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Chapter Fifteen

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« on: July 04, 2023, 10:18:36 am »

“THE problem was complicated further by the fact that I had no means of telling what your behaviour indicated, Mr. Brook,” said Macdonald, and his quiet voice made the osteopath smile.

Macdonald and Brook and Falkland were all sitting in the garden at White Gables, where they had met by Macdonald’s invitation to hear the details of the story whose dramatic ending had come so suddenly on those very lawns two evenings ago.

“Yes. On that point I had the advantage of you, Chief Inspector,” replied Brook. “I knew that I wasn’t the culprit---and I guessed pretty early on that Lee Gordon was, as you probably did yourself. It seemed to me that he could be made to give himself away because he had a weak point in his make-up. Once he had indicated his own weakness, I just pegged away at him, being certain that he’d do something stupid eventually.”

“Don’t you think, from the point of view of mere common sense that you would have been better advised to confide your suspicions to the police?” inquired Macdonald, but Brook retorted with energy,

“I certainly do not. If I had started uttering suspicions about one of my fellow suspects you’d have been even more certain than you were already that I was the guilty party.” He leaned forward, a light shining in his sombre dark eyes. “You don’t know what it feels like to be suspected of murder by the police for the second time in your life,” he said fiercely. “I’m not afraid of death, nor of being attacked by a murderer out after my own life; I’m not even afraid of being hanged, if you’d get it over quickly, without the long-drawn-out and horrible preambles to the hangman’s office, but, by God, I am afraid of that slow process of question and suspicion and getting caught in invisible, intangible toils. You talk about common sense,” he went on fiercely. “Common sense indicated that I should sit still and do nothing---except answer your questions! I tell you I couldn’t do it. I had to do something---if it was only pitting my wits against that cunning fellow of yours who was forever on my heels. I didn’t care if you suspected me when I knew that I was doing something, getting nearer to an end which I knew would come, even though I couldn’t analyze every strand in the rope.”

“Look here! Say if you let the Chief Inspector tell the story in short words of three letters,” protested Falkland. “I’m still moithered over it, and I want the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. Psychology isn’t my long suit. I bid on ascertainable values every time.”

“Yes. I think you do---unlike Brook,” replied Macdonald, his eyes surveying the pair of them with quiet interest. “Well---to get down to brass tacks. You’re both acquainted with the original facts so well that I needn’t restate them. We can pick up the threads when my department was first called in. Presumably, according to the obvious reading, Mrs. Anderby had murdered several people, including her husband, and had then committed suicide. That made a straightforward case, with cause and effect neatly linked---but there was another way of looking at it---especially after Dr. Chenner’s remains had been exhumed and the cause of his death proved.”

“I don’t follow that,” said Falkland. “The fact that Chenner was poisoned by hyoscine would have indicated the ex-maternity nurse to my mind very clearly.”

“So clearly that the method and explanation were suspect,” replied Macdonald. “Remember this. Mr. Anderby died, and it was reasonable to suppose that his death was due to murder, but the method used was so subtle that it was untraceable. He died of heart failure.”

Falkland groaned. “Shades of poor old Grendon!” he said, and Macdonald went on,

“If Mrs. Anderby had been capable of thinking out a means to dispose of her husband so subtle that it defied detection I don’t think she would have risked using such a traceable poison in the case of Dr. Chenner. She was his nurse, and a very weak, elderly patient is entirely at the mercy of a nurse. You have only got to use a very little imagination to envisage means of causing death quite safely. However, all that was arguable. One point which was not arguable, and which could be accepted as fact, was that some individual, representing himself as the police, had made inquiries at Dr. Chenner’s house previous to the latter’s death. No police inquiry was made---and those facts spoke volumes. Some fraudulent person was busying himself in the matter, and it was possible to risk the following hypothesis: the man who made those inquiries gained access to Dr. Chenner’s rooms and poisoned him by a drug which, if it had been discovered immediately, would have brought certain suspicion on his nurse and conceivably ended by getting her hanged.”

“Look here,” put in Brook. “Wasn’t it a bit odd that Nurse Pewsey didn’t suspect that he had been poisoned?”

