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4: Inspector French Takes Hold

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« on: August 08, 2023, 06:16:40 am »

ABOUT ten o’clock on the morning of that same day Inspector Joseph French had alighted from the train at Farnham Station and turned his steps towards police headquarters. He knew the town well, as also the local officers, having worked with them only a few years earlier in connection with a number of burglaries which had taken place in the surrounding country, and which were supposed to be the work of a gang from the East End.

He had had a rather humdrum existence since in the beginning of the year he had investigated that nasty case on the Whitness Widening. That case, in spite of its puzzles and anxieties, he had enjoyed. The railway atmosphere in which he had worked was to him a new and fascinating feature. He had become interested in the technical work of the Widening and had liked watching the slow progress of the job. Moreover, in spite of his calling, he had found the people down there in Dorset pleasant and friendly, and the hotel had been particularly comfortable. The weeks spent on the case had formed a welcome relief from the somewhat drab routine of Town.

So much, indeed, had he liked the district that when the blissful time of his summer holidays came round, he and Mrs. French had spent them at Redchurch. There he had renewed his acquaintanceship with Lowell and Brenda Vane, now Mrs. Lowell, with Bragg, Pole, Ashe, Mayers and the other people whose acquaintance he had made in the winter. Also, he had a walk over the Widening, admiring what had been done since his previous visit, and now seeing the raison d’être of a good many things he had not then understood.

Except for the break of the holiday, he had been engaged in London ever since the Widening case. Four seemingly endless months he had spent on a case of forged ten-shilling notes, thousands of which were passed out before he and his fellow-labourers succeeded in laying their hands upon the forgers. Then he had been on a murder in Whitechapel, a sordid affair without any features of interest, requiring for its clearing up dogged hard work, but neither skill nor intelligence. Lastly, he had just recovered two thousand pounds’ worth of jewels, stolen from a Mayfair flat. Now he welcomed the instructions which seemed to promise a change of scene.

On reaching the police station he was smilingly saluted by the constable on duty, and shown at once to the room of Superintendent Sheaf.

“Hullo, inspector! Here you are,” Sheaf greeted him, holding out a hand massive as an Epstein carving. “It’s what I always say; no one who had ever been to Farnham can keep long away.”

“Always glad, super, to come and give you a lift when you’re in trouble,” French rejoined slyly. They had become good friends, these two, and liked and respected each other.

“Oh,” Sheaf returned, “so you think you’re coming down to teach us our job, do you? Well, so that there’ll be no mistake, I’d better tell you at once that you’re not. You’re coming to do a job for the Yard, in London. We’ll tell you what to do and then you can go and do it.” The superintendent held out a cigarette-case. “Seriously, I think our trouble may lie in Town. It’s not, I may tell you, a very satisfactory case. There may be nothing wrong. But there are certain suspicious circumstances, and after consultation with the Chief Constable we’ve decided it’s worth while having the thing looked into.”

“A disappearance, isn’t it?”

“Yes; man called Earle. Lives or rather lived about four miles out in the country. Sergeant Sheepshanks was sent for in the night to help to look for him. There’s mighty little evidence of any kind, but there is a certain amount of suspicion. We’ll have Sheepshanks in and he’ll tell you about it.”

Superintendent Sheaf rang and presently the sergeant made his appearance. He also smiled at sight of French, and shook hands with some warmth.

“Now, sergeant,” said Sheaf, “the inspector knows nothing of this case. Get ahead and tell him about it. Have a cigarette?”

The sergeant deposited his huge bulk on a chair, took and lit a cigarette, and addressed himself to French.

“About 12.15 on Monday morning last, sir, I was called out of bed by a ’phone from here. There was a message from Dr. Campion, who lives at Binscombe, a couple of miles from Godalming. It stated”---- And Sheepshanks repeated the story and described his visit to St. Kilda, his search there during the night, his return next day and the further enquiries made. “There, sir,”---he handed over some typewritten sheets---“are the statements of those concerned, so far as I was able to get them.”

The man had spoken well and French was able to visualise the happenings almost as if he had been present.

“That’s very clear, sergeant,” he said. “Were you able to check up these statements?”

“In a general way, yes, sir. At least as far as I was able to go, I found no discrepancies.”

French nodded and Sheaf struck in, “Better read the statements, French, and then we’ll talk about it.”

French did so while the local men conversed on other business. At last French signified that he had finished.

“Well,” said Sheaf with a keen glance, “what does it look like to you?”

This was the sort of question which on principle French never answered. He was certainly not going to give an opinion until he had had time to think over the facts and come to a reasoned conclusion.

