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5: The Problem

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« on: August 08, 2023, 07:33:22 am »

NEXT morning French rode out again to St. Kilda to resume his interrogations. This time Ursula was the sufferer.

As before he began by repeating the questions he had already asked. But from Ursula he obtained no fresh information.

“Have you met a Mr. Reggie Slade?” he went on.

“Once I met him, yes.”

“Only once. Where was that, Miss Stone?”

“In the garden here.”

“Was Mrs. Earle present?”

“Not at first, but she came up afterwards.”

French had this elaborated, then continued: “You know, I suppose, that Mrs. Earle and Mr. Slade are very close friends?”

Ursula didn’t know anything about that. French raised his eyebrows.

“This is a serious matter, please remember, Miss Stone,” he said gravely. “You may have to swear in court to everything you are now saying. Do you really mean to tell me that you had no idea that those two were, to put it mildly, particularly interested in each other?”

Ursula was no match for him, and the whole scene in the garden came out; the look she had surprised on Slade’s face, Julia’s treatment of him, even Marjorie’s remarks later on. French noted everything systematically, then went on to Ursula’s visit to Town and her seeing Earle driving with the lady.

“You will see, Miss Stone,” he explained when he had obtained her statement, “that we shall have to find this lady. She may be able to throw some light on Dr. Earle’s disappearance. Will you please describe her as best you can.”

“She was rather ordinary looking, if the truth be told. Youngish; thirty, I dare say, or perhaps less. As far as I could see, she looked both pleasant and clever. Her nose was good---fairly long and straight with a high bridge---Grecian, in fact. Her chin was rounded. That’s in profile; I didn’t see her full face. I’m afraid that’s all I noticed.”

“What you’ve told me is quite helpful. How was she dressed?”

“She had a round grey hat with a red brooch in front; rather more of a toque shape than is worn now. Her coat was of grey cloth and she had grey shoes and stockings.”

“Wealthy looking?”

“By no means: quite the reverse.”

French was pleased. This description was better than he could have hoped for. That Grecian nose would be a help. It was something distinctive, not like the usual “medium height with dark hair and eyes”, which covered about a third of the women in the country. And a lucky thing that she had been seen by a woman! A man might have vaguely noticed the grey clothes, but he would never have assimilated the semi-toque with the red brooch.

“That’s excellent, Miss Stone,” French approved. “Now can you tell me how Dr. Earle was dressed?”

“As he left that morning: a sports hat and yellowish-brown overcoat.”

From the servant Lucy Parr, whom French next interrogated, he obtained little except some further confirmation that relations between the master and the mistress were often a good deal strained. Her sympathies, French was interested to notice, were entirely with Earle and against Julia. According to Lucy, Earle was kindly and unassuming and always ready to smooth troubled waters, even to the extent of giving up his rights. Julia on the other hand was dictatorial and overbearing and very exacting. Evidently Lucy thought Earle had a pretty thin time with his wife. She also believed that he knew all about the Slade affair and was very much worried by it.

This completed the preliminary taking of statements, but before turning to the next business, French made sure that he had all the usual routine information; a detailed description of Earle and the other members of the household, with photographs; samples of Earle’s handwriting; lists, so far as these could be compiled, of his friends and acquaintances; a note of how he spent his time and the places he was in the habit of visiting: in fact, all those commonplace sort of details which might at some future part of the enquiry become important. Earle’s bank and his solicitor French already knew, from the bank-book and the will respectively.

The day was slipping quickly away, but there was still a good deal that French wished to do at St. Kilda and he hurried on with his work. Going to Earle’s bedroom, he made a rapid search, but without result. When, however, he continued this process with the overcoats hanging in the hall, he found a scrap of paper which he thought might be useful.

It was in the right side pocket of a yellowish-brown overcoat---the only yellowish-brown overcoat that was there---and was rolled into a tiny ball, the result evidently of the absent-minded movement of the owner’s fingers. French carefully unrolled it. It was of thin yellowish paper, about 2½ inches by an inch, clearly the torn-off end of some docket. Near the top was a number, printed by a stamp, not fount type, through which the paper had been torn, but of which the last four digits were 1153. Below that in faint pencil was the latter portion of a date, the current month, October, and the year being given, but the day of the month being torn off. Below in heavy capitals was printed the word “FEE”, with after it in a little square and also in heavy black the amount “6d.” In small type near the bottom of the docket were the ends of three lines of printing, reading respectively:

   wner’s entire
ponsible for any
 ough every care


evidently some note about liability.

What was it? Not a railway cloakroom ticket, as this would have been required to obtain the deposited articles. Not a ticket of admission to some show: it would have been handed up on entrance, besides such tickets were usually of thicker paper. A shop receipt? Somehow it didn’t look like one.