“I think it’s quite probable that she did suspect it,” replied Macdonald, “and that she was frightened out of her life. She knew that many people disliked her and realized that her chances looked pretty poor. Anyway, she kept quiet and nothing was suspected. Of course, I’m only giving an opinion, and I may be quite wrong, but that’s my own reading. If Nurse Pewsey had had the courage to speak out after Dr. Chenner’s death she would have chosen the wiser path in the long run.”

Brook nodded. “I think you’re probably right there,” he mused. “It’d fit in with her character. She was a mean creature—however, get on to the next stage.”

“As based on the foregoing assumptions,” said Macdonald. “A doctor had been murdered in such a manner as to throw suspicion on a woman who had been a practising midwife at one stage in her career. Query---had the doctor and the midwife held between them some secret concerning the birth of a child and, if so, what would be the application of that hypothesis to the facts as first presented to me?”

“That’s a good clear bit of thinking,” nodded Brook. “I started from the other end, with young Trant and Lee Gordon, but I came to a similar conclusion.

“Now consider the facts as they were first presented to me,” said Macdonald. “An old clergyman had been added to the victims: again, it fitted. A clergyman is told of many troubles, entrusted with many confidences. Assuming some secret connected with a new-born child, three people might well have had cognizance of it---‘the three witnesses’---doctor, midwife, parson. Once they were all wiped out, it was going to be very difficult to prove a case based purely on hypothesis without any living witness to give testimony.”

“Good Lord!” said Falkland. “It’s incredibly interesting. . . .” He turned to Brook. “Do you remember saying to me, ‘Think out the characters involved; it makes quite an interesting story. . . .’ Did you tumble to it at once?”

“No. I only tumbled to the possibilities as suggested by the Chief Inspector’s caption, ‘the three witnesses’,” replied Brook. “Like him, I applied the idea to those involved. Like him, I saw no chance of getting evidence.”

“It was a tangled story,” said Macdonald. “Any defending counsel could have laughed it out of court. While I got the whole police force of the British Isles on to hunting up any old friends of Nurse Pewsey’s, I concentrated myself on the possibilities of the evidence presented to me here, and a fine old muddle it made, especially when those whispering messages were sent and Mr. Brook here took to eluding the most skilful watchers from my department in order to play a lone hand and make things more difficult.”

“I don’t know if you expect me to say I’m sorry, but I assure you I’m not,” retorted Brook. “It was an exhilarating business!”

Macdonald grinned. “Officially, you stand condemned of uncivic behaviour,” he said. “However, to get on with unknotting the muddle handed to me by good old Lynch. The obvious first question was---how did Mr. Anderby die?---and I tell you the pathologists dealt me a facer when their verdict on the cadaver was heart failure. How was that heart failure induced? The answer was again guesswork. The voltage from the domestic current is not enough to kill a hefty fellow like Mr. Falkland here, but it is enough to stop a weak, tired old heart like Mr. Anderby’s. The jet from a hose pipe conducts an electric current very competently, as many a London fireman could tell you to his cost. The electric current in the peach house could have been sent along wires in the shrubbery and connected with those neat metal labels which identify the rarities of this very beautiful garden. Once the jet from the hose touched the wires or the labels, the current would have run up the jet to the metal nozzle in Anderby’s hands. I could see all that---as guesswork---but I couldn’t prove it. No sign was left on the corpse by the time the P.M. took place. The only sign would have been immediately after death when the heart muscles would have been in a state of intense contraction or ‘cardiac rigor’ as they call it---but that didn’t help me. Of course, it was obvious later that Lee Gordon could have given Mr. Anderby the doses of cardiasol which caused his earlier palpitations, but his actual death was a puzzle.”

“And that old ass Grendon probably had the facts if he’d only had the intelligence to put two and two together,” said Brook’s sardonic voice. “I expect he saw Lee Gordon switch off his electric current in the greenhouse after it had done its stuff.”