“I don’t know,” he said cautiously. “At first sight I should say this Earle had gone off to his lady friend in Town, but I see there are some objections to that theory: that is, assuming that all these statements are true.”

“You’re not going to commit yourself too irrevocably, are you? Still, speaking quite broadly, does nothing strike you about it?”

“In what way, super?”

“Nothing does, you mean. Well now, look here: is it likely? The whole story, I mean. Just think of it. Assume first that Earle intended to disappear. Would he go off in his house-shoes and without a hat or coat? Would he go off without saying where he was going to; I mean, telling some plausible story? More important still, would he not have gone away openly, say for the night? Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“You mean that he was making things unnecessarily difficult for himself?”

“Quite; much more difficult than they need have been. According to this story he chose a method which would arouse suspicion and cause enquiry. At once, I mean. Why should he do that when he could equally easily have got twelve or twenty-four hours’ start, or even a week? He would know enough to understand that the hotter the trail, the more likelihood of its being followed up.”

French crushed out the stub of his cigarette and produced his own case.

“It’s a point, certainly,” he admitted as the others helped themselves.

“If you or I had been Earle and had wanted to make another start, what would we have done? I fancy both of us would have said to Mrs. Earle: ‘I’m going to play golf to-day,’ or ‘I’m going up to Town and I won’t be back till dinner.’ That would have given him another twelve hours. See the difference? Acting in that way he could have been across the Channel without a question being raised, whereas if he did what these statements suggest he would have been spotted at the boats from the details we sent early on Monday.”

French amiably agreed that there was a good deal in the superintendent’s argument. He was always pleased to engage in discussions of this kind, for he had found that in allowing other people to theorise on his cases he occasionally came on an idea of value. The more thought Sheaf had put into the affair and the more he could be induced to air his conclusions, the more of the preliminary spade-work French would be saved.

“There’s a good deal of testimony backing up Mrs. Earle’s statement,” French asserted to draw the superintendent further.

Sheaf shook his head. “That’s just what there’s not, French. Don’t you see? There’s only the sister’s. The maid was out and the visitor, Miss Stone, was with the Campions.”

French hesitated. “You don’t mean,” he said at last, “that you suspect those two ladies of making away with the man?”

“I suspect no one,” Sheaf returned. “But wait a moment. When Sheepshanks came in that Monday morning we had a talk about it. We considered these points. I told him to go out again and have another look round. As he’s told you, he did so. I don’t think he’s told you all he got.”

Sheepshanks looked up with a protesting expression.

“No, you didn’t,” the superintendent insisted, “but I will now. First of all he got what you’ve seen in the statements. From Mrs. Earle, unwillingly, that she and her husband did not always see eye to eye about things. Then from the maid that relations were often very strained indeed, and Sheepshanks imagines that was putting it mildly. From Miss Lawes, the sister, that she was very fond of her sister and that she was a novelist, and of course that business in London from the visitor, Miss Stone.”

“What has Miss Lawes being a novelist to do with it?” French asked, for the first time not seeing exactly where the other was leading.

“Probably nothing, but don’t be in such a darned hurry. Now here’s what Sheepshanks, for some reason best known to himself, didn’t tell you. It’ll throw light on what I’ve been saying. He got permission from Mrs. Earle to look through Earle’s papers. He found a will. Earle had left everything to his wife.”

Sheepshanks, covered with confusion at his lapse, muttered an apology. French at once passed the affair off with a joke, thereby winning the sergeant’s undying goodwill.

“I don’t think anything follows from that, super,” he continued, once again to draw the other. “It’s not uncommon for a husband to make a will of the kind.”

“Quite. And it’s not uncommon for a man who is running another woman to change that sort of will.”

French shook his head. “I don’t follow exactly. Does that not mean that you do suspect Mrs. Earle?”

“No, but I’ll tell you what it means. It means that there is enough suspicion to make it necessary that we should be sure.”

“I agree. And yet does it not occur to you that the mere improbability of the story tells in favour of the ladies? They would never surely have invented these unlikely details. They would have said nothing about the affair for a considerable time, then perhaps would have explained that Earle had gone to London for a few days, but that his return was overdue. It’s the argument you used yourself about a deliberate disappearance: they would have waited till the scent grew cold.”

“I realise that all right,” Sheaf returned, “and you may be quite correct. That, however, is where the sister’s writing may come in. If she is good at inventing plots she might have foreseen that argument of yours, and raised a fuss and advised us simply as a safeguard. If they had found a good place to hide the body, it would have been a pretty good safeguard too. I don’t push that; it may be nonsense. All I say is, there’s a case for enquiry.”

