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12: Ursula Stone

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Author Topic: 12: Ursula Stone  (Read 25 times)
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« on: August 08, 2023, 11:37:56 am »

THAT Saturday night a severe rainstorm passed over the whole country. French, wakened by the downpour, had listened to it with actual distress. For in furtherance of his design for achieving a complete change of thought, he had planned one of his usual Sunday excursions with Mrs. French. It was to be a rather special occasion, inasmuch as they proposed to go farther afield than usual, or at least farther than was usual at this time of year. They had decided on the Romney Marsh. Neither of them had ever been there, though both had read about it, and both were looking forward with keen pleasure to seeing this stretch of new and distinctive country.

When morning came, however, they were both delighted to find that the wind had fallen, the clouds had vanished, and the sun was shining as if it were May. As they looked out of the express they saw that everything simply looked the fresher for the rain. Taking a bus from Hastings, they drove through Winchelsea to Rye, explored the streets and church of the quaint old town, and ended up with a long tramp along the shore towards Dungeness. They enjoyed every minute of it and found the breath of sea air invigorating and wholly delightful. These excursions counted for a good deal in both their lives. Though married for more years than French cared to contemplate, he and his wife remained as good pals as ever they had been. Healthily tired and pleased with themselves and life, they reached home in the evening in time for a late supper.

When the meal was over French settled down in his armchair before the fire, determined to end a day of relaxation with a couple of lazy and luxurious hours over a novel. But Fate willed otherwise. About nine o’clock, before he had read a dozen pages, his telephone bell rang.

It was the Yard. A message had just come through from Farnham. The officer on duty read it in a dull unemotional way which threw French into a paroxysm of impatience. “From Superintendent Sheaf, Farnham, to Inspector French, Scotland Yard. Ursula Stone disappeared. Please come at once. Will have car to meet 9.30 from Waterloo at Guildford.”

French gave vent to an oath which surprised even Mrs. French. “That Farnham case,” he cried; “I’ve got to go down,” and running to his room he packed his bag and hurried off to the Yard. There he picked up the suitcase containing his notebooks, and such apparatus as he used in his work, and went on to Waterloo. Fifty-one minutes later he left the train at Guildford.

“What’s gone wrong now?” he asked the constable who was driving the waiting car.

“I don’t know, sir, except that there was a ’phone through from St. Kilda about nine o’clock saying that Miss Stone had disappeared. The super and Sergeant Sheepshanks have gone out. I was told to repeat the message to the Yard and then meet you here. There are better trains to Guildford than to Farnham at this hour.”

French felt as if the bottom had been knocked out of his world. The bottom had certainly been knocked out of his case. What he was up against, he now saw, was infinitely bigger than anything which up till now had entered his mind. He had been working on some neat little theory to cover the vanishing of Earle and the nurse, but the vanishing of Earle and the nurse was only a part of what was going on. What terrible and sinister agency could be behind these manifestations?

One thing at least seemed to leap out from them, clear and unmistakable. Ursula Stone could scarcely have disappeared voluntarily. In her case there could surely be no motive for such a step. Besides, the coincidence of three voluntary disappearances coming so close to one another would be too remarkable to be accepted without the most overwhelming proof. No; this time it looked, at first sight at all events, a definite case of murder. And if so in Ursula’s case, what about the others? Must it not follow that they also . . .? French had seldom felt more bewildered.

So much at all events for his theory. The one alleviating feature in the affair was that he had not pressed his theory unduly and had agreed to continue working on the case. But it had been a narrow shave. He had been tempted to take up a much stronger attitude.

They drove quickly up on to the Hog’s Back, then turning left, passed down through Puttenham and round the corner at the Tarn to St. Kilda.

Here French found a tense atmosphere. Sheaf was very obviously in command, and round him, pale faced and trembling, were Julia Earle, Marjorie Lawes, and Alice and Flo Campion, while Lucy, the maid, hovered in the background. A little distance away Dr. Campion was discussing something with Sergeant Sheepshanks. A constable stood at the door.

“Oh, here you are, French,” said Sheaf heavily. “It looks like Miss Stone this time. She’s been missing since five o’clock.”

“Since five o’clock?” French repeated in surprise. Why in hades had they waited for four hours before giving the alarm?

“Yes, she was last seen at five o’clock, but it wasn’t till nearly eight that it was suspected she was missing. Mrs. Earle will tell you. Will you take over from now? I’ve done nothing except to have the woods and road searched.”

“Very well,” French returned. He crossed the room and drew Sheepshanks into a corner. “Have you felt the car radiator?” he whispered.

“Directly I got here, sir. It was quite cold.”

