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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 02, 2023, 02:47:24 am

Title: 17: Concerning Wedding Rings
Post by: Admin on September 02, 2023, 02:47:24 am
“THIS morning about 10.30,” said the Chief Inspector, “we had a ’phone from Inspector Marshall of the Whitechapel District. He wanted to know whether we had had any recent reports of thefts of small jewellery, as he had come across some in connection with a scrap between two lightermen. It seems that about ten o’clock last night a constable on patrol heard cries coming from an entry off Cable Street, as if some one was being murdered. He ran down and found a man on the ground with another belabouring him furiously with his fists. The constable pulled the victor off, to find his opponent was little the worse. The fellow was really more frightened than hurt. The constable would have dismissed the affair with a good-humoured caution to both, had it not been that in the heat of the explanations the cause of the quarrel came out. The men had obtained some jewellery, which both claimed, and when the constable saw the stuff he didn’t wait for further discussion, but marched them both off to Divisional Headquarters. Marshall questioned them and reported their statements with his inquiry.

“The whole thing so far was purely commonplace, and if the jewellery had consisted of ordinary trinkets I should have thought no more about it. But the nature of the stuff tickled my fancy and I grew interested. You would hardly guess what they had. Wedding rings!”

“I certainly shouldn’t have guessed that, sir.”

“I don’t suppose you would. Well, that’s what they had. Thirty-nine wedding rings on a cord. They were all much of the same size and value. And there was not another ring. They were searched, but nothing else was found on them.

“Marshall, of course, asked them where they got them, and their answer was more interesting still. It appeared that the victor, James Gray, was the skipper of a Thames lighter and the vanquished, William Fuller, was his ‘crew.’ A third man was on board who looked after the engine, but he didn’t come into the affair. Gray stated that about 8.30 that same evening they were working empty down the river. They had left a cargo of Belgian coal at an up-river works and were running down to their moorings for the night. They usually stopped about six, but trouble with their engine had delayed them on this occasion. It was rather a dirty night, raining and very dark and blowing a little. Gray, the skipper, was at the helm and Fuller was forward acting as look-out. The third man was below at the engines. Just as they began to emerge from beneath the Tower Bridge Fuller heard a smack on the deck beside him. He looked down and in the light of some of the shore lamps saw some bright objects rolling about on the planks. On picking one up he was astonished to find it was a wedding ring. He began to search and found several others, but the skipper swore at him for not minding his job, and he had to let the remainder lie. When they reached their moorings he tried again, but Gray was curious and came forward and found a ring himself. Then they had a proper look with lanterns and recovered the thirty-nine. Immediately, as might be expected, a row broke out. Both men wanted the rings. Fuller said they had fallen beside him and he had found all but one or two, but Gray held that he was skipper and that anything that came on the ship was his. They had to bury the hatchet temporarily so as not to give away the secret to their engineer, but the quarrel broke out again ashore, Fuller’s cries attracting our man. What do you think of that, French? A good story, isn’t it?”

“Like a book, sir. Just a bit humorous too, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

There was a twinkle in Chief Inspector Mitchell’s eye as he continued:---

“Oh, you think so, do you? Well, anyhow, as I say, I was interested. The men’s mentality I found quite intriguing. I wondered how much imagination they had between them. Marshall described them as slow, unintelligent, bovine fellows. Now, such men could never have invented a tale like that. If they had been making it up they would have said they found a bag of rings in the street. The idea of wedding rings having been thrown over the parapet of the Tower Bridge just as they were passing beneath would only occur to men of imagination, and to have got all the details right would have involved a very considerable gift of invention as well. Do you see what I’m getting at, French? Their story shows too much imagination for their intelligences as described by Marshall, and therefore I am disposed to accept it.”

Chief Inspector Mitchell paused and looked at French as if expecting a comment.

“I follow you all right, sir, and what you say sounds reasonable to me. And yet it’s not very likely that any one would throw thirty-nine wedding rings into the Thames off the Tower Bridge, for I take it it was into the river and not on to the boat they were intended to go.”

“I should say undoubtedly.” Mitchell sat for a moment drumming with his fingers on his desk and looking thoughtfully out of the window. “You think the whole thing’s unlikely, do you? Perhaps you are right. And yet I don’t know. I think I can imagine circumstances in which a man might be very anxious to get rid of thirty-nine wedding rings. And what’s more, to throw them over the parapet of the Tower Bridge at 8.30 in the evening seems to me a jolly good way of getting rid of them. How would you have done it, French?”

