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16: French Arranges an Experiment

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Author Topic: 16: French Arranges an Experiment  (Read 31 times)
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« on: August 09, 2023, 08:31:42 am »

FRENCH’S mood lasted all evening and all evening his thoughts remained busy with the case. What was to be his next move? Rack his brains as he might, he couldn’t think of any line which he had not already explored.

Worried beyond measure, he sat smoking in his room, where he had lit the gas fire, gazing vacantly into space and pondering on the eternal problem of what was truth.

Idly he wondered which of the two phases of his work---one or other of which he was usually up against---was the more exasperating: to have to make endless wearying repetitions of some small enquiry with consistently futile results, or not to see the way ahead at all. “Ough!” he groaned in disgust. “Who would be a detective?”

Carefully he began to go over for the thousandth time the facts of the case. Was there nothing that he had missed? No line of research still unexplored? No stone---he smiled whimsically to himself at the pompous cliché---still unturned?

Mechanically he got out his notebook and began more seriously and systematically than ever to review the entire circumstances.

The thing had got on his nerves, and his bedtime came and went, leaving him still seated in his armchair turning over the pages of his notebook, reading an item, remaining motionless as he considered it from every point of view, reading another item. . . . But nowhere could he get any light.

Again and again he told himself that he must give up for the night, but his mind was so restless that he could not do so. Surely to goodness there must be something that he had missed? There was necessarily a complete and satisfying explanation to the whole affair. Why could he not find it? What men had imagined, men could imagine again. What had gone wrong with him lately?

He sat in his chair. He paced the room. He threw himself on his bed. He paced the room again. He sat in his chair and bent forward. He sat in his chair and leant backward. But no change of position helped him. He could think of nothing fresh.

It was past one o’clock. He must really go to bed. This sort of worrying over the affair just upset him and didn’t lead anywhere.

He was refilling his pipe for one last smoke when suddenly he paused and sat motionless, while an expression, first of interest and then of actual excitement, grew slowly in his eyes. Was it possible that he had missed something after all; something which might well be vital?

He put down his pipe and began whistling softly under his breath. That clay in Slade’s car! Was not that his clue? Was it not the most important thing he had yet discovered, or was he merely being more silly than usual? That clay: where had it come from?

He recalled exactly what he had seen. In the pile of the carpet before the driving seat were traces of yellow clay: evidently from the shoes of the driver. Where had it come from?

French considered the country soils, so far as he knew them. There were large areas of sand---black sand, white sand, yellow sand. There was on the Hog’s Back ridge chalk, white and greasy. There was a light brown loam. There was a kind of peat. But yellow clay? . . .

There was only one place in which French had seen it, and it was the memory of this which had given him so furiously to think. On the by-pass! When he had walked up towards the Hog’s Back along the Compton road on his visit to Polperro he had had a look at what was going on, and he had seen yellow clay passing in the contractor’s little trucks. Yellow clay on the by-pass! Yellow clay in Slade’s car! Was there any connection?

For a time French was filled with excitement. Then came the natural reaction. The thing must, of course, have some quite natural explanation. Perhaps Slade knew the engineers, or was merely having a walk over the workings to satisfy his curiosity. It might be so. And yet French didn’t imagine that dull and humdrum engineering of the cut and fill type would have appealed to Slade.

While determined not to be disappointed if nothing came of it, French decided that unless he thought of something better in the meantime, he would have another look at that clay on the by-pass. If it did no good, it could at least do no harm.

Next morning his enthusiasm had waned still further---waned indeed till nothing was left of it. However, he took a bus along the Hog’s Back, and alighting at the by-pass bridge, set off to walk towards Compton. As before he penetrated to the right at frequent intervals, examining the workings. There at all events was where the yellow clay was coming from. Beneath the summit of the Hog’s Back the cutting had been through chalk, but here on the south side of the ridge the chalk ran out and was succeeded, a dozen feet or more below ground level, by yellow clay. This clay was being loaded by a steam shovel into wagons, and run along a narrow-gauge line to be dumped lower down.

Full of interest, French walked along the side of the cut. He wanted to see again where that clay was being unloaded, and presently he came to the place, not so far away. As he had noted before, the work was being carried out very similarly to that of the Whitness Widening. A bank was being formed across some low-lying ground; a bank some fifteen feet high. In some way which was not now obvious, a narrow strip of banking of the proper height had first been made along the centre line of the new road, and this was now being widened by side tipping. Yes, there was where the yellow clay was going to all right.

French walked up and down the bank, first on one side and then on the other. On the right side, facing towards the Hog’s Back, the by-pass kept fairly close to the road, though it was screened from it by shrubs. On the left side the bank ran through a field in which were straggling clumps of bushes and small trees. Across the field and at some distance were isolated houses.

For an hour French continued to move about, sighting the directions of the various houses and clumps of bushes. Finally he walked up to the foreman of one of the gangs of workers and asked for the address of the chief engineer.

“ ’E’s to be dahn ’ere on Monday morning,” the man replied. “You be ’ere abaht ten an’ you’ll see ’im.”