“I agree,” French repeated.

“On the other hand,” Sheaf went on, “Earle may simply have deserted his wife for the other woman, and that is where your connection with the Yard comes in: we couldn’t handle that part of it here.”

“Right, super, I’ll carry on. I think all I still want to know is what steps you’ve actually taken. You said you were having the cross-Channel boats watched?”

“Yes, we sent a description to the pier men; also a general description to all stations. You better check that; you may be able to get more details. That’s all we’ve done.”

“You haven’t touched the man’s finances?”

“No.”

“It would be interesting to know if he had withdrawn any considerable sum recently.”

“Quite; that’s up to you. Any help you want you’ll get to the best of my ability. Now if you want to have a talk with the sergeant, go ahead. Only take him away out of this.”

“Come along, sergeant,” said French, “we’re not popular here any longer. I don’t know that there’s very much I want to ask you,” he went on as they settled themselves in another room. “What’s your own idea about the affair?”

“He’s gone to that woman in London, if you ask me, sir. I don’t think Mrs. Earle and the sister have done him in, but of course it’s possible. Tell you the truth, sir, I don’t see where they could have hidden the body.”

“You don’t? I thought that might be a difficulty. Tell me, how complete was your search? Did you go over much of the wood?”

“I went over it carefully close to the house, say a hundred yards in from the boundary fence all round. It’s a slow job, you know, sir; the place is full of thick undergrowth and it’s hard to push one’s way through. But I went along the paths for half a mile or more: further than those women could have carried the body.”

“No sign of anything being dragged through the undergrowth?”

“No, sir, I looked particularly for that.”

“Had the car been taken out?”

“I don’t think so, sir. I felt the radiator and it was cold.”

“Who is this man Campion?”

“One of the Godalming doctors, sir. He’s a partner of this Dr. Earle who’s disappeared, though Earle has practically given up the practice. Campion took another partner some years ago who lives in the town and does the night calls, and Campion moved out to the country at Binscombe. I’m told they have a good practice between them.”

French got up. “Well, sergeant, if there’s anything else I want, I’ll come to you. I’ll go out to the place now and have a look round. Can you lend me a bicycle?”

“Certainly, sir.”

French enjoyed his ride out through The Sands to Hampton Common. He was fairly familiar with the district, not only because of his previous visit to Farnham, but because these Surrey uplands from Leith Hill to Haslemere had formed the venue of many of his Sunday excursions with Mrs. French. The more he had explored the country, the more it had appealed to him. He loved the tree-edged outlines of its successive ridges, showing up solid one behind the other like drop scenes in a theatre. He loved its quaint villages with their old red-roofed half-timbered buildings and their still older churches. He liked following the narrow twisting deep-cut lanes. But most of all he delighted in the heaths, wild and uncultivated, areas of sand and heather and birches and pines over which one could wander as entirely cut off from sight or sound of human habitation as if one was exploring a desert island.

On reaching St. Kilda French began work by making himself familiar with the house and grounds. The house was set back some seventy or eighty feet from the road, from which it was screened by a thick belt of shrubs. It faced towards Farnham, that is, parallel to the road. The isolation of the place at once struck French, as it had struck Ursula on her first visit. On three sides was the wood, cutting off the view like an impenetrable curtain, while on the fourth side the outlook was equally impeded by the belt of shrubs. In the immediate proximity of the house the trees had been cleared and a small garden and lawn had been made.

The house was small and compactly planned. On the ground floor were four main rooms. The sitting-room from which Earle was alleged to have vanished was in the angle between front and side. It was a good-sized room with a square bow giving on to the drive in front and a french window facing the road. Across the hall opposite to it was the dining-room, behind which was a small study or den, used solely by Earle. The kitchen was in the remaining corner of the house, behind the sitting-room.

French began actual work in the sitting-room. First he turned his attention to the french window. It was unlocked, as it had been on the Sunday evening, and he found he could open and close it silently. Earle could therefore have passed out without being heard by the ladies.

“Were the curtains drawn?” he asked.

“Were they, Julia?” Marjorie repeated. “Yes, they were,” she went on; “I remember. The curtains of the french window were drawn, but not those of the bow.”

“That’s correct,” Julia confirmed. “We usually pulled the long ones, because you can see in a little bit from the road through the bushes. But no one can see in from the front, and we seldom covered up the bow.”

French nodded. If then someone had called secretly for Earle, he could have seen that no one else was in the room before attracting the man’s attention.