French could think only of a parking-ticket. Most parks charge 6d. for two hours’ parking, and the dockets bear a serial number, usually printed by an automatic hand-stamp. All bear a place for the date, and all a phrase about cars being left at the owner’s risk. Moreover, its being a parking-ticket would fit in with its being found torn and rolled up in an outside coat side pocket. On parking Earle would naturally have thrust the docket in his pocket, because though the sum was small, it was a receipt for his money. In the nervous absent-minded way people do, he might have torn it up and rolled the pieces in little balls. In drawing out his hand some of these little balls might easily have been carried out, leaving the one which French had found.

As French put the fragment away in his pocket-book he felt particularly pleased. If he could find the park---and he was sure he could---it might prove a valuable clue. The chances that the ticket had been obtained on the Thursday of Earle’s visit to Town were high. In the first place, less than a third of October had elapsed; Sunday was only the 9th. It was unlikely therefore that Earle had visited many parks during this period. Moreover, the fact that the fragment had been in a yellowish-brown overcoat---the coat the man was wearing on that Thursday---seemed more hopeful still.

French began to wonder what steps he should take to find the park. Then he thought the problem could stand. He must get on with his work at St. Kilda before it got dark.

Having taken the number and description of Earle’s car, a Morris-Cowley saloon, PE 2157, French turned to his next item. He had brought in his case a powerful electric light with flex and lamp-holder plug. With this he went from room to room, examining every inch of the carpets, rugs, chairs and other furniture, searching in the most thorough way for marks which might prove to be blood. But nowhere could he find any.

One thing puzzled him. Though Julia had said Earle was writing a book on some medical subject, he, French, had found nothing among the man’s papers referring to any such activity. French again questioned Julia on the point and found she had not actually seen any of her husband’s manuscript. She had taken it for granted that when he was working, it was at the book. French therefore found himself forced to assume she was mistaken.

It was close on eight o’clock when French, tired from his long day, rode back into Farnham. After a long-deferred meal, he settled himself in the lounge to complete the one or two things which still remained to be done that night.

From his notes he produced a revised description of Earle and a somewhat sketchy one of the London lady, and with a photograph of Earle, posted them to the Yard for insertion in the list of wanted persons. Then he turned to the parking-docket.

Miss Stone had seen Earle and the lady in Seymour Place. That was at 12.30 and they were going westwards. Earle arrived home that evening about seven or a few minutes after. Was there anything to suggest where he could have gone to in the meantime?

French ruminated, puffing slowly at his pipe. The only points he had were these hours and the fact that the car was heading west. Not much to go on, certainly! However, let him see what he could do.

In the first place had the pair left Town at all? French thought so, first because of the general balance of probabilities; and second, because the parking-ticket was paper. He remembered that the tickets of most London parks were printed on thin card. Neither of these arguments was conclusive, but both indicated a preliminary search outside London.

Falling back then on the question of time. From 12.30 to 7 was 6½ hours. What had to be fitted into that period?

Well, he thought it was not too much to assume that Earle had brought the lady back to Town before he left for home. Now Earle’s return journey from London to St. Kilda would take him about 1½ hours. Deduct that from the 6½ hours, and it left 5 hours from London to London.

Then what about meals? During this 5 hours it was pretty certain that the travellers had had lunch and tea. How long would these take?

Not less than an hour for lunch and half an hour for tea, and probably longer for both. However, say 1½ hours for meals. That from 5 hours would leave 3½ hours.

French smoked slowly on and then another point occurred to him. It seemed reasonable to suppose these meals had been taken in an hotel or restaurant. Earle might of course have bought luncheon and tea baskets, but most elderly men consider these a nuisance and prefer properly served meals indoors. On the whole French thought an hotel more likely. But if they had gone to an hotel, why had Earle paid for parking? Hotels and restaurants park free of charge the cars of customers. Therefore did it not look as if the travellers had, after lunching, driven on to some other place at which they carried out their business?

For some time French thought over this. It did not seem to be leading anywhere. Then he dropped it and considered another point.

It was unlikely that Earle would pay for parking for a shorter time than, say, an hour. This was of course guesswork; still, see where it led. An hour off the 3½ left would reduce it to 2½.

If then French were correct, 2½ hours only were left for the journey to and from London: or say, roughly, a little over an hour each way. This meant that the parking-place must lie within about an hour’s run from London.

An hour’s run in the crowded traffic of the suburbs would not mean much more than 30 miles. To the west this would include Windsor or Maidenhead, or at the outside Marlow or Henley, or places correspondingly situated more north or south. French decided to try these districts first. If a search of them failed, a more extended area could be embraced.