French glanced at his superior in some surprise. He could not understand the other’s interest in this commonplace story of stolen rings. Still less could he understand why he had been interrupted in his useful and important work to come and listen to it. However, he realised that it would be tactless to say so.

“I don’t know, sir,” he answered slowly. “I suppose to throw ’em in the river would be the best way. But he should have seen there was nothing passing underneath.”

“Ah, now that is an interesting point also. But first, does anything else strike you?”

French looked wary.

“Just in what way, sir?”

“This. Suppose you want to throw a package into the river and you want to do it absolutely unobserved. Where will you do it?”

“I see what you mean, sir. That bridge at that time of night is about as deserted as any of the London bridges.”

“Exactly, that’s what I mean. There is evidence there of selection which would never strike a man like these bargees. But you say he ought to have seen the boat. Why should our unknown not have looked out for passing boats? I’ll tell you, I think. Though the bridge is comparatively deserted, it is not deserted. To look over the parapet far enough to see the water below would have attracted attention. A suicide might have been feared. Some officious person might have come forward. No, the unknown would simply chuck his parcel over without even turning his head, secure in the belief that even if by some miracle it was found, the contents would never be traced to him. Do you agree?”

“Seems quite sound, sir.”

“It may be sound or it may not,” Mitchell returned. “All that I have been saying to you may be the merest nonsense. But it shows, I think, that the story these men told may be true. The chances of its being true are sufficiently great to warrant investigation before they are charged with theft. You agree with that?”

This time French felt no doubt.

“Oh, yes, sir, I agree with that certainly. The men could not be convicted without going into their story.”

The Chief Inspector nodded as if he had at last reached the goal for which he had so long been aiming.

“That’s it, French. Now will you start in and do it?”

French stared.

“Me, sir?” he exclaimed as if unable to believe his ears. “Do you wish me to take it up?”

The other smiled satirically.

“I don’t know any one who could do it better.”

“And drop my present case?”

“Only temporarily,” the Chief assured him. “A day or so will make little difference to your own affair, and I have no one else to send on this one. Look into it and try and find out if any one dropped those rings off the bridge, and if so, who he was and why he did it. When you have done that you can go ahead with the Starvel affair.”

French was completely puzzled. This was very unlike the line the Chief usually took.

“Of course, sir, it’s what you say; but do you not think it is very urgent that this bank-note business be followed up while the trail is warm? Every day that passes will make it more difficult to get the truth.”

“That applies even more strongly to this other affair. But it has the advantage of probably being a shorter inquiry. With luck you can finish it off to-morrow, and if so, that will delay the larger case only very slightly.”

French saw that whatever might be the Chief’s motive, he had made up his mind.

“Very good, sir,” he returned. “I’ll go down to Whitechapel at once and get started.”

“Right, I wish you would.”

French was conscious of not a little exasperation as he walked to Charing Cross and there took an eastward bound train. A few hours might make all the difference between success and failure in the Starvel case, and here he was turned on to this other business during the very period when it was most important he should be on his own job. He could not understand what was at the back of the Chief Inspector’s mind. Apparently he suspected a crime, though what crime he had in view French could not imagine. Marshall could have dealt with ordinary petty theft. But if Mr. Mitchell suspected a serious crime and if, as he said, no other officer was available to investigate the affair, his attitude would be explained.

But whether it were explained or not orders were orders, and French with an effort switched his mind off John Roper and on to lightermen and wedding rings. On arrival at Divisional Headquarters he saw Inspector Marshall and heard his account of the affair, which was almost word for word that of the Chief Inspector’s.

“I don’t know what the Chief’s got in his mind,” French grumbled. “Here was I on that Starvel case and on a hot scent too, and why he should switch me off on to this affair I can’t see. He’s got some bee in his bonnet about it. He believes these fellows’ yarn and he wants me to find the man who threw the rings over.”

Marshall made noises indicative of surprise and sympathy. “I shouldn’t have thought the Chief Inspector would have stood for that dope,” he remarked. “What are you going to do about it?”

French didn’t exactly know. He supposed he had better hear the men’s story for himself, though, of course, after his colleague had examined them his doing so would be only a matter of form to satisfy the Chief. Then he would think over the affair and try to plan his next move.

But rather to his own surprise, French found himself considerably impressed by the two men’s personalities and the way they told their story. Both were heavy and slow-witted and, French judged, without any imagination at all, and both seemed reasonably honest. After he had questioned them he felt very much inclined to accept his Chief’s view and to believe the tale.

“You say you found the rings by the light of a hand lamp,” he went on presently. “Very good. Come along down with me to this boat of yours and we’ll have another look by daylight. Perhaps you missed a few.”