“Something of the kind, I expect,” agreed Macdonald. “Grendon had noticed something which might have indicated the method---and Grendon was dead, too, by the time I heard of the case. Now to get on to my own doings. Detection at The Rowan Tree was very interesting---including Miss Austin, who is a shrewd old body, covering her own astuteness in a veil of whimsies---and the discovery of that remarkable temperature chart with its peculiar inscription. Now, going back to my first analysis of Chenner’s death: if the fake police inquirer got into Chenner’s room and poisoned him, he could also have taken away an old temperature chart for future use---namely to involve Nurse Pewsey further in the toils.” Macdonald paused a moment here and then went on,

“I think the easiest way to explain from this point is by means of a direct narrative. You’ve had the deductive parts, as far as it went. Now I’ll get on to hard facts. Lee Gordon did poison Chenner two years ago, and he did take the temperature chart and keep it---but his notion of getting Nurse Pewsey removed, too, did not come off. It had to be left till a later date. When Lee Gordon returned to England with young Lord Trant, he found that Nurse Pewsey had married Mr. Anderby---and he made his plans for disposing of the two remaining witnesses. Anderby was killed by the electric current---a neat job of work. Grendon was an easy victim for he had described his own foible for sleeping with the French doors open in the presence of both the Anderbys and Lee Gordon. There remained Mrs. Anderby---and the gossip and suspicions current about her were strong enough to suggest a motive for suicide. Lee Gordon was a very good psychologist. He had the bright idea of sending Mrs. Anderby a bunch of roses from a sympathizer, hoping she would do just what Miss Austin assured us that she did---set out for the cemetery to put the roses on her husband’s grave.”

“Good Lord! What a devilish old brute the man was!” burst old Falkland, and Macdonald’s quiet voice went on, “Lee Gordon parked his car in the quiet road at the back of The Rowan Tree which leads down to the common. Nobody noticed him or the car. Nobody saw him offer Mrs. Anderby a lift. No one saw him knock her senseless. No one saw him put her helpless body in the backwater, wedged under a fallen tree----”

“No---but he saw her face when he did it. He was haunted by the memory of that black-clothed figure in the sluggish stream,” cut in Brook. “That was what I counted on. He’d done a thing he couldn’t forget, seen a thing he couldn’t forget. He didn’t see old Chenner die: he didn’t see Grendon die. He saw old Anderby fall dead and that sight rattled him up a bit. He was never quite himself afterwards—but Anderby’s death was easy. Impersonal, if you see what I mean. Lee Gordon didn’t have to knock him about, or deal with his body. The business with Mrs. Anderby was quite different. It was horrible and Lee Gordon, murderer that he was, was a coward with a coward’s imagination. I felt that---and I played on it. Lee Gordon suffered hell these last few days. He believed that Emma Anderby was haunting him.”

“Applied psychology,” said Macdonald, while Falkland gaped. “You might do well in the detecting line yourself, Mr. Brook,” continued Macdonald, “though not in an orthodox police force. However, do I tell the rest of the story, or do you?”

“You do,” said Brook, with an apologetic grin. “Sorry if I can’t help butting in, but Lee Gordon interested me so much. Go on.”

“I’d got to Mrs. Anderby’s disappearance with the bunch of roses,” went on Macdonald. “Lee Gordon’s errand to the backwater didn’t take him long---certainly not more than an hour. He went back to The Rowan Tree---the house was empty, except for Miss Driver and the cook making jam in the kitchen, and the charwoman with the Hoover on the stairs. Lee Gordon slipped the old temperature chart in the flap of the Bible, took Mrs. Anderby’s writing case, and removed all other evidence he could think of. Then he went away---and tried to forget what he’d done. As Mr. Brook realized, he didn’t succeed. The next stage was my own inquiry at The Rowan Tree and Miss Austin’s evidence. I still have the same opinion of her. She is a shrewd, inquisitive, observant old lady. She notices things and she draws her own conclusions, and she dresses up her ideas in this spiritualist jargon. Everything she said was sensible. She was convinced that there was only one explanation of Mrs. Anderby’s absence, and to make her conviction impressive both to herself and an audience she clothed her utterance in the medium dear to her---spirit messages. She said that Mrs. Anderby had ‘passed over’ and given her a message about the Bible. What really happened in the light of brutal common sense was that Miss Austin had concluded---quite correctly---that Miss Driver had appropriated the Bible, and Miss Austin did not intend Miss Driver to get away with it. Miss Jane Austin is a rationalist in mind, a romantic at heart, and her ‘spirit’ messages are only a dressing-up of her mental processes.”

