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Chapter Seventeen

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« on: May 22, 2023, 12:28:48 pm »

TO some extent Macdonald had forestalled the criticism he anticipated from Colonel Wragley and the inevitable question, “What tangible evidence have you against Rockingham?” by having written up a series of notes concerning his own observations and deductions, which, while mainly theoretical and tentative, had led him to his project of rattling up his private suspect in the hope of making him show his hand.

Macdonald admitted that he had formulated no fewer than five theories as to the possible originators of the Belfry crime, the last of which proved to have been the right one.

(1) The obvious reading of the evidence was that Debrette, having blackmailed Attleton, killed him at the Belfry. Theory disproved (to Macdonald’s mind) by Debrette’s inexplicable foolishness in showing his face with the identifying beard after the murder had taken place, when Debrette knew that he had been seen by three people who could both describe and identify him.

(2) That Grenville, some of whose evidence was uncorroborated, killed Attleton. Theory disproved by the fact that no weapon was found on him or near him at Dowgate Wharf by which the blow that laid him out could have been self-administered, assuming that he had first killed Debrette.

(3) That Burroughs, acting in conjunction with Sybilla, killed Attleton, disproved by the fact that Burroughs was under detention when Debrette and Grenville were found at Dowgate.

(4) That Burroughs and Weller acted in conjunction, and Sybilla manœuvred Weller’s accident, Elizabeth Leigh being also involved.

(5) That Rockingham killed Attleton, and also found time to conceal his body in the Belfry while, according to his passport, he was in France and not in England.

Macdonald’s theorising, in all cases based on the evidence he had culled, was equally elaborate for all five reconstructions, but in the case of Rockingham he hit the nail on the head with a very shrewd guess which turned out to be accurate.

Motive. Inheritance of the Marsham fortune, whose existence was learnt by Attleton from young Alice, the information being passed on by him to Rockingham. This involved the assumption that Rockingham was the grandson of Mary Anne Brossé (née Marsham). It also involved something else, to Macdonald’s mind---the possibility that Debrette was also Madame Brossé’s grandson and senior to Rockingham in succession. The Chief Inspector considered that the two crimes of Attleton’s death and Debrette’s were originally meant to have been more confused, as the identification of Attleton’s body must have seemed very improbable to the murderer.

At this stage in Macdonald’s elaboration of his own previously written up notes, Colonel Wragley took off his glasses and asked for further enlightenment as to the Chief Inspector’s reasoning, and Macdonald replied:

“Rockingham argued thus, it seemed to me. The body was so well concealed that it was highly improbable that it would be discovered until his own time-bomb (to call it so) caused the fire. After the fire the identification of the body might have been impossible, and it thus left two possibilities---that Debrette killed Attleton or vice versa, but neither could have been regarded as a claimant to the fortune since a murderer cannot profit by his crime. If things had gone according to plan, Debrette would doubtless have vanished and never have been seen again, leaving another unsolved mystery. When I suggested to Rockingham that Attleton’s masseur could identify his body, Rockingham was horrified to the verge of fainting, perhaps by horror at the whole story---or perhaps by seeing his plans go awry.”

“The whole thing is so demented that its ingenuity staggers me,” groaned Colonel Wragley, and Macdonald went on:

“Rockingham was a dramatist, sir. Hence his ingenuity, but he was also a bit demented to think he could bring it off---but he very nearly did. It was Debrette’s beard . . .”

“Yes, yes, yes. I’m sick of that beard!” snapped Wragley. “Having assumed a motive---and it appears you were right, according to Rockingham’s confession, though you had no business to be, you might tell me, in short words of three letters, how he pulled it off.”

Macdonald, disregarding the implied official criticism of his report, settled to work:

“Rockingham, more astute than most murderers, undertook an impersonation of a man who really existed, and who was to be involved in the crime. Owing to the nature of his household, living without a resident servant, he could absent himself from home without raising comment or having his absence observed. He took the lease of the Belfry, made up as Debrette, and it is obvious how a wig and beard, and dark make-up, added to the glasses, would alter that bald-headed fresh-faced appearance of his. During all this time he managed to keep in touch with his cousin Debrette, and supplied him with money to lie low, probably with the additional promise of a part in a future play. The identity thus established, and the scene set at the Belfry, having telephoned to Attleton on some blackmailing charge frequently enough to have become a known nuisance, Rockingham had finished his first act. Doubtless he bothered Attleton through some knowledge of the latter’s indiscretions which he acquired in his Fidus Achates character. It was obvious that Rockingham, as Attleton’s most intimate friend, would have had opportunities of knowing his life and habits . . .”