The men didn’t think so, but they were very willing to do anything which got them out of the police station. They led the two inspectors to the dirtiest wharf that French had ever seen, and there hailing a man in a wherry, the four were put aboard the Thames lighter Fickle Jane.

She was a long low craft more like a canal boat than a lighter. Nine-tenths of her was hold, but at one end there was a tiny fo’csle and at the other an equally diminutive engine-room. She was steered by a small wheel aft.

“Now,” French said to the “crew,” “go and stand just where you were when the rings came down.”

Fuller moved to the fo’csle and took up a position on the port side of the companion.

“And where did the rings strike?”

“Couldn’t just say to a foot, guv’nor,” the man answered, “but abaht that there bolt ’ead or maybe a bit forra’d.”

The point he indicated was starboard of the companion and mid-way between it and the side of the boat. French saw that objects falling at that point might scatter in any direction, and he began a careful search for further rings.

In less than a minute he found one. It had rolled down along the strip of deck at the side of the hold and jammed itself in a crack of the coaming timbers.

This discovery seemed to French to prove the men’s story completely. He took their addresses and told them they were free and that if the owner of the rings could not be found they would be returned to them. He wanted them, however, to come up with him to the Tower Bridge and show him the exact point at which the incident had occurred, but for this they would be paid.

He was frankly puzzled as he stood looking over the parapet of the bridge after Gray and Fuller had gone. As far as he could see there was absolutely nothing in the nature of a clue to the person he sought. The rings were probably stolen, but not, he imagined, from a jeweller. Rather, he pictured some street row in which a hawker had been relieved of his stock-in-trade. Though, if this had been done, he could not imagine why the stock should have been thrown away.

There were, of course, some obvious steps to be taken, but French hesitated over them because he did not think any of them could bring in useful information. However, he couldn’t stand there all day, and he might as well get on with all the lines of inquiry that suggested themselves.

First, he called at the Yard and arranged that any constables who had been on patrol duty on or near the Tower Bridge at 8.30 the previous evening should be found and sent to him for interrogation. Then with the rings in his pocket he went to a small jeweller’s shop in the Strand, of which he knew the proprietor.

“I want your help, Mr. Alderdice,” he said as they shook hands in the little private room at the back of the shop. “I’m trying to find some one who amuses himself by throwing wedding rings into the Thames,” and he told his story, concluding: “Now I wondered if you could tell me anything about these rings which would help me. Have you heard of any thefts of rings? Is there any way of identifying or tracing these? Might they be sold by a hawker, or would they be more probably from a jeweller’s shop? Any information that you could give me would be most gratefully received.”

Mr. Alderdice, a precise, dried-up little man, rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“Well, you know, Mr. French,” he said, “I don’t believe that I can think of anything in my trade about which I could give you less help. There are, as you know, millions of wedding rings in this city alone, and they are all more or less alike. In fact, sir, you might as well try to identify a given nail in an ironmonger’s bin. I don’t think it’s possible. Needless to say though, I’ll do what I can. Let me see the rings.”

He took the bunch, nattily untied the knot on the cord which held them, and taking the rings one by one, examined each carefully.

“They are all of eighteen carat gold,” he said in the manner of an expert pronouncing a deliberate judgment. “They are fairly well the same size and thickness and would sell from thirty to thirty-five shillings each, according to weight. I do not know much about the hawkers you refer to, but I should imagine that they would content themselves with a rather inferior article, and that these rings were sold by reputable jewellers. I have not heard of any cases of robbery of such rings. I do not see how you or any one else could trace their sales, but of course that is speaking from my point of view: you gentlemen from the Yard have a wonderful way of finding out things.”

French made a grimace. “I’m afraid my job’s not very hopeful,” he bewailed as he thanked his friend and took his leave.

He walked slowly back to the Yard, thinking intently. This was one of those hateful jobs in which you had to work from the general; to deal with the whole of the possible sources of information concerned. He would now have to apply to all the jewellers’ shops in London---a tremendous job. How much he preferred working from the particular! In that case, to complete the parallel, he would get a clue which would lead to the one shop or group of shops he required. But here the situation was reversed. He would have to deal with all jewellers, and he did not know exactly what he was to ask them.

He made several drafts and at last produced a circular which he considered satisfactory. In it he said that the Yard desired to trace a person who had got rid of forty wedding rings on the night of Monday, 6th December, of which the particulars were as followed, and that he would be obliged for any information which might help. In particular he wished to know whether any wedding rings had disappeared or been stolen recently. Failing that he would be grateful for the description as far as it could be ascertained, of all persons who had bought wedding rings within the previous four days, with the date and approximate hour of the purchase. Replies, which would be treated as entirely confidential, were to be sent to Inspector French at New Scotland Yard.