French addressed the company. “First of all, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to hear just what has happened. Perhaps, Mrs. Earle”---he turned to Julia---“I might begin with you. Would you mind coming into the dining-room and sitting down and telling me about it?”

Julia was pitiably shaken and nervous. Her face was drawn and livid, her teeth chattered, and she kept jerking restlessly about. French did not at all like her appearance.

“You’ve had a nasty shock,” he said kindly. “Perhaps I might suggest a drop of whisky. I think you’d feel better for it.”

“We all want a pick-me-up,” Julia admitted. “You see, we were so upset we didn’t really have any supper. What can it all mean, inspector? If anything has happened to Miss Stone, I think after the other it will kill me.”

French beckoned to Lucy. “Mrs. Earle wants some wine or whisky. Will you bring something. You’ll excuse me, madam,” he went on to Julia, “but you can’t tell me a proper story unless you’re feeling fit yourself.”

A whisky and soda made Julia feel a new woman, and while the others were helping themselves, she told her story.

“Miss Stone, you know, was here when my husband disappeared,” she began. “She had intended to leave on the following day, the Monday, but I persuaded her to remain on with us, and she did so. She agreed to stay an extra fortnight, and was intending to leave to-morrow.

“After tea this afternoon she went up to her room to lie down. She frequently did so in the afternoons, though not always. I was upstairs myself and I looked in to see that she was comfortable. That was just about five o’clock, and she was then lying down with a book and seemed quite all right in every way. I came back to Miss Lawes here in the sitting-room. We were doing nothing particular, just reading and chatting a little. Then the Campions looked in to see how we were, the doctor and his two sisters. After they left I think my sister and I fell asleep; I did at all events. About seven I went out to get supper: cold supper we have on Sundays because Lucy is out. It was ready about half-past seven and I rang the bell. Miss Stone didn’t come down, and after a few minutes I said, ‘Ursula can’t have heard the bell. I’ll ring again.’ My sister told me not to ring, saying that she would go up. She did so and I heard her moving about upstairs. Then she called me. There was a kind of urgency in her voice and I ran up quickly. ‘Ursula isn’t here,’ she said. ‘She’s taking a bath before supper,’ I said, but my sister said no, that she had looked everywhere upstairs and she wasn’t there. For a time we didn’t realise that anything could be wrong, though there was a sort of fear at the back of our minds. We searched the entire house, but she wasn’t anywhere in it. Then we thought she had gone out for a breath of air before supper and we looked in her room for her things. All her outdoor things were in her room; her hats and coats and outdoor shoes. By this time it was getting on towards eight o’clock, and of course she knew supper was at half-past seven. We looked at each other in a sort of horror: it was all so like this day fortnight. We had a quick look round the hall to see that no wraps had gone, and also a look round the grounds. We could find nothing unusual, and then we rang up Dr. Campion. At first Dr. Campion made light of it. He was like ourselves at first, he could not believe anything had gone wrong, but when we told him we had found that none of her outdoor clothes had been taken, he thought more seriously of it. You know, it’s a cold night. They came over at once, he and his sisters, and they’ve been here ever since.”

“About what time did they arrive?” French asked.

“They came at once. They must have got here about eight or a few minutes past: I didn’t really look. Dr. Campion spoke of ringing up the police immediately, then we thought we’d have a look round ourselves first. Perhaps we were wrong about that, inspector, but you know how people feel about that sort of thing. Dr. Campion was splendid. He organised a search, just as had been done this day fortnight, giving everybody an area to search. We looked for some time, then shortly before nine we all met again and Dr. Campion said we could not delay any more in ringing up the police, and he did so.”

Julia had shown evidences of strong emotion all the time she was speaking, and it was with an obvious effort that she had compelled herself to remain calm and tell her story consecutively.

“That’s all very clear, Mrs. Earle,” French said. “Now I want you to wait here for a moment till I speak to Superintendent Sheaf, then there are just one or two questions that I should like to ask you.”

Sheaf was waiting for him in the hall. “I’m going now, French,” he said. “Is there anything you’d like us to do?”

“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you before you left,” French answered. “You say you’ve had the roads and wood searched?”

“Yes, as far as torches would allow. I don’t believe much can be done in that way till we get daylight.”

“I agree with you, super. Can you let me have some help in the morning for this purpose?”

“Yes, I’ll send you half a dozen men as soon as it’s properly light; say at seven. Now is there anything else?”

French hesitated. It was scarcely his place to detail jobs for the Farnham men.

“Don’t you think we should make the same enquiries that we did in the case of Earle?” he asked. “I mean enquiries along the roads, at the stations, from bus conductors, and so on?”

The superintendent dropped his voice. They had strolled out to Sheaf’s car and were alone.