“And your kitchen?” French went on. “Were the curtains pulled there?”

“No; it looks out at the back towards the wood.”

“Were this room and the kitchen the only two lighted up?”

“And the hall, yes.”

“I’m afraid I shall have to have a look over the house, and, if I may, over Dr. Earle’s papers.”

“You can go anywhere you like, and if you want us we’ll be here.”

After a hasty lunch of sandwiches French began a detailed search of the house. He was soon convinced that Earle’s body could not have been hidden there on the Sunday night. Miss Stone had searched as well as the sisters, and it was impossible to conceive of all three of them being privy to a murder. If therefore Earle had been done to death by his women-folk, they had managed to dispose of the body outside the house before the arrival of the Campion party at 10.10.

French did not waste time examining the grounds or wood. He felt that any improvement on Sheepshanks’ search would involve a proper organisation and a considerable number of men. He therefore went to Earle’s study, and began to go through the man’s papers.

There was no safe, but in one of the drawers of the small roll-top desk French found a steel despatch box, the key of which was in another drawer. In it was the will, Earle’s bank-book, a cheque-book, some miscellaneous papers, and fourteen pounds ten in notes.

Having checked Sheepshanks’ statement as to the contents of the will, French turned to the bank-book. It had been made up to a fortnight previously and French put it in his pocket, intending to get the entries brought up to date. Then he went through the miscellaneous papers, but without coming on anything of interest. All he found, both in the bank-book and elsewhere, was just what he might have expected to find in the case of a man of Earle’s position.

Seating himself at the study desk, he then called in each member of the household and formally took their statements. This unavoidably overlapped what Sheepshanks had already done, but French preferred to have the whole of his information at first hand from the start. Having satisfied himself that Sheepshanks’ notes were correct, he proceeded to try to get some further information on his own account.

He began with Julia. “Now, madam, in this case I must consider various possibilities. And first there is the question of voluntary disappearance. I am sorry to suggest this, but it can’t be overlooked. Do you consider Dr. Earle left here deliberately?”

“I am sure he did not,” Julia said decisively. “Surely if he had intended to do that he would have put on shoes and a hat? Besides, he had settled down for the evening.”

“Quite so, but if for some reason he had wished to leave secretly, might he not have done these things as a blind?”

“I don’t think so. It would have been most unlike Dr. Earle, who was not at all secretive. Besides, why should he have wished to do such a thing?”

“Well, that’s what I was going to ask you,” said French. “Can you suggest no motive?”

“None whatever.”

“Probably you’re right, madam,” French said smoothly. “Now tell me: Did you recently notice anything abnormal in Dr. Earle’s manner?”

Julia hesitated. “I think I did,” she answered, without the decision of her former replies. “I scarcely like to say so, because I’m really not very sure, but it was my impression that for some days he had something on his mind.”

“He seemed worried?”

“Yes, worried.”

“When did you first notice the change?”

“I don’t know; four or five days ago, I should think.”

“Was it more pronounced on the Sunday than previously?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You noticed no difference?”

“None.”

French nodded. “Now,” he went on, “I’m sorry to have to refer to another unpleasant subject, but unfortunately it’s my duty. You know that Dr. Earle met a lady in Town on Thursday last?”

Julia’s face grew harder. “Well, and why shouldn’t he?” she asked aggressively.

“Did he tell you he had done so?”

“Why should he? He’s not a child. Neither of us are children. Why should we tell each other every little trifle?”

“Did he tell you he had played golf that day?” Julia hesitated. “I really didn’t ask him,” she said at last.

“Possibly not, madam,” French said gravely, “but did he tell you?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with his disappearance or that it’s any business of yours.”

“In that case, madam, I’ll explain it to you.” French’s manner was firm but kindly. “It has been suggested, with what truth I do not know, that Dr. Earle was tired of his life here and that he wished to give it up and start another establishment elsewhere. I must test this suggestion. I must know whether he told you he had been playing golf at the time at which he really was meeting the lady, as this may throw a light on his motives.”

Julia was very unwilling to speak, but at last she resentfully admitted that she knew nothing whatever about the lady, and that Earle had stated directly on that Thursday morning that he was going to play golf, and in the evening that he had done so.

French intended his questions to be a little more subtle than they actually appeared. Not only was he anxious for the direct answers, but he wanted to see their effect on Julia. If she were party to her husband’s murder, she might naturally be expected to make the most of any circumstance which would suggest his voluntary disappearance.

But Julia made no such attempt. She took the line that if her husband wished to meet a lady in London, he had a perfect right to do so without consulting her, but that in any case it was no business of French’s.

