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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 01:11:23 pm

Title: 15: French Baits His Trap
Post by: Admin on September 01, 2023, 01:11:23 pm
THAT day week was a red letter day in the history of Thirsby. The story of French’s discoveries, by this time common property, had created an absolute furore in the little town. Never had such a series of tragedies and thrills disturbed its placid existence. Never had interest risen to such fever heat. It was therefore not surprising that every available seat in the courthouse was occupied long before the hour of the adjourned inquest, and that a queue of eager, pushing people, unable to gain admittance, stretched away in a long column from its door. But the police had seen to it that all who were particularly interested in the tragedy had obtained places. In the row usually reserved for barristers sat Oxley with Ruth Averill, who had been summoned to attend as a witness, and Mrs. Oxley, who looked on the girl as her charge and insisted on accompanying her. Whymper, now an accepted lover, sat next Ruth, and behind were Tarkington, Bloxham, Emerson, Philpot and the police doctor, Lingard. Major Valentine and French were together in the seat usually occupied by the clerk of the Crown, while Kent, looking harassed and anxious, was standing in the body of the court, fumbling with a sheaf of papers and whispering to his subordinates.

The coroner was that same Dr. Lonsdale who had acted in a similar capacity some nine weeks earlier when the inquiry into the death of the three victims of the Starvel fire had taken place. He also seemed worried, as if he feared the elucidation of these mysterious happenings might try his powers beyond their capacity.

The preliminaries having been gone through already, the coroner began to take evidence immediately, and Dr. Emerson was called.

“You attended the late Mr. Markham Giles?” the coroner asked when he had obtained the other’s name and qualifications.

“I attended him up to five years ago, when Dr. Philpot took the case over. Owing to Dr. Philpot’s being ill at the time of his death I was again called in.”

“For what complaint did you formerly attend the deceased?”

“Myocarditis. It was a disease of some years’ standing.”

“Myocarditis is heart disease, isn’t it? Was the deceased badly affected?”

“Five years ago, fairly badly. I have no doubt that at the time of his death he was much worse, as the disease is incurable and progressive.”

“We can no doubt get that from Dr. Philpot. When did you hear of Mr. Giles’s death, Dr. Emerson?”

“On Wednesday morning, 15th September.”

“Who told you of it?”

“John Roper, the Starvel man-servant.”

“Did you go out to Starvel and examine the body?”

“Yes, I did, after first consulting Dr. Philpot on the case.”

“Oh, you saw Dr. Philpot. And what was the result of your consultation?”

“Dr. Philpot told me that Mr. Giles had developed influenza, and that he had seen him on Thursday. He was very weak and Dr. Philpot did not expect him to get over it.”

“Then you examined the body?”

“Yes, I went out to Starvel immediately.”

“And what opinion did you then form as to the cause of death?”

“I believed it to be myocarditis.”

“And you gave a certificate to that effect?”

“I did.”

“Did you make any specific examination of the remains on which you based your opinion?”

“Yes, so far as it was possible without a post-mortem.”

“And you were quite satisfied that you had made no mistake?”

“I was quite satisfied.”

“That will do in the meantime. Please do not go away, Dr. Emerson, as I may have some further questions to put to you later.”

Dr. Philpot was then called. He corroborated the evidence of the last witness in so far as it concerned himself. He had attended Mr. Giles during the past five years. Deceased was suffering from myocarditis, which had become worse and of which he might have died at any moment. On the Thursday prior to his death witness had been informed by Roper, Mr. Averill’s man-servant, that deceased seemed rather seriously ill, and he went out to see him. Deceased was feeble and witness believed that he was very near his end. Witness did not think he could live more than three or four days. When he heard of his death it was only what he had expected.

Ruth Averill was the next witness. She was nervous, but the sergeant was deferential to her and the coroner fatherly and kind. Her evidence was soon over. In answer to a number of questions she deposed that she had known Mr. Giles fairly well and had been to sit with him on different occasions during his illness. On the Tuesday of that tragic week she had left Starvel to pay a short visit to York, and on her way into Thirsby she had called to see him. He had seemed very weak and frail. He could scarcely speak. Ruth had spent about ten minutes with him and had then driven on to Thirsby. She had never seen him again.

