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15: Oak Panelling

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Author Topic: 15: Oak Panelling  (Read 33 times)
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« on: August 09, 2023, 08:00:02 am »

A NIGHT of sound sleep and a bright sunny morning raised French’s outlook once again to the optimistic level. To be held up in a case was no new experience. Again and again in the past he had reached a deadlock and always (or at least, very nearly always) these checks had proved temporary. He would find a way out, as he had so often before.

Moreover, as he considered his day he saw that he had been wrong on the previous night. He was not really held up at all. A deadlock was not yet in sight. It was true that progress on the Ursula Stone problem had been checked. But fortunately or unfortunately, the Ursula Stone problem was only a part of the case. He had still to trace the car and driver who had met Nurse Nankivel on the Hog’s Back at six o’clock on the Sunday on which she had disappeared. He would get on to that at once. A bit of luck with it might solve all his problems.

When he came down a letter was handed to him. It was from the Yard and stated that the samples which he had sent up had been examined. The blood in Thicket No. 1 was human blood, and the sand from the study floor was the same as that from behind the bush. Somehow this letter, giving a firm foundation to at least part of his case, still further increased his wave of optimism.

But when he came to examine his immediate problem, the wave became somewhat dissipated. This line of finding out who met the nurse was not so promising after all. French had already had a try at it and had failed to learn anything. Because of the telegram and the journey to Staines, Earle was the likely man, but no one had been able to tell him where Earle was at the time in question or whether the St. Kilda car had been out. Earle therefore remained a possibility, though there was no proof that he was anything more. Julia, Marjorie and Ursula Stone, French had checked up, satisfying himself they were all at St. Kilda.

On the other hand, Campion by his own admission might have been near the by-pass bridge at six o’clock, and therefore could have met the nurse. But there was no reason to suspect Campion.

Nor did French believe there was any reason to suspect Slade. He had not, however, enquired into Slade’s whereabouts at this time, and he decided to do so at once.

Once again he rode out to Altadore and looked up his friend the chauffeur. Would the man carry his memory back to Sunday fortnight, when Dr. Earle disappeared . . .?

The chauffeur and his wife both carried their memories back. Their effort, however, didn’t help French. Both were positive that at six o’clock on that Sunday afternoon all three cars were in the garage.

This was only what French had expected. He had never been able to see why Slade should have desired the nurse’s death.

As he rode out of Altadore gate on his way back to Farnham he saw Miss Campion. She was strolling slowly along the road and signed to him to stop.

“I’ve just been at St. Kilda,” she said, “and I’m waiting for the bus. I wondered how you were getting on. I don’t know whether I should ask or not, but I feel this dreadful affair so much that I’d like to know.”

“I can understand, madam,” French returned sympathetically. “It must have been a blow to you. The poor lady was your friend, was she not?”

“A lifelong friend. I knew her as a child at Bath, where we were both brought up. It does seem to me the most terrible affair. If ever there was a kindly and innocent and harmless individual in the world, it was Miss Stone. Really good, you know, without any nonsense about it.”

“I understand, Miss Campion. It was just my own estimate of her, though of course I hadn’t your opportunities of judging.”

“That’s why I feel it so dreadfully. I’m afraid something must have happened to her. She never would have gone away like that of her own accord; never. What do you think, inspector? You haven’t said anything.”

“I’m afraid because I don’t know anything, madam. I admit that the idea you’ve mentioned occurred to me, but I’ve got no proof of it.”

“Proof? You don’t want proof. Her character was proof enough. Something has happened to her; some accident or something. I’m convinced of it.”

“I’m glad to have your opinion,” French declared. “I suppose you can’t form any idea of what might have happened?”

Miss Campion made a gesture of despair. “Absolutely none. The thing’s an insoluble mystery to me. I can’t think of anything.”

“You don’t know if she had any enemies?”

She looked at him in horror. “Is that what you fear?” she said, almost in a whisper. “Not murder! Oh poor Ursula! How unspeakably dreadful!” For a moment she seemed overwhelmed, then went on: “But good heavens, inspector, who would do such a thing? What could anyone have against her? She who never hurt anyone in her life!”

French shrugged. “I appreciate the difficulty, Miss Campion, but there seem to me only the two ways out of it. Either she disappeared voluntarily, or she---didn’t. Which is the more likely?”

Alice Campion was obviously deeply shocked and grieved. “I couldn’t have believed that either could have happened,” she declared. “Oh, if someone is to blame for this, if someone----” she boggled over the word, then forced it out---“if someone has murdered her, how I hope you’ll get him. I’d go gladly to see him hanged, and I’m not vindictive. But there: I don’t believe anyone could have done it.”

For a moment they walked on in silence, then Miss Campion spoke again. “Do you think this affair is connected with the other? I mean Dr. Earle’s disappearance?”

French moved uneasily. “To be strictly truthful,” he said at last, “I don’t know. What do you think, madam?”

“I don’t see how it could be, and yet it’s strange that the two cases should be so alike. My brother was talking about it. I said they were so alike that they must be connected, but he said it didn’t follow, that the second case might have been intentionally copied from the first.”

French nodded. “I agree with Dr. Campion. It’s possible they were connected, or it’s possible that the perpetrator of the second was simply trying to make it look like his predecessor’s work. I’m obliged to you, Miss Campion, for talking like this. Your ideas may be a help to me. And there’s another thing that might help me. Perhaps while we’re talking you’d tell me in as full detail as you can, what you know about last Sunday. The statement you gave me that night was necessarily short. If you wouldn’t mind repeating it with plenty of details, some chance phrase might give me an idea.”