“Undoubtedly,” said Wragley. “I pass Act One. It doubtless included the letter to Mrs. Attleton and the copy of the unfixed snapshot---a neat idea, that. Convincing but fugitive.”

“Very neat,” agreed Macdonald. “On the day fixed for the murder, Rockingham got Attleton to telephone to him from Victoria and induced him to go to Charing Cross, possibly with the bait of bowling out the blackmailing Debrette. They both went to the Belfry from Charing Cross (in a car procured by Rockingham) and Attleton was murdered there. Rockingham then locked the place securely, and went to Calais by the afternoon boat, using the passport I saw on his desk at The Small House.”

“Have you proved this passport business yet?” asked Wragley.

“Yes, sir,” replied Macdonald. “Sufficiently well to justify our assumption.”

“Yours,” corrected Wragley, and smiled at last.

“It is very difficult to tamper with the dates on a passport,” went on Macdonald, “however neatly done it always shows on examination. Neither is it easy to obtain a second passport under a false name, despite popular belief in that strategy. Yet if Rockingham went to France and returned immediately, he must have had a second passport under which to mask his activities. He could have obtained one by stating to the passport office that the one he held was lost or destroyed by accident. This is a not infrequent occurrence, and the passport office issues a new one to reputable persons in such circumstances. Quite simple, when you think it out. Rockingham left England on Wednesday, March 18th, using one passport. He returned immediately, using the second, went to the Belfry, completed his exceedingly nasty plans for concealing the body---and showed himself in the character of Debrette to Grenville. The next day he returned to France using passport number two and stayed there until the following Thursday, when he returned openly on official passport number one, and roused the alarm through the medium of Grenville, on the principle that the man who goes to the police is the last to be expected of double dealing.”

“His whole plan shows an effrontery which simply passes belief,” said Colonel Wragley, and Macdonald agreed, but qualified his agreement by adding:

“His plan, though complicated, was so thorough that he very nearly succeeded. The evidence pointed most strongly to Debrette, and once Debrette was silenced there was no direct evidence against Rockingham. It was all presumptive, and if he hadn’t lost his nerve at the end, I doubt if he would ever have been convicted. If you, sir, are hardly willing to believe it, now that Rockingham has confessed to the two crimes on his death-bed, I doubt if any jury would have believed the case against him when it was riddled by a strong counsel. We could have proved the possibility of his guilt, but it would have taken us a very long time to get chapter and verse. The whole matter of his Brossé descent is complicated. His mother, Marie Antoinette Brossé, married a South African named de Haan---a British subject. This de Haan changed his name to Rockingham, quite legally, by deed poll, and our Neil Rockingham was born in England, the son of two respectable British subjects. It seems probable that all the time Rockingham knew Attleton, he never gave away his knowledge of their relationship. It was only of recent years that Rockingham could have ascertained the fortune which he believed would pass to the nearest heir, and he then took steps to eliminate those standing between him and that enviable position. Nothing more can be proved about the deaths of Attleton’s brother and Anthony Fell. For all we shall ever know, Attleton himself may have been involved in them---in which case he had a very real fear of blackmail in the matter of the mysterious Debrette.”

“Yet so far as I can see, Rockingham confused the issue so completely by his complications that I fail to see how he could eventually have profited,” argued Wragley. “If his scheme had gone through there would have been no proof that Attleton was dead.”

“I think that would have been substantiated later,” replied Macdonald. “Some time or other Attleton’s head will be discovered to put the seal on that problem---the dramatist’s curtain---and eventually Neil Rockingham would have discovered, to his intense surprise, that his grandmother was Mary Anne Brossé, née Marsham. If Debrette had been convicted of Attleton’s death, Rockingham would have felt quite secure.”