“Quite good,” grinned Brook. “I’ve talked to the old dear. I agree with every word you’ve said. She’s insatiably inquisitive and a born romantic---and an old maid in the best sense of the term.”

“Well, confound it, because you’re as skeptical as all the world’s Thomases, and hard as stone into the bargain, I don’t see why you should be so jolly cocksure you’re right over the old lady’s convictions,” put in Falkland, and Brook laughed.

“Another romantic,” he commented, and Macdonald was inwardly amused with the osteopath’s acuteness. Falkland had a lot of the romantic in him, though he would never have admitted it.

“I’m not giving a dissertation on spiritualism in general, Mr. Falkland,” said Macdonald, and his Scots accent was more marked than usual as he spoke. “I’m only talking about Miss Jane Austin’s evidence, and the bit about the Bible was shrewd common sense dressed up to look other-worldly. It didn’t matter much. Where Miss Austin was important was that her spirit chatter---reported by Mrs. Anderby to Lee Gordon over the roast duck in all probability---suggested to Lee Gordon the crazy line he took later---which Mr. Brook can tell you about.”

Brook grinned. “Yes,” he said. “That was my pigeon. Lee Gordon was frightened. His nerve was going because he couldn’t forget what he’d done. He tried to involve you and me, Falkland, by sending those messages and getting us to go fishing under Oasthampstead weir, and finding the writing case he’d put there. Lee Gordon couldn’t sit still and leave bad alone. He was a fussy little man. He wanted to do something.”

“And he wasn’t alone in that,” said Macdonald with a chuckle, but Brook disregarded him and went on:

“Lee Gordon sent the first two messages, Falkland, one to you and one to me. That was the end of what peace of mind he had left. I cashed in on the idea. If Lee Gordon thought he could frighten me that way he was susceptible to fear himself. I retaliated---at once. I was always whispering messages to him over the phone after that. I kept his nerves aquiver and his imagination agog. I made him believe that somebody knew his secrets, and I counted on the fact his nerve would crack and he’d do something silly. I let him guess it was I who knew something at last. I reckoned he’d try to do for me as he did for Anderby.” Brook smiled at Macdonald in his sardonic way. “That was where your smart Alec from the Yard came in useful. If ever Lee Gordon was silly enough to go for me, that chap Reeves would be smart enough to spot it. I told you the local hayseeds were no good---and I wondered at the time if you’d the brains to spot what I meant.”

Macdonald laughed, a low rumbling bass laugh which at length forced Brook to join in.

“It’s a pretty situation,” said the Yard man at last. “I put two of the best men in the Department to shadow you, to watch you day and night---and you beat them both. I admit it, and Reeves admits it. You got away every time you wanted to, to send those spook messages.”

“It took a bit of doing because they were competent fellows,” said Brook calmly, “but I took jolly good care never to lose them when there was a chance Lee Gordon might be in the offing---except once, and then I was pretty certain you’d oblige by being on the spot yourself---at White Gables. You’d been going round offering information gratis, particularly about Miss Anne Salcombe, and I reckoned a break was coming. However, to enlighten Falkland a bit further, as he’s still looking ‘moithered’ as he calls it. I kept on at Lee Gordon by sending him phone messages which kept his hair permanently on end, by haunting the garden at White Gables---my man Watts played the banshee for me, and jolly well he did it! I also told him I was studying spiritualism myself, and getting good results. I meant to have arranged a real séance for him, with Miss Austin in the chair and Detective Reeves off-stage, but the end came too quickly. Lee Gordon couldn’t stand any more and he decided to liquidate me as he’d done old Anderby by fixing up his live wires again, poor goop! Shows how his brain went to seed.”

He turned to Macdonald, “Well, that’s my small contribution. Doubtless you’d have got the same results without my interference, but I told you, to start with, I wasn’t risking leaving you to make a mistake. Lee Gordon was your man, and I went on rattling him up until he was ready to tell you so to save himself from any more spirit messages.”