A number of persons were then called relative to the funeral. The clerk from the Town Hall who dealt with interments, the caretaker of the new cemetery, the undertaker and such of his men as had assisted, gave evidence in turn. The coroner was extremely detailed in his questions, and when he had finished the whole history of the sad affair stood revealed, with the exception of one point.

This was Roper’s false statement to the undertaker that the body required to be coffined without delay. It had been decided that nothing must leak out connecting the death of Giles with Starvel, and it spoke volumes for the coroner’s skill that he was able to obtain the other details of the interment while keeping Roper’s duplicity secret.

From the united testimony given it seemed that Markham Giles had died at some time during the Tuesday night. Roper had stated to more than one witness that Mrs. Roper had gone out to see him about eight o’clock on that evening, when she found him weak, but fairly easy and showing no sign of any early collapse. About nine the next morning, Wednesday, she went over again to find that the man had been dead for some hours. Mr. Giles was lying in the same position as he had occupied on the previous evening, and from the peaceful expression on his face it looked as if he had passed away painlessly. Mrs. Roper had gone back for her husband, who had returned with her to the cottage. There they had done what they could, and Roper had then gone into Thirsby and made arrangements for the funeral. First he had reported the death to Dr. Emerson. Then he had called at the Town Hall and purchased a grave, going on to the new cemetery to see the site. Lastly, he had visited the undertaker, arranging the details of the funeral.

The undertaker had known Mr. Giles, and later, on that day, the Wednesday, he had sent out two men with a coffin which he believed would be of the right size. His estimate had proved correct and the men had placed the remains in the coffin, screwing down the lid and leaving all ready for the funeral.

On the second day, the Friday, the interment took place. The same men who had coffined the remains lifted the coffin into the hearse, and they declared that they saw no signs of the screws having been tampered with or of the presence of any person in the house during their absence. The funeral was conducted in the customary manner, and when the grave had been filled none of those who had been present imagined that anything out of the common had taken place. Roper had paid all the bills in advance, saying that the deceased had had a premonition of his death and had handed him the sum of fifteen pounds to meet the expenses.

French was the next witness. The coroner had been carefully primed as to his evidence also, and asked only general questions.

“Now, Mr. French, you made some unexpected discoveries about this matter?”

“I did, sir.”

“Will you please tell the jury in your own words the nature of these discoveries and how you came to make them.”

This was French’s opportunity. Speaking respectfully and with an air of the utmost candour, he told very nearly the truth. Deliberately he slightly coloured the facts, coloured them with the object and in the hope that somewhere Roper would read what he had said---and be deceived into coming into the open.

“I was sent here,” he explained, “on a matter arising out of the fire at Starvel. I made certain inquiries and received certain information. As to the truth of the information I cannot of course bear testimony, but I cannot explain the steps I took unless I mention it. With the object of accounting for my actions, sir, is it your wish that I do so?”

“If you please, Mr. French. We quite understand that your actual evidence is confined to matters which came under your own observation. That does not prevent you introducing explanatory matter as to how you got your results.”

“Very good, sir. According to my information the following was the state of affairs which had obtained prior to my being sent down here. The late Mr. Averill had a sum of money amounting to several thousand pounds stored in a safe in his bedroom. This was given in evidence at the inquest on the victims of the Starvel tragedy. It was not then mentioned, but it was the fact---always according to my information---that that money had consisted largely of twenty-pound notes. Mr. Averill was in the habit of sending to the bank the various cheques, dividends and so forth by which he received his income. By his instructions these were cashed and the money was returned to Starvel in the form of twenty-pound notes, which the old gentleman placed with the others in his safe. All these notes were believed to have been destroyed in the fire. But it so happened that the numbers of the last consignment---ten notes, for £200---were taken by the bank teller before the notes were sent out to Starvel, and these notes were reported to the bank’s headquarters as being destroyed. When, therefore, some three weeks after the tragedy one of them turned up in London, questions were asked. Reasons were given for believing that this particular note had been in Mr. Averill’s safe at Starvel on the night of the fire, so the suggestion at once arose that the fire was not an accident, but a deliberate attempt to hide a crime of murder and burglary. I was sent down to investigate the affair, and I may say that I found out who had passed the note and satisfied myself beyond question that he had received it in a legitimate manner, and that all his actions were perfectly correct and in order. It followed, therefore, that the finding of the note did not in reality support any theory of crime such as had been put forward.”