He set some men to work with directories to find out the addresses of jewellers in London and made arrangements to have the necessary copies of his circular prepared and delivered. Then he organised a staff to deal with the replies when they came in. Finally, having cleared his conscience with regard to the rings episode, he returned to his work on the bank-note case, picking up the thread at the point at which he had left off.

By next morning several hundred answers to his circular had been received and others were arriving continuously. Reluctantly he gave up the bank-note question and went to his office to have a look over them.

In accordance with his instructions, his staff had prepared a statement to which they added the information given in each reply. One column they had headed “Robberies and Disappearance of rings,” and a glance down this showed French that none such had occurred. In a number of other columns they had put information about purchasers. These columns were headed with certain details of appearance, such as estimated age---over or under thirty, forty-five and sixty; tall, medium and short, dark and fair, with and without glasses, and so on. By this means it became possible to determine whether the same person might have dealt in more than one shop.

There were a great many columns and comparatively few entries in each, and of those in the same column nearly all were distinguished by differences in other columns. Of course the vast number of the descriptions were vague and incomplete and most of the shops recorded purchases in connection with which the assistants could recall nothing of the purchaser. But this was only to be expected, and French worked with such results as he could get.

Of the 631 replies entered up, French gradually eliminated 625. The remaining six he examined more carefully, whistling gently as he did so. They were all under the general divisions, “Homburg hat,” “fawn coat,” “dark,” “with moustache,” and “with glasses.” But this in itself conveyed little. It merely indicated a possibility. But when he found that four of the six shops were in the same street and that the purchases in all four had been made on the same day and at almost the same hour, his interest suddenly quickened. French considered that the matter was worth a personal call, and leaving the Yard, he drove to the first of the six and asked to see the manager.

“We’re very sorry to have given you all this trouble,” he began as he produced the reply they had sent in, “but the matter is really important. This may be possibly the man we want. Could I see the assistant who attended to him?”

In a few seconds a Mr. Stanley was produced and French asked him to repeat his description of his customer.

“I remember the man quite clearly, sir,” Stanley answered. “He had very dark hair and a thick, dark moustache and dark glasses. He wore a soft, gray Homburg hat and a fawn-coloured coat.”

“It is a pleasure to deal with you, Mr. Stanley,” French smiled. “You are certainly very observant. Now tell me, how do you come to remember the man so clearly?”

“I don’t think there was any special reason, sir. Unless it was that I happened to look out of the window and saw him get out of a taxi, and that sort of fixed my attention on him. The taxi waited while he was in the shop and he got into it again and drove off when he had bought the ring.”

This was very satisfactory. If the customer was really the man French wanted, here was a clue and a valuable one. To find the taxi which had stopped at the shop at a given time on the previous day should not be difficult. He continued his questions.

“At what hour was that?”

“About half-past eleven,” the salesman said after some thought. “I couldn’t say for sure, but it was about an hour before I went for dinner and that was at half-past twelve.”

“He didn’t seem at all agitated, I suppose?”

“No, sir. Not more than most of them.” Stanley smiled knowingly, and French felt that only for the sobering presence of the manager a wink would have conveyed the man’s thought. “Most of them are a bit, shall we say, nervous. But this man was just the same as the rest. He gave a size and said he wanted a medium weight, and that was all that passed.”

French nodded, and reverting to the description, tried for some further details with which to augment it. Though he had complimented Stanley on it, he realised that as it stood it was of little use. But the young man was unable to improve on his former effort and French was about to thank the two men and leave the shop when Stanley chanced to drop a phrase which sent the detective into a white heat of excitement and made him marvel at Chief Inspector Mitchell’s perspicacity and his own obtuseness.

“And there was nothing in the slightest degree out of the ordinary in the whole transaction, no matter how trivial?” he had asked as a sort of general finale to his catechism, more as a matter of form than because he hoped to gain any information, and it was in reply that the assistant, after saying: “No, sir, I don’t think so,” had pronounced the priceless words: “Unless you would call changing a large note out of the ordinary. The man hadn’t enough loose change to make up the thirty-five shillings and he asked me to change a twenty-pound note.”

“What!” roared French with a delighted oath, springing to his feet in his excitement. So that was it! He saw it all now! Like a flash this whole mysterious business of the wedding rings became clear as day. And the Chief had guessed! Moreover the Chief had given him a broad hint and he, like the ass that he was, had missed its meaning! He sat down and wiped his forehead.