Macdonald paused here, adding:

“It was, from my point of view, a very difficult case, because it was my own reasoning which led me to the conclusion that Debrette, on whose body the Brossé Missal was found, had been responsible for Attleton’s death in order to inherit the Marsham fortune. If I had immediately concentrated on proving Debrette’s Brossé descent, I should only have strengthened the chain of reasoning which I felt was too good to be true. The business of the assault on Grenville could be explained in two ways, of which the first was the simpler---that Debrette tried to kill Grenville because the latter could identify him as the tenant of the Belfry. On the other hand was the supposition that Grenville was attacked and left for dead because he could state that the real Debrette, examined at leisure and at close quarters, was not the man he had seen at the Belfry.

“Rockingham aimed for a rapid double when he knocked Grenville over the head, and threw the unfortunate Streaky Beaver into the river with one of the famous Louis de Vallon de Brette letters in his pocket. Yet I had no positive evidence on which to arrest Rockingham---simply a balance of probabilities, and, on the face of it, Debrette seemed a far likelier suspect. I wanted to shake Rockingham up and get him to show his hand, so I tried the effect of two stimulants. I asked him if Attleton had ever lost his passport and obtained a new one on that account, thereby showing him that my mind was running in the right direction so far as his own activities were concerned, and I also assured him that Grenville was recovering rapidly and might be questioned quite shortly. I doubted if, assuming that he was guilty, he would have the nerve to sit quiet and do nothing in face of those two snags. Even though there is an obliging lady in Paris ready to swear to Rockingham’s residence with her for the period during which he was busy with his criminal schemes, the sum total of possessing a second passport, and of outfacing the man he left for dead at Dowgate Wharf, were too much for his optimism.”

“And Rockingham counted among his accomplishments the ability to write a continental hand, and to disguise his voice under a foreign accent?”

“Undoubtedly---but his mother was an Alsatian, and probably taught him his letters. That could be assumed from the original argument that he was of Brossé stock.”

“It was a pity he didn’t use his talents on the stage and leave real life melodrama alone,” said Wragley dryly.

“He had a criminal mind and a dramatist’s facility for plotting,” replied Macdonald. “It was not over-acting, but over-planning, that gave him away. Many murderers have repeated their technique. Rockingham wanted room for his very subtle mind to have full play.”

It was several weeks later that Macdonald was allowed his first long talk with Robert Grenville. The latter, regarded almost as a star turn exhibit by the hospital authorities for having recovered when death seemed inevitable, was still lean and wan of face, but surprisingly full of spirits when Macdonald went to see him. (The latter had seen Miss Elizabeth Leigh departing from Grenville’s room before he entered it, and guessed that Grenville would be feeling cheerful.)

“Hullo, Long-in-the-Jaw,” said Grenville blithely, “I want to get my bit said quickly so that I can shoot questions at you. You can guess most of it, and don’t say ‘Mugs will be mugs’ because I know it. Old Neil R. rang me up five minutes after he’d left my digs that evening, saying, ‘Can you come quickly? I’m at Cannon Street Station. I’ve been following Elizabeth. God knows what she’s doing. Sybilla Attleton’s just passed me, and I want to go and look at that damned wharf. I don’t trust things. Straight down Dowgate Hill . . .’ He rang off there. My God, I went! I jumped on a bus as it passed, and I hared down Dowgate Hill to the wharf at about fifty per. I passed old Neil R. just before I saw the Thames—and that’s all I know about it. Well, I ask you, what would you have done?”

“Don’t ask me. I’m no expert at these crises du cœur. I’ll give Rockingham top marks for being a quick worker. After he’d settled you and Debrette, I suppose he rushed off in his car and parked it somewhere, and picked up a Number thirteen bus as per programme. Well, thanks for living through it, thick head. I should have been sadly cramped in style if you’d passed out before I picked you up.”

“Hi, you blighter, don’t you think you’re going before you’ve told me all the jolly details,” complained Grenville. “What about poor old fat-face---Thomas Burroughs. What was his to-do about?”