While French was speaking the proverbial pin could have been heard, had any one tried the experiment of dropping it in the courthouse. He had, to put it mildly, the ear of his audience. Every one listened, literally, with bated breath. Though it was vaguely known that he was a detective working on the Starvel case, the story that he himself had circulated had been generally accepted; that he was employed on behalf of certain insurance companies to ascertain the cause of the outbreak. To find that the pleasant-spoken, easygoing stranger whom the townspeople had almost begun to accept as one of themselves, was none other than a full-fledged inspector from Scotland Yard, investigating what had been at first suspected to be a triple murder of an unusually terrible and sinister kind, was a discovery so thrilling as completely to absorb the attention of all.

“While engaged in clearing up the Starvel affair,” French went on, “a hint was conveyed to me that I was working on the wrong case: that if I wanted a real mystery I should drop what I was at and turn my attention to the death and burial, particularly the burial, of Mr. Giles. With your permission, sir, I do not feel at liberty to mention the source from which this hint came. It was very vague, but we men from the Yard are taught to pick up vague hints. I thought over the matter for some days before I guessed what might be meant. Could Mr. Giles’s coffin have been used as a hiding place for stolen goods? I knew, of course, of the many burglaries which had taken place in the surrounding country during the last six months. I knew also that if burglars wished to hide their swag, no better place could be devised than a coffin. There it would be safe until the hue and cry had died down and from there it could be recovered when desired. If this theory were true, the gang of burglars would either have heard of Mr. Giles’s death and used the circumstances to their advantage, or they would have arranged the circumstance by murdering him. In either case they would have taken the remains from the coffin, buried them somewhere close by, and replaced them with the stolen articles.”

French paused and a wave of movement swept over the crowded assembly as its members changed their cramped positions. Seldom had the public had such a treat and they were not going to miss any of it. There was an instantaneous stiffening to concentrated attention as French resumed:---

“After careful consideration I thought the matter serious enough to warrant action. I therefore obtained an order to open the grave, and there I found that my suspicions were well founded. There was no body in the coffin, but on the other hand there was no swag. The coffin was half-full of earth. But this did not of course invalidate the theory I have outlined. It only meant that if that theory were true we were late; that at some time within the past nine weeks the burglars had visited the churchyard and removed the stuff. This might or might not have happened.”

Again French paused and this time the coroner remarked quietly:---

“And then, Mr. French?”

“Then, sir, I returned to the gentleman’s cottage and made a further investigation. Eventually I found traces of yellow clay lying about. All the soil in the district is dark, but at the grave I had noticed that a layer of dark soil covered a bed of similar yellow clay. So I dug a hole and found, as I expected, that this bed of clay extended under the moor also. It therefore seemed certain that some one had dug a hole in the vicinity, and on searching the moor I found the place. I took Sergeant Kent and a constable out, and the three of us re-opened the hole and found the body just as these gentlemen”---indicating the jury with a gesture---“have seen it.”

The police made no attempt to subdue the buzz of repressed though excited conversation which arose as French ceased speaking. The coroner was still laboriously writing down French’s statement, but he soon laid his pen down and spoke.

“You have made such a complete statement, Mr. French, that I have but little to ask you. There are just one or two small points upon which I should like further information,” and he went on to put his questions.

The coroner was a clever man and he played up well to the request of the police. To the public he continued to give the impression of a careful, painstaking official, laboriously trying to obtain all the facts in a difficult and complicated matter; in reality his questions were futile in every respect except that they directed attention away from the features of the case which the authorities wished kept secret. The result was that when he had finished and asked if any one else desired to put a question, all were convinced that there was no more to be learnt and embarrassing topics were avoided.

