“Well,” he said at last, “I must admit that murder is possible, though I don’t for a moment believe death occurred otherwise than as I said. As to possible methods, there were no obvious wounds on the body and violence in the literal sense is therefore unlikely. A sharp blow over the heart or on the stomach might have caused heart failure without leaving physical marks, but in such a case the features would have looked distressed. For the same reason death from the shock of a sudden fright or start may be ruled out. It is of course true that certain kinds of poison might have been administered. A whiff of hydrocyanic acid gas would cause almost instantaneous death and produce the same appearance as death from natural causes. An injection of cocaine would do the same where there was heart disease, and there are other similar agents. But in these cases the difficulty of the average man in obtaining the substances in question and also in knowing how to use them if obtained, is so great that I think they might all be ruled out. No, Inspector, amazing as your discovery seems, I cannot think you are right in assuming murder.”

“But,” thought French, though he did not put his thought into words, “if the man you suspect spent the best years of his life as male nurse in a medical institution, these difficulties pretty well vanish.” But he concealed his satisfaction, and, instead, simulated disappointment.

“That seems very reasonable, doctor, I must admit. At the same time I shall have to put inquiries in hand as to whether any one recently tried to obtain cocaine or those other things you have mentioned. Of course, I don’t say that necessarily I am right in my ideas.”

“I don’t think you are right, though I confess I’m absolutely lost in amazement about that coffin. Come now, Inspector, you must know more than you pretend. Are your ideas hopelessly confidential?”

French shook his head, then said, “I can tell you, doctor, that I know nothing more than I have already mentioned. I may have a surmise, but you will agree that I could not repeat mere surmises which might also be slanders against perfectly innocent persons. If I find that my theories seem to have a basis on fact I may ask for your further help, but at present I see no signs of that. You’ll agree that I’m right?”

Emerson admitted it, and after some further conversation French took his leave. So far everything was going satisfactorily. Each new fact which he learned tended to strengthen his theory. And incidentally and unexpectedly he had come on another piece of evidence, circumstantial of course, but none the less strong. According to Dr. Emerson, the murder was most likely to have been committed by methods which Roper alone, of all the people that French could think of, had the knowledge and the ability to employ. French’s satisfaction was intense as he noted the cumulative effect of his discoveries. By this method of cumulative circumstantial evidence was he accustomed to find suspicion grow to certainty and certainty to proof.

So much for the first of the two inquiries French had set himself to make. There remained the investigation of the late Markham Giles’ cottage, and after a snack of early lunch at the hotel, he started out along the Starvel road.

It was dull and rather cold, but a pleasant day for walking. French tramped along, enjoying the motion and the extended view offered by the wide, open spaces of the moor. Though, owing to the atmosphere, the colouring was neither so warm nor so rich as it had previously appeared, there was a fascination in the scenery which strongly appealed to him. He had found a similar though keener charm in Dartmoor, which he had once explored on the occasion of a visit to a cracksman doing time in the great prison at Princetown. Indeed Dartmoor and Exmoor both figured on his list of places to be visited when time and money should permit.

Diverging from the Starvel road at the point where Ruth Averill and Mrs. Oxley had joined the deceased man’s funeral, French skirted the edge of the Hollow and in a few minutes reached the cottage. It was a tiny box of a place, but strongly built, with stone walls and slated roof. Its architecture was of the most rudimentary kind, a door and two windows in front and at the back being the only relieving features in the design. The house stood a short distance back from the road in the middle of a patch of cultivated ground. Behind was a row of wooden beehives.

French looked round him. As far as he could see he was the only living thing in all that stretch of country. The town, nestling in the valley up which he had come, was hidden from sight below the edge of the moor. The three or four houses standing at wide intervals apart seemed deserted. No one appeared on the road or on the moor.

He walked up the little path to the door and busied himself with the lock. It was too large for his skeleton keys, but a few moments’ work with a bit of bent wire did the trick, and presently he was inside with the door closed behind him.

The house consisted of three rooms only, a sitting-room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. A narrow passage separated the last two of these, the front portion of which formed a porch and the back a pantry. The atmosphere was heavy and nauseating, and this was soon explained by the fact that everything seemed to have been left just where it was when Giles died. The clothes were still on the bed and there was mouldy and decaying food in the pantry. Dust was thick over everything; indeed it was a marvel to French where so much dust should have come from in the heart of the country.

He opened the doors to let the atmosphere clear and then began one of his meticulous examinations. He did not expect to find anything of interest, yet he searched as if the key to the whole mystery lay waiting to be discovered. But after an hour he had to admit failure. There was nothing in the place from which he could get the slightest help.

Reluctantly he locked the doors and started back to Thirsby. He walked slowly, scarcely conscious of his surroundings as he racked his brains in the hope of seeing some other clue which might bring him more result. At first he could think of nothing, then another line of investigation occurred to him which, though it seemed hopelessly unpromising, he thought he might pursue.

He had been thinking that if his main theory were correct Giles’ body must have been conveyed from his cottage to Starvel, probably during the darkness of that tragic Wednesday night. How had this been done? He had noticed in the single outhouse of Starvel which remained unburnt a light handcart, and it had before occurred to him that this cart might have been used. He now thought he would go down to Starvel and have another look at the outhouse and this handcart. A miracle might have happened and some helpful clue been left.

He turned aside from the road, and crossing the lip of the Hollow, went down to the ruins in the centre. The outhouse was a small stone shed built up against the yard wall. Through the broken and cobweb-covered window he could see that it contained the handcart, a few gardening tools and some old broken crates and other rubbish. The door was secured with a rusty chain and padlock of which the key had disappeared.