“I’m afraid we must do so,” he returned, “but I don’t believe we’ll learn anything. This is no disappearance, French. This woman wouldn’t have wanted to disappear. This is murder. All these enquiries were based on the possibility of Earle’s having disappeared voluntarily.”

French nodded. “That’s what I thought coming down in the train,” he agreed. “But we might come on some trace of the murderer.”

“Not a chance, I should say. The man that’s done this thing knows his way round too well to be caught napping. All the same, I agree we daren’t omit these local lines and I’ll take them on, same as I did in Earle’s case. That’ll leave you free to follow up anything special you get on to. How’s that?”

“First rate, super. Nothing could be better. Just let’s get out a description of Miss Stone, and perhaps you would ’phone it up to the Yard for circulation? Then I’ll stay here all night and give those fellows a hand to make their search in the morning.”

The description complete, Sheaf drove off with his men, while French returned to the dining-room. It seemed to him that nothing could be done out of doors till the morning, and that he could best spend his time in getting the fullest details possible from the members of the household.

“Now, Mrs. Earle,” he said, “just two or three questions if you please. I’ll not keep you long, but I want to know everything you can tell me in as great detail as possible. And first about Miss Stone herself. Did you notice anything unusual in her manner recently?”

“Absolutely nothing whatever.”

“You think she didn’t foresee that anything---er---out of the common was about to take place?”

“I’m positive of it.”

“No signs of excitement?”

“None.”

French nodded. “Did she get any message to-day which might have led her to go out this afternoon?”

“Not as far as I know. In fact I may say definitely that she didn’t. There’s no post on Sunday, and I’ve been about all day and would have heard the telephone.”

“No caller?”

“No.”

“Nor note delivered by hand?”

“No.”

“Were there no other callers to-day except the Campions?”

“Only Mr. Slade.”

“When was that, Mrs. Earle?”

“About three. He only stayed a few minutes.”

“Any special subject under discussion at tea?”

“No,” Julia answered again. “So much so that now, half a dozen hours afterwards, I couldn’t tell you what we talked of.”

French paused. That seemed to cover all he could hope to get about Ursula Stone. He thought for a moment, then went on.

“It was about five o’clock, you say, when Miss Stone went to lie down and you saw her in her room. When did the Campions arrive?”

“About quarter of an hour later; say quarter-past five.”

“Did Miss Stone know they were here?”

“If she were awake she must have heard them,” Julia replied. “Her room is in the front of the house and she would have heard the car and then their voices.”

“Would she not have come down if she had heard them?”

“Not necessarily, I think. It’s true she was a friend of the Campion sisters, but after all it was to me that they were paying the visit. I couldn’t say, she might reasonably have come down or not come down.”

“She had intended to leave to-morrow?”

“Yes.”

“Then would she not have come down to say goodbye?”

“She might: I couldn’t tell.”

Again French paused, whistling tunelessly below his breath.

“Nothing occurred, I suppose, during the Campions’ call? Was anything special talked about?”

“I don’t think so. The only thing I remember indeed was admiring the furniture for Miss Stone’s dolls’ house.”

“Furniture?”

“Yes. Dr. Campion had made furniture for the house and he brought it over with him. Indeed he nearly forgot to give it to us. We were in the drawing-room when he suddenly said, ‘Oh, I’ve brought something for Miss Stone. It’s in my coat pocket.’ He disappeared for a moment into the hall, then came back with the most lovely little tables and chairs and bedsteads. You never saw anything so wonderfully done. I’ll show them to you; they’re beautiful. We handed them round and admired them. I wanted to call Miss Stone down, but he wouldn’t hear of her being disturbed.”

“I follow,” said French. “I’m afraid that doesn’t help us very much. What I was really trying to get at was whether anything was discussed which Miss Stone might have heard as she was coming down to join you, and which might have caused her to change her mind?”

Julia shook her head. “Oh no, nothing of the kind. We just chatted about nothing in particular.”

“And how long did you say the Campions stayed?”

“They left about six, I think. About three-quarters of an hour. I think Miss Campion would have stayed longer, but Dr. Campion was anxious to be off as he said he wanted to call at the golf club to see someone about going to Town to-morrow. In the end he went out and started up the car. When she heard that she made a move.”

Once again French paused. None of this was very productive, but he didn’t think anything more was to be learnt from Julia.

“Now let me see that I’ve got these times right,” he went on. “The Campions left about six, then you and Miss Lawes remained sitting in the drawing-room and had a little sleep. About seven you went to get supper and about half-past seven you rang for Miss Stone. It was then you discovered she was missing?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“You looked about until nearly eight, and then rang up Dr. Campion. He and his sisters came at once, arriving a few minutes past eight, and then you carried out your search?”

“Yes,” said Julia again.