“Dr. Reginald Lingard!”

The tall, thin, ascetic looking man seated beside Philpot rose and went into the box. He deposed that he practised at Hellifield and was the police surgeon for the district.

“Now, Dr. Lingard,” began the coroner, “at the request of the authorities did you make a post-mortem examination of the remains of the late Mr. Markham Giles, upon which this inquest is being held?”

“That is so.”

“And did you ascertain the cause of death?”

“I did.”

“Will you tell the jury what that was.”

“The man died from shock following a large injection of cocaine.”

“But an injection of cocaine is surely not fatal?”

“Not under ordinary circumstances. But to a person suffering from myocarditis a large injection is inevitably so.”

Though the evidence of French ought to have prepared every one for such a dénouement, there was a gasp of surprise at this cold, precise statement. It was only a few minutes since Dr. Emerson had been heard to testify that he had given a certificate of death from heart disease without mention of cocaine, and that he had no doubt as to the correctness of his diagnosis. What, every one wondered, would Emerson say to this?

“I suppose, doctor, you have no doubt as to your conclusion?”

“None whatever.”

“Could this cocaine have been self administered?”

“Undoubtedly it could.”

“With what object?”

Dr. Lingard gave a slight shrug.

“It is universal knowledge that many persons are addicted to the drug. They take it because of its enjoyable temporary effects. It might have been taken with that motive in this instance, or it might have been taken with the knowledge that it would cause death.”

“You mean that Mr. Giles might have committed suicide?”

“From the medical point of view, yes.”

“Might it also have been administered by some other person?”


“With what object, Dr. Lingard?”

“It is not easy to say. Possibly in ignorance or through error or with a mistaken desire to give the patient ease, or possibly with the object of causing his death.”

“You mean that the action might have been wilful murder?”

“Yes, that is what I mean.”

Again a movement ran through the tense audience. The coroner frowned and paused for a moment, then resumed:---

“Do you know of any legitimate object---any legitimate object whatever---for which the cocaine might have been administered? Could it, for example, have been intended as a medicine or restorative?”

“I do not think so. In my opinion the drug could only have been administered in error, or with intent to kill.”

“Do you consider that the deadly nature of cocaine is known to the public? I mean, is that knowledge not confined to those with some medical training?”

“I think the danger to a weak or diseased heart is pretty generally known. Most people are aware that deaths have occurred by its use, for example, by dentists, and that for this reason it is now seldom employed as an anesthetic.”

The coroner slowly blotted his manuscript.

“Now, Dr. Lingard, injections are administered with a hypodermic syringe, are they not?”

“That is so.”

“Is there any other way in which they can be given?”


“Was such a syringe found in the present instance?”

Dr. Lingard did not know. He had examined the body only, not the house in which the death had occurred. The coroner turned to another point.

“Did the body show any sign of the injection having been forcibly administered?”

“No, but force sufficient to leave traces would not have been necessary.”

“Would death from this cause leave traces other than those ascertainable from a post-mortem?”

Dr. Lingard hesitated very slightly.

“I do not think so,” he answered. “If it did they would be very faint and it would be easy to overlook them.”

“Was Dr. Emerson at the post-mortem?”

“He was.”

“Have you anything else to tell us, anything which you think might throw further light on this extraordinary affair?”

No, Dr. Lingard had nothing, and Dr. Emerson was recalled. He declared emphatically that he had never had any suspicion that the deceased might have been addicted to the cocaine habit.

“You have heard the evidence the previous witness gave as to the cause of the deceased’s death. Do you from your present knowledge agree with his conclusions?”

“Completely,” Dr. Emerson answered. The man looked harassed and careworn, but his bearing remained dignified.

“Then how do you account for your certificate that death occurred from natural causes?”

Dr. Emerson made a gesture of helplessness.

“How can I account for it except in the one way?” he replied. “I was misled by the facts. I admit being in error, but I do not think that under the circumstances any doctor in the world would have acted otherwise than as I did.”