“The end would have come all right, though perhaps in less dramatic manner,” said Macdonald. “Lee Gordon had removed all the evidence that he could. He had killed his ‘three witnesses,’ he had removed his wiring from the garden, he had fired the repository where Nurse Pewsey’s belongings and papers were stored, he had taken everything that he thought dangerous from Mrs. Anderby’s room at The Rowan Tree---but he could not destroy all the past. While Mr. Brook was following his own peculiar psychological methods of bringing a murderer to book, I was working on the less spectacular job of getting information---hard facts which I could lay before a jury to give substance to an indictment which I could not prove. I wanted to find Anne Salcombe, the intimate friend of Nurse Pewsey’s younger days. Searches of that kind aren’t interesting or spectacular, but they are the essence of police work, talking to landladies and tradesmen and postmen and next-door neighbours, coming up against blank walls of forgetfulness and getting round a corner of them somehow. We found Anne Salcombe at last---in a sisterhood in Sussex. Sister Anne she is now, and she has since told me what I wanted. When the Dowerby baby was born, the baby who later became heir to the Trant title and estate, it was born with a clubfoot, a deformation which no surgery could correct. That was the reason why Lee Gordon killed the doctor, the midwife, and the parson who attended the mother. He intended to wipe out all the evidence concerning a deformed infant who died many years ago. The lad who came over here and claimed and obtained the title in all good faith was a natural son of Lee Gordon’s. Lee Gordon laid his plans for the sharing of that inheritance---if ever it matured---years ago. When the possibility became a probability he began to act. He removed the old doctor. When the probability became an actual fact he acted again---he removed the midwife and the parson. The curious thing is that he probably need not have taken the final precautions which proved his own undoing. Mrs. Anderby---once Nurse Pewsey---had a very poor memory for names. According to Anne Salcombe, she could never remember her patients’ names a month after she had left them. The name Dowerby would have conveyed nothing to her at all, and the baby with the club foot was forgotten by her---but not by the more retentive memory of Sister Anne.”

“Lord, what a story!” said Falkland. “When you came and told me about finding Anne Salcombe the other day, were you trying to rattle me up or hoping that I should pass on ‘information received’?”

“The latter mainly,” replied Macdonald. “I have often found that the dissemination of a few facts has a surprisingly vitalizing effect in a case. You must remember that I was working on a theory which was not easy to prove. The weak part of a theory based mainly on mental reconstruction is that it can be countered by another opposing theory built up in the same way. In this case a good many plausible suppositions might be put forward: for example, there was the easy theory of Mrs. Anderby’s guilt and subsequent suicide; there was the possibility of Mr. Brook being involved---and his behaviour throughout the inquiry certainly lent colour to suspicions. There was the possibility that people at The Rowan Tree were involved, and there was also a chance that Mr. Falkland here might have more to do with events than appeared on the surface.”

“Lord, yes, I knew that!” said Falkland. “By chance I was involved with the whole lot. I’d known Nurse Pewsey, and I’d trotted round making inquiries about her; I’d chatted to old Anderby, I’d argued with Grendon, I’d had a ‘spirit letter’ sent to me, and I’d been devastatingly inquisitive over the whole show. When I came here to White Gables the other evening, I intended to pass on your information to Lee Gordon just to see how he reacted---and I’d have passed it on to Brook in due time.”

Macdonald chuckled. “I was pretty certain you would. You were all agog with nerves over the whole business. That was one of the characteristics of this case. You, Mr. Brook, and Lee Gordon himself were all in such a twitter that you might all three have been in collaboration to produce an effect.”

“Final recapitulation,” said Brook. “The three of us involved for our own evil ends---though what common motive could have inspired us, I fail to see.”

“Motives can always be assumed,” said Macdonald. “Lee Gordon’s motive was an assumption on my part. I could produce convincing ones for you two as well if pushed to it, but it was Lee Gordon who seemed to have the strongest motive for removing the ‘three witnesses’.”

Brook had gone off into a brown study.

“There were once three witnesses,” he said slowly, and Falkland laughed, stretching his long limbs as though in relief at the passing of tension.

“Try your hand at making a story of it, Brook. You’ve got a title---and the first line of the story.”

“No. That’s not my first line, nor my title,” said Brook. “I shall make Grendon speak the first line, and call the story ‘Dear Emma’.”

“A rotten title,” laughed Falkland, but Macdonald said quietly: “Poor Emma.”

And Brook nodded in meditative agreement.


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