Who was this mysterious individual, this dark-haired man with moustache and glasses, but Roper! Roper it was who had been going about buying wedding rings, and Roper it was who naturally found that he must get rid of such incriminating purchases at the earliest possible moment. The whole thing was clear! For every ring a £20 note, a tainted £20 note, a £20 note from Mr. Averill’s wrecked safe up at Starvel. And for every £20 note got rid of over £18 of good, clean, untraceable money brought in. It was a scheme, a great scheme, worthy of the man who had devised the crime as a whole.

As these thoughts passed through his mind French saw that the fact that the elusive purchaser had a moustache and glasses while Roper wore neither by no means invalidated his conclusion, but rather strengthened it. To a person of Roper’s mental calibre a moustache would appear one of the best of disguises, while a man with a squint had practically no option but to wear tinted glasses if he wished to preserve his incognito. From disgust at his job French had suddenly swung round to enthusiasm. He had not now the faintest doubt that some forty-eight hours earlier, Roper, alive and in the flesh, had been in that very shop, having dealings with the salesman, Stanley. And then came the delightful thought that with so fresh a trail and with such a multiplicity of clues, the man’s capture was a question of a very short time only. The steps to be taken were obvious, and the first was to find the taxi-man who had driven him round. This must be put in hand without delay.

He crushed down his impatience and turned once more to his companions, who had been regarding him with not a little surprise.

“That is important information you have just given me, Mr. Stanley,” he declared. “Now can you tell me if this is the man?” He handed over one of Roper’s photographs.

And then his enthusiasm received a check. The salesman looked doubtfully at the card and shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I couldn’t just be sure. It’s like him and it’s not like him, if you understand what I mean. The man who came here had a moustache.”

“A false one,” French suggested.

The other brightened up.

“My word, but it might have been,” he exclaimed. “I noticed it looked queer, now I come to think of it. It was very thick and long; thicker and longer than you generally see. And what you might call fuzzy round the top. Not like a real moustache. Yes, sir, I believe you’re right. It looked just like a wad of hair set on.”

French laid a scrap of paper over the mouth.

“Now look “again.”

Once more Stanley shook his head.

“No, sir, it’s no good. I couldn’t say for sure. You see that photograph shows his hair and his forehead and his eyes. Well, I didn’t see any of those. He had tinted glasses and he wore his hat low down near his eyebrows. I couldn’t tell. It might have been him and it might not.”

“Well, if you can’t you can’t, and that’s all there is to it. Now another point. Have you the twenty-pound note?”

The manager disappeared, returning in a moment with a handful of money.

“Here are seven twenty-pound notes: all of that value we hold,” he explained. “I cannot tell you certainly whether that paid in by your friend is among them; but it probably is, as the cashier thinks she did not give such a note in change and no lodgment was made at the bank since the sale.”

Eagerly French compared the numbers of the seven with those on his list, but this time he had no luck. If one of these had come from Starvel it was one of which Tarkington had not retained the number.

In spite of this French was certain that he had discovered the truth. But he felt that before acting on his theory he must put it to the proof. Fortunately there was a very obvious way of doing so. If he traced another sale and found that another £20 note had been tendered, no further doubt could possibly remain.

Pausing only to ascertain from the salesman that his customer had spoken with a Scotch accent, French hurried down the street to the next address on his list. There he had a somewhat different question to put to the manager. He was looking for a man who had within the last three or four days bought a wedding ring and who had paid for it with a £20 note. No, the manager need not be apprehensive. The note was good and the whole business in order: it was simply a question of tracing the man.

Inquiries speedily produced the desired information. A Mr. Russell was sent for who had sold the ring in question. He remembered the purchaser, a slightish man of medium height with a heavy black moustache, a sallow complexion and tinted glasses. Owing to the latter he had not noted the colour of the man’s eyes, but he had observed that his hair was long and very dark and that his hands were small. He thought the man might be the original of the photograph, but he could not be sure. When the bill had been made out the man had searched his pockets and had been unable to produce sufficient change. He had said: “I’m afraid I’m short: I thought I had another ten-shilling note. Can you change twenty pounds?” The salesman had replied, “Certainly, sir,” and the man had handed over a £20 note. Both the salesman and the cashier had examined it carefully and both were satisfied it was genuine. Unfortunately it had since been paid away and they could not therefore produce it.

This information resolved French’s last doubt and he hailed a taxi and ordered the man to hurry to the Yard. He was more than delighted with his day. At long last he was on a hot trail. With the vast resources of the C.I.D. at his disposal it could not now be long before he had his hands on the criminal of Starvel and had accomplished that triumph which was to be another milestone on the road which led to promotion.