A few seconds’ work with his bent wire unfastened the lock and he pushed open the door and entered. The place was unspeakably dirty and he moved gingerly about as he began to look over its contents. But he was just as meticulous and thorough in his examination as if it were the throne room of a palace.

He had completed his work and was about to retire disappointed when the presence of a small scrap of yellow clay which he had observed on entering, but to which he had given no attention, suddenly struck him as being slightly puzzling. It was shaped like a half-moon, the inner edge showing a definite curve. Evidently it had caked round a man’s heel and had dropped off, possibly as the heel had become drier in the shed. French looked round and presently he saw two more pieces. One was stuck to the rim of the left wheel of the handcart as if the wheel had rolled over a clod and picked it up, the other was on the left leg as if the leg had been put down on a similar clod which had stuck in the same way.

It was, of course, evident that the handcart had been not only wheeled over a place where there was yellow clay, but had been set down there. At first French saw nothing remarkable in this, but now it occurred to him that he had not noticed any clay of the colour in the neighbourhood. Where then had the pieces been picked up?

He had seen similar clay on the previous night, but not close by. The heap of stuff removed in opening the grave down in Thirsby was just that kind of material. He had noticed it particularly in the light of the acetylene lamp. It was of a characteristic light yellow and very stiff and compact like puddle. But he had seen nothing like it up on the moor. The soil all about was dark coloured, almost peaty.

He cast his thoughts back to that scene in the graveyard and then he recalled another point. He had looked down into the grave when the coffin was being raised, and he now remembered that the sides of the opening had shown black soil over the clay. A layer of some three feet six or four feet of dark, peaty soil had covered the yellow. French whistled softly as the possible inference struck him.

A worn but still serviceable looking spade stood in the corner of the shed. French picked it up, and going a few yards out on to the moor, began to dig. He was not particularly expert, and before he had worked for many minutes he was in bath of perspiration. But he persevered and the hole grew until at a depth of nearly three feet he found what he wanted. The spade brought up a piece of hard, compact clay of a light yellow colour.

French had grown keenly interested as he filled in the hole and removed the traces of his work. With a feeling of suppressed excitement he returned to the shed and carefully packed the half-moon shaped cake of clay in a matchbox. Then locking the door, he went out again on the moor and stood looking round him as he pondered the facts he had just learned.

The handcart had been recently set down in and wheeled across a patch of yellow clay. This almost certainly had been done on the last occasion it had been used, otherwise the clay would have been knocked off on subsequent journeys. For the same reason the place must have been close to Starvel. There was no exposed clay near Starvel, but it was to be found at a depth of some three feet below ground level.

From this it surely followed that some one had dug a hole near Starvel and wheeled the handcart to the edge before it was filled in.

French went a step farther. If he was correct that the body of Markham Giles had been brought to Starvel on that tragic night it was almost certain that the handcart had been used, as there was no other way, so far as he could see, in which the terrible burden could have been carried. But so long a journey would have knocked the clay off the wheel; therefore the journey to the hole had been made after that with the body. Further, the handcart could scarcely have been used since the fire: the tragedy was then over and the surviving actor had left the district.

Did these considerations not suggest that Roper, having brought the man’s body to Starvel, had loaded up his booty on the handcart---possibly there were old silver or valuable ornaments as well as the bank notes---wheeled it out on the moor and buried it so as to hide it safely until he could come back and remove it?

French recalled his reasons for thinking that the booty might have been so hidden. All those notes---assuming there was nothing else---would have had a certain bulk. Probably a suitcase would have been necessary to carry them. A man with a suitcase is a more noticeable figure than one without. Would it not have been wise for a criminal fleeing from justice to hide the stuff, provided he could find a safe place in which to do so? Moreover---and this was the strongest point---had Roper been arrested without the notes nothing could have been proved against him. He could say he had escaped from the fire by the merest piece of good fortune or he could simulate loss of memory from the shock. Or again he could explain that he had feared to come forward lest he should be suspected. No matter what might have been thought, he was safe. But let him be found with the notes in his possession and he was as good as hanged.

French, looking round him there in the centre of the great Hollow, felt his spirits rising as he wondered if he were about to make the greatest coup of the whole case.

His question now was: Where would Roper make his cache? Not near the road where the disturbed earth would be visible to a chance passerby. Not near the house in case some of the crowds attracted by the fire should make an unexpected find. But not too far away from either lest he himself might have difficulty in locating the place.

French began to walk round the house in circles of ever increasing radius, scrutinising the ground for traces of yellow clay. And so he searched until the evening began to draw in and dusk approached.

And then, as he was coming to the conclusion that it was getting too dark to carry on, he found what he wanted. Out on the open moor at the back of the house and at the bottom of a tiny hollow were unmistakable traces of recent digging. The ground over a few square feet was marked with scraps of disintegrating yellow clay and the sods with which the hole was covered still showed cut edges.

French was overwhelmed with delight. That he had found something of value, most probably a cache containing the stolen money, he had no doubt. Scarcely could he restrain his desire to open the hole again then and there. But it was getting dark and he had no lamp. He thought two witnesses would be desirable, so he curbed his impatience, noted carefully the position of the marks, and regretting the necessity for leaving it unguarded, set off on his return journey.

He called to see Sergeant Kent and arranged that he and a constable should meet him at the outhouse at eight o’clock on the following morning. At the hotel he dined, and saying that he had to take the night train to Carlisle, asked for a packet of sandwiches. Then he left the town and walked out once more to Starvel.

His mind was not at rest until he had again visited the site of the hole and made sure it remained undisturbed. Then, determined to take no chances, he re-entered the outhouse, and seating himself at a window from which he could see the hollow in the light of the moon, lit his pipe and composed himself to watch.