This suited French admirably. It was now Saturday, and the fact that an appointment for Monday morning had been made would secure him a free week-end.

He walked up again on to the Hog’s Back and took the first bus back to Farnham. There he saw Sheaf, explained his ideas, obtained the necessary local backing for his plan, lunched, and took the next train to Town. His week-end passed all too quickly and at ten o’clock on Monday he was once more with the foreman.

“There ’e is,” said the man when he saw French, pointing to a little group at some distance along the workings. “The big man in the grey coat an’ ’at.”

With the engineer were three men, one obviously the foreman of a squad, the others young fellows in waterproofs and big boots and with plans under their arms. French waited till they had finished discussing their business and were turning away, then he went forward.

“I should like to have a word with you, sir,” he said, handing over his official card.

The engineer smiled when he read it. “What you want is an international conference,” he declared. “My name’s English and my assistant’s here is Welsh. Unfortunately this other gentleman is Bradbury and not Scott, as would be seemly.”

“That’s a pity,” French returned. “We have a sergeant at the Yard called German, and we get ragged. They call us ‘The Foreigners’ and pretend we can’t understand English. Often we can’t too,” and French smiled in his turn.

“Yes, I dare say that would happen more often in your job than in mine. You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, sir, I wanted two things from you. I should explain that I’m down here looking into the disappearances of Dr. Earle and Miss Stone from Hampton Common.”

English was interested at once. He had read the case in detail, so much as was known to the papers, and seemed full of theories about it.

“Gone off with that nurse,” he said, with a knowing wink. “What do you think, inspector? Or is it part of your religion not to say?”

French laughed. “I’m glad to discuss any case with anyone,” he declared. “There’s always the chance of my getting an idea.”

“Well, there’s an idea for you.”

“It certainly is,” French admitted. “But I’m afraid it’s not what one might call exactly new. It has been discussed, I should say, several hundred times.”

English laughed in his turn. “Well, if I can’t help you with ideas, what can I do for you?”

“Two things, as I said. First, I want to know whether you, or any of your assistants or underlings, are acquainted with a man called Slade, living at Hampton Common, or whether such a man has been having a look over the workings?”

“Never heard of him,” English returned. He drew a whistle from his pocket, blew a piercing blast and waved his arm. Messrs. Welsh and Bradbury, who had been strolling away slowly, turned and began to approach.

“Either of you know a man called Slade?” English asked when they came up.

Neither knew him. Nor had Slade, so far as they knew, ever been on to the workings.

“It’s in this particular stretch that I’m interested,” French explained. “If you’ve had any men working just here, perhaps you’d ask them?”

Detailed enquiries revealed the fact that Slade had never been about the place, at least not in working hours.

“That is what I rather expected to hear,” French went on, “and it leads me to my second point, which I’m afraid may give rather more trouble. I’d like to explain, but first I must ask you to keep what I say as strictly confidential. If my suspicions were to leak out, it might be a very serious matter.”

This beginning was not calculated to damp the engineers’ interest, and all three gave the required undertaking.

“I want,” French went on, “the toe of this bank opened at certain points,” and he explained his idea. “It may cost a bit of money, but I’m authorised to say that the Surrey police will stand for that.”

The three men showed an interest almost approaching excitement.

“I’m sorry,” said English, “that I can’t be here personally to see it done, but Bradbury will do all you want. Better let’s have some further details.”

“Certainly. If you gentlemen will come down to the toe of this bank, I’ll show you what I mean.”

Rain had fallen during the night and the heavy clay was greasy from the water. As with some difficulty they climbed down the rough slope of the dump to the “toe” or bottom edge, French went on explaining.

“You understand, of course, that at best this whole affair is only a guess. My entire idea may be a washout. But there’s a chance of its coming off and I daren’t neglect the chance.”

The engineers grinned. They fully appreciated French’s point. Indeed, their looks of admiration indicated something more than mere appreciation.

Having reached the surface of the field on the side remote from the road, French led the way to the place he had already selected.

“Here,” he said, “is the only part of this entire piece of banking which is out of sight of houses. As you see, it stretches for about a hundred feet. Its being hidden is due to those clumps of bushes. And of course from the road it’s screened by the bank itself.”

“Yes, that’s right enough,” English admitted. “Then it’s here you want the toe opened?”

“Yes, sir. But not the toe of the bank as it is now. I want it where the toe was on Sunday week.”

“Naturally: I follow that. Well, we’ll do our best. Let’s see now.” English turned to his assistants. “You measured this up for the certificate, didn’t you, Bradbury? When was that?”

“We both measured it,” Bradbury answered. “I took the levels and Welsh the measurements. That was last Friday week.”

“That should give it to us, inspector,” English declared. “Cross sections were taken on the previous Friday, and there would be little change between Friday and Sunday.” He turned back to his assistants. “I want you to peg off where the toe was on Friday week. It’ll be as near Sunday’s position as doesn’t matter. Understand?”