Finally he wrote another letter to the Yard, asking that a copy of the ticket fragment be sent to all the police stations within a radius of 30 miles of London, to the north-west, west and south-west. The police were to try to find the park from which it had been issued, and if they succeeded, were to check their work by seeing if the car No. PE 2157 appeared on any of the carbon blocks for the date in question.

Feeling he had done a good day’s work, French went out to post his letter, then after a look at the evening paper, he turned in.

Next morning he was early at it again. The most urgent thing now was to try and get some light on Earle’s finances, and as soon as the banks opened French presented himself at Floyd’s in Farnham and asked for the manager. The letter which Julia Earle had given transformed Mr. Clayton into a valuable ally. He made no difficulty about telling French all he knew.

Unfortunately this did not amount to a great deal, and yet it had its value. Everything Mr. Clayton had to say was negative. Earle got most of his money from investments, though the small remains of his practice still produced a little. Dividends and warrants had been coming in regularly, ever since Earle had transferred his account from Godalming some six years earlier. Beyond the drop in values universal during the slump, there had been no recent change in his income. The man’s outgo had also remained normal. In fact, from the financial point of view, there was nothing to indicate that Earle had contemplated any drastic or unusual action. His current account stood at some £100, and there was £700 odd on deposit receipt. In the ordinary course a fair sum was shortly due. Certainly no large sum had recently been withdrawn, as would have been likely had Earle intended to disappear.

Of course this did not prove that Earle had not realised his capital, but French had come across records of a number of dealings with a stockbroker while going through the man’s desk, and none of these suggested anything of the kind. This of course was not conclusive either: Earle might have secretly consulted some other broker. But French did not see why he should. If the doctor had realised his capital, there was nothing to be gained by employing one man of business rather than another.

Systematically French turned to his next enquiry. Taking a bus to Guildford and thence to Merrow, he found the secretary of the Golf Club, and showing his credentials, asked for a little confidential information. Could he tell him whether Dr. James Earle, of St. Kilda, Hampton Common, Farnham, had been on the links on the previous Thursday?

The secretary knew Earle. He was not a member, but had played as a visitor on different occasions. The secretary did not, however, know whether he had been there on the day in question, but he would find out. He vanished, returned presently, and said that no one had seen Earle. It was impossible, he added, that the doctor could have been on the links unknown to his staff.

Up to the present the actions taken by French had either been dictated by routine or were such as were obviously required by the circumstances. But now he had reached the end of these enquiries. He felt therefore that the time had come to take a preliminary survey of the case, so that he might decide the most productive lines on which to continue working. Accordingly he returned to his hotel, lit the fire in his room, and settled down to take stock of his position.

So far as he could see, there were three possible solutions to the mystery: Earle had either disappeared voluntarily, or he had met with an accident, or he had been kidnapped or murdered.

The accident theory seemed to him most unlikely, but for the sake of completeness he summarised his conclusions on the matter.

According to this suggestion, Earle had left the sitting-room by the french-window on some possibly perfectly innocent business and while carrying it out he had had a heart seizure, or had fallen and hurt himself so that he could not return, or had been knocked down by a car on the road.

Any of these mishaps were of course possible, but French rejected them all on the same ground: that they did not account for the disappearance of Earle’s body. The only exception was that if the man had been knocked down by a car, he might have been taken to hospital. But this was an exception in name rather than reality. If a motorist had stopped to run his victim to a hospital, he would have reported the accident to the police.

The only doubtful point under this heading was whether Sergeant Sheepshanks’ search had embraced a sufficient area of the wood. French noted to go into the matter with the sergeant and if necessary to organise a further search.

Included under the heading of accidents was the possibility that Earle was suffering from loss of memory. This, however, seemed out of the question, as there had been nothing to suggest such a thing in the man’s previous state of health.

French did not really believe in the accident theory and he passed on rapidly to what he considered was the real crux of the affair: Had Earle disappeared voluntarily, or had he been murdered?

When Sheaf had been discussing this point the arguments in favour of kidnapping or murder had seemed to French stronger than those for a voluntary disappearance. He therefore took murder first and began with the details of the actual happening.

In the first place Earle had made no apparent preparations for a voluntary disappearance. It was a cold night, but he hadn’t taken either a coat or a hat. Still more remarkable, he was wearing thin slippers. These were not evening shoes---the Earles did not dress when alone, and never for supper on Sunday night. They were heelless slippers of soft brown leather: quite unsuitable for walking on anything but a carpet or boarded floor. It was inconceivable that Earle could have intended to go any distance in that get-up.

This argument was strongly reinforced by French’s researches into the man’s finances. A voluntary disappearance meant starting life all over again in some new place. For such a start Earle would require money, a substantial and regular income. But all the evidence French had yet obtained indicated that Earle had made no such provision.