“Tell me about your search. Where exactly did you look?”

“We divided up between us what was to be done. My sister and I again searched the house, the outbuildings and the grounds, the Campion sisters took their car and drove over the roads, while Dr. Campion went through the wood. It was really repeating what had been done before.”

“I understand. And how long did your search last?”

“Till nearly nine. I suppose we were forty minutes or three-quarters of an hour looking. My sister and I were done soonest, then the ladies came in with the car, and then Dr. Campion. The wood took longest, as the doctor searched among the trees as well as along the paths.”

“Quite,” French agreed. “That’s all, I suppose, you can tell me?”

Julia’s manner suggested that it was a great deal more than she would have volunteered. French then thanked her for her clear statement and asked to see Miss Lawes.

One after another he interviewed the others; Marjorie Lawes, Lucy, and the three Campions. But practically the only fresh information he obtained was from Lucy. She said she had seen Ursula Stone in the hall as she was going out that afternoon. It was then just half-past three. She was sure of the time, because she had caught the bus which passed the house at 3.35.

“I think, Mrs. Earle,” French said when he had finished, “that nothing more can be done to-night. I should like to have a look at Miss Stone’s room and then with your permission I shall have a sleep here on this drawing-room couch. I suggest that at your convenience everyone may go to bed.”

This was arranged. The Campions drove off and Julia and Marjorie retired to their rooms. French made a provisional search of Ursula’s room, though without finding anything bearing on the mystery. Then he went down to the drawing-room, turned off the light, and lay down on the sofa.

He was tired, but he could not sleep. This utterly unexpected development filled his mind and kept it working actively. How on earth did Ursula Stone, a visitor to the household, and so far as he had been able to learn, not a very close intimate of any of its members, how did she come to be mixed up so vitally with whatever dreadful activities were going on below the surface of things in this quiet country retreat? And what was in effect going on? Why had first Earle and the nurse and now Ursula Stone been spirited away in this uncanny fashion? What was at the bottom of it?

The only thing in the whole case of which French felt sure was that his conclusions on the previous disappearances were false. These three cases were so much alike that a common origin was irresistibly suggested. It was absurd to suppose that Ursula had disappeared voluntarily. The question reiterated itself, therefore. Did it not follow that all three, she and Earle and the nurse, had been abducted or murdered, or both?

French turned to details. If Ursula had been murdered, how could she have been induced to go out? In the case of Earle it was possible to conceive of someone coming to the drawing-room window and beckoning him. But this could not have happened in Ursula’s case. She was upstairs. Her room was over the dining-room and it had two bow-windows, one looking out in front and the other at the side away from the road, that is, the side on which the study gave. But from neither could she see anyone beckoning unless she was actually in the window. Lying on her bed it would have been out of the question. Moreover, it didn’t seem possible that anyone could have called her unheard by those below stairs.

Apart from this, the similarity of this case with that of Earle struck French more and more forcibly, the longer he considered them. Both the missing persons had settled down for what would normally have been a considerable time, Earle with his paper, Ursula with her book. It was probable indeed that both would have dozed before they moved. Both had vanished without making a sound or leaving a trace and without the slightest suggestion of a reason. Both had worn house shoes with thin soles, unsuitable for walking even a little way outside. Though on each occasion the weather was cold, neither had taken any wrap or hat. Neither had left any note or message explaining their absence.

French swore mentally as he thought of it. In such circumstances one would have thought that only a perfunctory enquiry would have been needed to clear up the affair. And yet as he thought of what he and Sheaf had done in Earle’s case, he realised grimly that nothing could be farther from the truth. The solution was very far indeed from being obvious. On the contrary, it was as hard to reach as any he had ever yet come up against.

His thoughts turned back to the witnesses he had just questioned. Both Julia and Marjorie were looking extremely shaken and upset. He began to wonder. . . . Had the fate reserved for the husband been meted out also to the guest? Could it possibly be that these two women were responsible for what had taken place?

In considering this idea French began slowly to grow sleepy. Gradually his thoughts became nightmarish. Dark pictures invaded his mind of dreadful ways of disposing of bodies. The thrilling tale of “The Lodger” recurred to him. But here was no stove like that in the kitchen of that awful house. What, however, might not be found beneath the concrete of the cellar floor? He had read of a body being built into a pillar of a house or an entrance gate, he couldn’t remember which. That pillar would never dry out. . . . There was a well-known cave where the fish ate anything thrown in. . . . Quicklime had been used. . . . Who could say what ghastly things lurked in quarry holes or the shafts of disused mines? . . . Had not the remains of what had once been bodies been found----

A sudden knock awoke French. Daylight was streaming into the room and at the door stood Sergeant Sheepshanks and five policemen.

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