“Now, Dr. Emerson,” the coroner leaned forward and looked keenly at his witness, “tell me this. Did you really examine the body at all after death?”

“I certainly examined it. And I examined it with reasonable care, and neither then nor at any time since until I heard of this extraordinary development had I the slightest doubt that my certificate was incorrect.” He paused, then, as the coroner did not speak, went on again. “You will admit that under the circumstances the idea of murder was the last that would occur to any one. Five days earlier Dr. Philpot had seen the man: he was then at the point of death. He told me he expected to hear of his death at any moment. When I heard of it I went out and examined the body. It had all the appearance of death from myocarditis. Only a post-mortem could have told the difference: only a post-mortem did tell the difference. As you know a post-mortem is seldom held unless there is suspicion of foul play. In this case there was none. I deeply regret that I was misled, but I believe in all honesty that there is no one who would not have acted as I did under similar circumstances.”

The coroner bowed and turned to the jury.

“As Dr. Emerson has spoken so fully and frankly on this matter, I do not think that I am called upon to refer to it further. He no doubt realises how regrettable it was, for if suspicion had been aroused at the time instead of nine weeks later it might have made all the difference in capturing the criminal. In saying this I am not suggesting that blame attaches to him. Would any one like to ask Dr. Emerson any further question before he stands down?”

No one responded to the invitation, and Dr. Philpot was recalled. He deposed that he had never seen any indications of the cocaine habit about deceased, and he did not believe that considering the state of his heart he could have used it.

Sergeant Kent was then sworn. He said that on learning the result of the post-mortem he had proceeded to the deceased’s cottage and had there made a detailed search for cocaine or a hypodermic syringe, but without finding traces of either. The undertaker’s men, recalled, also declared that they had seen nothing of the kind while attending to the body.

There being no further witnesses the coroner made a short businesslike statement summing up the evidence. As to the cause of death, he said, there could be no doubt. The medical evidence was complete and undisputed. Deceased had died as the result of an injection of cocaine, which his diseased heart was unable to stand. That injection might or might not have been self-administered. The evidence of both doctors was that in their opinion the deceased was not a victim of the cocaine habit, and it was for the jury to consider the probability of his having used it in this instance. He would direct their attention to another point. Had the fatal dose been self-administered, the syringe must have remained on or beside the bed. It had not been found. Who then had removed it and why? On the other hand if the jury considered the dose had been given by some other person or persons, they must consider with what motive this had been done. If they believed a genuine error had been made they would return a verdict of death from misadventure, but if upon weighing all the circumstances they rejected the possibility of error they would return a verdict of wilful murder.

For nearly an hour the jury deliberated, and then they brought in the expected verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.

“You did that quite well,” Major Valentine assured French as the two men walked to the former’s car after the inquiry. “If Roper is alive and reads your evidence---and he is certain to do that if he is in the country---he will think he is safe and may start changing the notes. By the way, are you sure that Tarkington and that clerk of his won’t give you away about the numbers of the notes? Your evidence must have sounded peculiar to them.”

“I thought of that,” French answered, “and I saw them both and warned them. They’ll hold their tongues.”

“I suppose no one has been trying to get just that information out of them?”

“No, sir. I asked them that first thing, but no one had.”

Before Major Valentine left he discussed with French the steps that he would take to try to find out whether any one had disappeared at the time of the fire. The inquiry had already been made, but this time it was to be pressed much more energetically. At the same time the watch for the stolen notes was to be redoubled, and French undertook to arrange that a general memorandum on the subject would be sent to all the banks in the country.

A third line of research was suggested by the medical evidence, and this French and the major agreed to work jointly. The most searching inquiries were to be made for any one who had obtained or tried to obtain cocaine or a hypodermic syringe during a period of several weeks prior to the tragedy.

In addition to these three there was, of course, the most important and hopeful line of all, a direct search for Roper. French undertook to organise this with as little delay as possible.

After discussing the situation for nearly two hours the two men parted, hopeful that their several efforts would before long place the key of the mystery in their hands.