Then there was the argument which Superintendent Sheaf had used; that if Earle had intended to disappear, he would have gone off openly, saying that he would be back at a given time. The man must have known that the longer he could postpone enquiry, the safer he would be. He could have reached the Continent or even America before his disappearance was reported. Why then should he have adopted a plan which would have raised an immediate hue and cry? French simply did not believe that he would have done so.

Lastly there was the question of Earle’s manner. If he had intended to take such a revolutionary step as to disappear, surely some excitement would have shown in his manner? All concerned had noticed that he had been depressed or worried for some days beforehand, but all agreed that this was not more marked on the Sunday than formerly. Could Earle have so completely hidden the fact that on that evening he was about to undertake something of tremendous importance? Here again French did not believe he could have done it.

Provisionally assuming then that Earle had been kidnapped or murdered, could French think of anyone who might have had a motive?

In this at least there was no difficulty. His wife, Julia Earle, had a double motive, if not indeed a triple motive. First, if she was really carrying on a serious flirtation with this man Slade, she would want Earle out of her way. Secondly, and this was even more convincing, if she knew that Earle was in love with the lady in London---and wives do know these things---she would be afraid that he might alter his will in this stranger’s favour. Thirdly, Julia might have been utterly fed up with Earle and have hated the very sight of him. This of course was mere guesswork, and French gave it no real weight.

And if Julia had motive, she most certainly had opportunity. She was alone with her sister in the house. The servant was out; the visitor had gone over to these people Campion. What easier than to give her husband poison or a narcotic in his food at dinner, and when he should be helpless to carry him out into the wood and there where no marks would be left on carpets or chairs, kill him with some heavy tool and hide his body? Julia Earle was a strongly built woman and her husband small and of poor physique.

Alternatively, if Julia had not committed the murder, was it not possible that Slade had done so? If Slade were the kind of man he had been pictured, and if he were really so much in love with Julia as had been suggested, he would in all probability have murdered for her. And so far as French knew to the contrary, Slade would also have had opportunity. Could he not have come to the window on that Sunday night, and seeing Earle was alone in the room, have beckoned him out, knocked him on the head and carried him off, disposing of the body somewhere in the wood?

All this of course was the purest guesswork, but it represented a necessary line of research, and that was all French wanted at the moment. He noted that he must find out a lot more about Slade and check up his movements on the Sunday evening.

So much for the possibilities of murder. French turned next to consider the question of a voluntary disappearance.

As he did so he was surprised to find that most of the arguments which he had used to prove murder could be interpreted equally in support of a voluntary disappearance. He went over them in order.

If Earle intended to disappear he might well have tried to disguise the fact by creating the impression that he had been murdered. He might have left in slippers and without a coat or hat just for this reason. Walking-shoes and a coat and hat, specially bought for the occasion, could easily have been hidden close by, and could have been assumed on leaving the house.

French still thought that Earle would never have gone off voluntarily without having made sure of a proper income. But he now saw that this did not necessarily depend on Floyd’s bank in Farnham. Earle might easily have had another account in some other bank, possibly under an assumed name. Here at all events was another line of investigation.

Sheaf’s argument about the reporting of the affair also cut both ways. If Earle had been murdered, the murderer or murderers would never have called in the police on the night of the crime. Julia, if guilty, would have waited for ten or twelve days, and then when the trail was old would have come forward with a story of how Earle had gone for a week to Town.

With regard then to Earle’s manner. Did the fact that the man had obviously had something on his mind for several days, not mean that he was contemplating a disappearance? It was at least more likely than that he was contemplating his approaching murder! And might the alleged lack of increase of excitement on the Sunday not simply be due to want of observation on the part of the other members of the household?

Lastly, there was the question of motive. Here at all events there was no difficulty. Earle was unhappy in his home. His wife was disagreeable and overbearing and had ceased to love him, if indeed she had ever done so. Moreover, she was in love with, or at least carrying on a flirtation with, another man. He himself had found elsewhere the comfort and the sympathy his wife had failed to give him. Why should he not go where he would get this sympathy and so give both his wife and himself another bid for happiness?

To the murder theory, moreover, French now saw two objections. The first was Marjorie Lawes. If Julia were guilty, or if Julia and Slade together were guilty, what about Marjorie? Was it conceivable that she would be a party to the murder? French could scarcely bring himself to believe it.

The other difficulty was the hiding of the body. Whether Julia or Slade were guilty, this difficulty obtained. French did not see how it could have been met.

On the whole, on trying to balance his results, French saw that as yet he had evolved nothing conclusive. His cogitations had brought him to the same conclusion as had Sheaf’s: that either murder or voluntary disappearance was possible.

His time, however, had not been lost. Not only had he now got the problem he was up against clear in his own mind, but he had compiled a valuable list of the enquiries still to be made. He spent another half-hour getting these in order of importance, then with a yawn he went up to bed.

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