They understood and would get at it at once.

“Then cut back to it. The stuff can simply be thrown forward into the field. You have to widen a good deal here, haven’t you?”

“About twenty feet.”

“Exactly; anything you do will be covered. Then carry on as the inspector wants, not forgetting to charge him. He’s paying for it, so it doesn’t matter how long it takes. That right, inspector?”

“That’s right, sir. But I’m afraid it may have to be opened for the whole hundred feet.”

“Doesn’t matter so long as we can charge you the damage. But you’ll have to get me a chit about it before we start. Not that I doubt your word. It’s just a matter of business. That is, Bradbury, if I’m not here, you mustn’t begin any work till you get an official letter promising to pay, and if there’s a maximum sum mentioned, you must see that no more than that sum is spent. Warn the ganger to keep the time separate. Well, we must be getting along if we’re to see Bridge 15 before I go back. That everything, inspector?”

“Yes, thank you, sir. Where can I find you, Mr. Bradbury?”

“I have an office about half a mile farther on. A note there’ll find me if I’m out.”

French, having obtained from Sheaf the necessary undertaking to bear the cost of the experiment, returned to the workings and sought the engineer’s hut. The visit brought back once again his experiences on the Whitness Widening. These engineers’ huts were all alike, except in the matter of size and fittings. As the Whitness Widening was an enormously bigger job than this by-pass road, so the huts of Bragg and Carey and Lowell were bigger than this one of Bradbury and Welsh. But they had the same atmosphere, and these two young men were of the same type as Ashe and Pole.

Bradbury was in the hut when French arrived. “The chit Mr. English wanted,” said French, handing over his letter.

Bradbury glanced over it. “Right-o, inspector. When would you like us to start? We can do it any time.”

French did not answer directly. “Tell me,” he said, putting his head on one side, “do you think there’d be any chance of doing this job secretly? If there’s nothing in my idea it doesn’t matter. But if there is, I’d rather no one knew about it. You can understand, Mr. Bradbury, that it would be wiser not to put anyone on his guard.”

Bradbury was obviously thrilled. It was a new experience to be taken into the confidence of an officer of the Yard engaged on a murder case, and the young man reacted suitably. He was out, he said, to help the inspector and he would do the work as unostentatiously as he could.

“I don’t think, you know, that we can keep the thing quiet if your man is about and watching developments,” he declared. “If he’s there he’ll see it. But I believe we can prevent our men smelling a rat. I’ll tell ’em a roll of essential plans were forgotten here and got covered and we have to find them. But of course if we get what you’re looking for the fat’ll be in the fire.”

“That’s just what I’m considering, Mr. Bradbury,” French said slowly. “I’m inclined to think it would be better to do the work with policemen and at night.”

Bradbury looked disappointed. “Could they do it?” he asked doubtfully. “Shovelling this heavy clay is no joke if you’re not accustomed to it.”

“That’s the very thing that’s bothering me,” French admitted. “I want your men to do the work, but I don’t want them to find anything. Look here, couldn’t you clear it back to where it was on Sunday and let us do the rest?”

Again the young man showed disappointment. French saw what was wrong. “Of course,” he added, “if you yourself could see your way to come out and give our men the benefit of your advice, I’d take it kindly. But I’d like to keep anything we might find absolutely to ourselves.”

Bradbury was radiant. All he had wanted was to be in on the affair. He agreed at once to cast forward the recently tipped clay, leaving the slope as it had been on the previous Sunday week. He would then have a number of small lamps filled and set aside for the night work, and would meet French and do anything he could to help.

“Very good of you, I’m sure,” French declared. “When do you think we can get to work?”

“To-night, I should think. I’ll put some men into it now. You’d like to stay and see us start? Then see here.” Entering with zest into the experiment, he turned to the corner of the hut and pointed to a filthy old waterproof, stained with clay and oil. “Put that on and those leggings and stick that plan under your arm and they’ll mistake you for an engineer. That’s better. Except for the glory of your hat you look fine.”

They went out of the hut and along the workings, tramping heavily through the sticky mud, just as French had tramped with Clifford Parry down at Whitness. Just as Parry would have done, Bradbury called a ganger and gave his instructions.

“I say, Bates, I want you to bring your men down to Peg 188 and shift a bit of stuff. We’ve lost some plans and we’ve got to find them if we dig up the whole of Surrey. They were put down on the slope and the tip’s gone over them. Start in here and clear it back.”

The men, obviously unsuspicious, began to work along the hundred-foot stretch, quickly throwing the clay forward into the field, and roughly trimming the slope as Bradbury directed, that is, as it had been on the Sunday in question. Having seen the work started, French excused himself on the ground that he wished to make arrangements for the night, and leaving his borrowed plumage in the hut, he returned to Farnham.

Sheaf was not pleased at the idea of turning his constables into navvies, but he raised no serious objection, and a squad of a dozen men was got together and instructed to be ready at eleven o’clock. Having arranged the necessary commissariat and transport, French returned to his hotel for dinner and a rest.

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