“Oh, just an invitation to hold the baby, by a dramatist who had a sense of detail. After all, Burroughs looked a likely runner-up at one time. Motive, and all that. Calculated to take our mind off other and more pressing details. There’s a touch of pathos about the hole into which the unfortunate Mr. Burroughs found himself. I asked him for details of his parentage, lineage and so forth, and he declined to oblige with a noise and fury which seemed to indicate something. Our researches unearthed the appalling fact that he is a Jew. His father’s name was originally Levi. Mrs. Attleton, it appears, loathes Jews, and Thomas knew it. He was willing to spend several more nights in his unpleasing cell rather than own up to his race.”

“Well, I’m jiggered! To think of the dirt he ate while Sybilla reviled his forefathers and kinsmen to the third and fourth generation! I say, don’t tell her. Let her marry him and then find out. I never could stick the woman.”

“I never disliked any one more in my life,” rejoined Macdonald, “but prejudices are no good in my job. I liked Rockingham to begin with. He seemed a pleasant, sound principled, rather nervous old stick-in-the-mud.”

“My God, he was a cold-blooded horror! When he tied my head up that night in the Belfry he told me he had once studied medicine----”

“Yes. You told me so. That suggested he might have acquired some skill in dissection---and he needed it. Of course it was obvious from the first that he was a ‘contact’---as you were. The two of you might have cooked the whole thing. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Debrette had been seen at The Knight Templar I should have been disposed to believe that you and Rockingham had invented him.”

“I know,” replied Grenville soberly. “You never really believed I found that suitcase in situ, did you?”

“I doubted it,” admitted Macdonald, “as I doubted the story of the poltergeist which hit you over the head in the Belfry when you and Rockingham were first together there. I suppose that he staged a Heath-Robinson booby-trap with bits of string---one round the meter for putting the lights out, and one to organise the fall of the easel across the door---into which you butted at full tilt, and knocked yourself silly so that you couldn’t tell how-from-what. Your various vicissitudes all added to the complications. I’ve known too many guilty people who’ve got themselves attacked under suspicious circumstances to view such accidents in a really nice spirit.”

“Thanks for loving sympathy,” growled Grenville. “When did you leave off suspecting me and turn your attention to Rockingham?”

“Asked the journalist intelligently,” said Macdonald. “My dear wooden-head, I suspected all of you, every one, from first to last. It seemed to me that you’d cooked up a beautiful lot of fool-proof evidence and handed it to me on a salver. That’s what put me in a bad temper all through this case---I was simply busy picking up the bits you’d buried for me. I won’t mention Debrette’s beard again---it got my superior officer’s goat---but I did refuse to believe that old balmy Barbler Debrette had had the brains and gumption to put the thing through. He’d been used by somebody---appearance and all. You, living off Fleet Street, might have known of him. Mrs. Attleton might have seen him tagging round stage-doors. Rockingham, as a dramatist, might have come across him, impersonated him, and paid him to lie low. I don’t expect Rockingham ever thought Streaky Beaver would break his contract and show his beard at Charing Cross at a crucial moment---but Streaky Beaver was for it, anyhow, after he’d been used. Rockingham must have made an appointment with poor Streaky to meet him at Dowgate at the same time that you obliged and went running. What you call a quick right and left, and home again. Rockingham did you a good turn when he hung the cosh on poor Streaky’s arm. Look here, it’s time you went to sleep again. You’re looking wuzzy.”

“All right, nursie. Then Weller’s accident was just a trip on the stairs and no more?”

“I take it so. He’s resigned his job. Wise man.”

“And what on earth was Rockingham’s idea in putting that spoof call from Attleton over you?”

“Mainly mystification, but I think he hoped to confuse the issue as to who killed who, and tie us up in knots that way. I am certain that his original plan involved the deaths of Attleton and Debrette without either body being identifiable until he wished it.”

“Clever devil!”

“Yes. Too clever. There’s one other little point which may serve to point a moral in case you ever think of insinuating yourself into the position of sole heir to a fortune. The Old Soldier is still alive, and good for a few more years they think. When he was eighty he married young Alice---and made a will leaving his all to her. He’s never acknowledged her as his wife before the world, but his wife she is. Rather a good ending to the story. She showed me her marriage lines with tears in her eyes. She really loves him!---and to think of the lovely story I concocted one night on the grounds that she was married to Weller, and that they were all in the game together. Which reminds me. Send me some wedding cake later---and good luck to you!”


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