“Was there, or had there been recently, any disagreement or unpleasantness between your husband and yourself?” went on French.

“Nothing of the kind!” Julia answered sharply. “If you think Dr. Earle left home because he wasn’t happy here you may put the idea out of your mind. You’ll only be wasting your own and everyone else’s time.”

“That’s really what I wanted to be sure of,” French returned soothingly. “Very well, that’s one point dealt with. Now another: what about money? Was there any financial trouble which might have been weighing on Dr. Earle’s mind?”

“I don’t think so; not that I know of at all events. But I can’t answer you there because Dr. Earle looked after his business himself. Why don’t you go to his bank? They’ll tell you.”

“I’m going to ask you, madam, for an authorisation to the manager to give me this information.”

“Yes, I don’t mind letting you have that.”

“Thank you. Now I should like to know what letters or other messages Dr. Earle received during the last day or two before his disappearance. Can you help me there?”

“I don’t think so. I didn’t notice his receiving any unusual letters, nor did he tell me of such. You can look in his desk.”

“I have done so, madam, without success.”

“Then I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“You don’t know if he received a telegram or telephone message?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Then callers, madam. Can you let me have a list of everyone who came to the house, say on Friday, Saturday and Sunday?”

“To see him?”

“To see anyone, if you please.”

“No one came to see him. I don’t see how my callers affect the matter.”

“I don’t expect they do, madam, but it’s a routine I am bound to go through. If this information was not given in my report, my superiors would want to know why.”

“Oh, very well. On Friday there was no one. I don’t suppose even you want details of the calls of the milkman and the various errand boys? That day we went to see some people at Eastbourne, and my husband came to drive, as I don’t like driving in the dark. On Saturday”---she paused in thought or apparent thought---“on Saturday I don’t think there was anyone either. Oh yes, Mr. Slade, who lives next door, looked in for a moment with a book he had promised to lend me. He only stayed a minute or two. Then on Sunday the Campions came, Dr. and the two Miss Campions.”

“Thank you, madam, yes. I’ve heard of their call. That was all?”

“That was all.”

“One last question. You said, I think, that Dr. Earle was reading the Observer just before he disappeared. Do you happen to have the paper?”

“I think it’s still in the sitting-room,” Julia answered. “Nothing has been disturbed in any of the rooms, in deference to the request of the sergeant.”

“Perhaps we might go in and look?”

They went into the sitting-room and found the paper, still on the chair in which Earle had been seated.

“Thank you, Mrs. Earle. That’s all at present. Now could I see Miss Lawes?”

To Marjorie French repeated practically all the questions he had asked Julia. He made it a practice in all his cases to ask the same questions of everyone concerned. It was tedious, of course, but he believed there was always the chance of learning something fresh from the comparison of the different viewpoints, apart altogether from the possibility of exposing a lie. In this case, as it happened, he found his method justified. From Marjorie he obtained two involuntary hints.

The first was what Sheepshanks had already learnt: that conditions in the household were not of the happiest. French seized on to Marjorie’s injudicious remark like a leech and stuck to it till he had learned all there was to be known about it. When he had finished, he was satisfied that the Earles were no longer in love, if they ever had been, but now merely tolerated each other in the spirit of trying to make the best of a bad bargain.

The second hint which Marjorie involuntarily gave him was when he came to discuss recent callers. At once he saw that she did not like Reggie Slade. With an almost automatic reaction French seized on this point also. Who was Mr. Slade? Had she seen much of him? Oh, as much as that? Then how often had he called, say, in the last fortnight? Seven times? To see Mrs. Earle? H’m. He liked Mrs. Earle? Yes, and she liked him? But surely if she didn’t like him she wouldn’t have seen him so often? Oh, if it was business, what had he called about? Something about his car on one occasion? Oh, his car? H’m. H’m. Quite so. Had Miss Lawes ever known Mrs. Earle to go out in Mr. Slade’s car? Certainly, there was no reason on earth why she shouldn’t, French was merely asking the question. She had? Yes, and when? Oh, on last Thursday? The day Dr. Earle was in Town? And on different other occasions also? Yes, quite so.

When at last French knocked off and returned to Farnham, he felt satisfied with his progress. It looked as if at least the motive for the affair would present no difficulty. There was unhappiness at home, there was the matter of the lady in London, and it might well be that this Reggie Slade would prove a further factor in the case.

But was Earle the prime mover or the victim in the affair? Up to the present French had obtained no light on this fundamental question. As he went up to bed in the local hotel he fully realised that he was in point of fact only at the beginning of his troubles.

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