“I don’t think I know anything which could help you,” she returned. “However, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to get the thing cleared up. We spent that afternoon very quietly. From lunch till tea the three of us, my brother and sister and I, sat reading and chatting in the drawing-room. Then after tea my brother got out the car and we went over to St. Kilda. There was nothing abnormal there; I can assure you of that, inspector. Mrs. Earle and Miss Lawes were just as usual. I asked where Miss Stone was, and Mrs. Earle said she was lying down. She offered to call her, but I wouldn’t hear of it. Well, nothing happened during the visit; absolutely nothing out of the common. We stayed three-quarters of an hour or so and then drove back. Or no; I’m wrong there. We didn’t drive directly home. We went round to the golf club, where my brother wanted to see one of the members. But that only took a minute or two. Then we drove home. I prepared supper and my brother and sister sat and read in the drawing-room. It was while we were at supper that Mrs. Earle rang up.”

“You went over at once?”

“We went over at once. Mrs. Earle told us what had happened. She seemed very much upset and of course I didn’t wonder. Howard---my brother---suggested ringing up the superintendent at once; then he agreed with us we might have a look round ourselves first. I think we all see now that we were wrong, but you can understand---I don’t mean any discourtesy---that application to the police is distasteful and is usually made as a last resource.”

“It’s natural, madam,” French said smoothly.

“We organised a search, or rather my brother did. But when we met without having made any discoveries, we agreed that an application to the police could no longer be delayed. We rang up Farnham, and I think you know the rest.”

“I think so,” French agreed. “Well, madam, I’m glad we met here and much obliged for your ideas.”

The bus turned up presently and French saw the lady into it. She had not really told him anything he had not known before, and yet it was interesting to find her so convinced that only foul play could account for Ursula Stone’s disappearance.

French had by this time completed all those obvious and local enquiries which the tragedy of Ursula Stone had suggested. He was worried by the question of whether or not he should run down to Bath and have a look over the missing woman’s house. He did not think there was the slightest chance of learning anything useful from such a visit, and yet he doubted the propriety of omitting it. Finally he decided to go, and after sending a wire to the Bath police, he set off to Reading to get the afternoon express.

A thorough search revealed just what he had expected: nothing whatever, and with only the consciousness of work well done, he returned to Farnham on the following evening. During dinner that night and afterwards as he sat smoking in the lounge, he brooded sombrely over the case. What he particularly wanted was to have his programme for the next day settled. But for the life of him he could not see on what line to concentrate. Every direction in which he turned seemed to lead to a deadlock.

At last, wearied and disgusted, he picked up a novel which he had brought down to finish, but with which up to now he had made but little progress. He found, however, that he could not concentrate on the story. Again and again his thoughts strayed back to the case, and presently he threw the book down and gave himself up to a renewed mental search for other lines of attack.

It was while he was thus desultorily reviewing the evidence that he found himself trying to picture just what must have taken place in the study at St. Kilda at the time of Ursula Stone’s murder. There were one or two points about that study business which were not altogether clear. Why the study, in the first place? Why had the murder taken place there, if it had? Was it simply because that from the study there was a convenient exit to the wood? On the other hand, was the choice accidental? If so, how had Ursula been induced to come down there from her bedroom? And most puzzling of all, if neither Julia, Marjorie nor Slade had been concerned in the murder, who on the face of the earth had been?

As French sat smoking and pondering these conundrums, he began to wonder if there was not in this selection of the study some deeper and more fundamental motive than he had as yet contemplated? Could there be here something that he had missed, or was he just wasting his time in fanciful nonsense?

The line of sandy footsteps recurred to him. Whose were these? How disappointing it had been that he had been unable to learn something more about them! If he had even been able to say whether they belonged to a man or a woman it might have been a help. But they showed no detail.

Wait a minute though. Did they not? They had position. Was not their position at least interesting?

French recalled exactly where they had appeared. Their owner had evidently entered by the french window and had walked across the room. To what part?

So far as it had been possible to ascertain, to the corner to the left: of the fireplace. Was there a reason for this, or was it a mere accident? French recalled the furnishing of the room. There was no furniture at that place, nor was there anything on the wall. What could the visitor have gone there for?

Just an accident, he thought. And yet he was not wholly satisfied. Had there been a table or a bookcase it would have been easier to understand, but there was neither.

Impatiently French dismissed the affair from his mind and turned again to his novel. But a mental picture of the study seemed to intrude between his eyes and the page. With a muttered oath he threw the book away and let his thoughts roam where they would.

And now he recalled a fact which he had noted at the time with some small feeling of surprise. The walls of the study were expensively panelled in oak. It had struck him then, and now it struck him again, that this elaborate decoration was a little out of keeping with the remainder of the house. In fact, the decoration in the study must have cost more than that of the whole of the rest of the house put together. Why?

Well, there had often been a reason in the past for panelling. But, of course, such a reason would not apply to-day. All the same, French could not get the idea out of his mind.

Wondering if he was altogether a fool, he determined that, as he was at a loose end, he might as well run out once again to St. Kilda and have a look at that panelling. As soon as he reached this decision his subconscious self seemed satisfied, thoughts of the case vanished from his mind and he became immersed without effort in his book.

Next morning he was early at St. Kilda, and going into the study, he locked the door and settled down to his problem. He had measured exactly where the footsteps had gone and he now marked the place with a couple of books. Yes, he had been right. They went close to the wall, but at the place there was neither furniture nor pictures: only the panelling.

He moved across and began to examine the panelling. It was an exceedingly good job, with fine, well-fitting joints. French took out his lens and began slowly passing it along these joints.

In most of them the wood touched, and where it didn’t they were full of dust. Clearly no movement had taken place since they were made.

Then suddenly a little tremor of excitement passed through French. Here, just opposite where the footsteps had stopped, was a joint entirely clear of dust. It was very narrow, not more than the sixty-fourth of an inch in width, but quite clean.

French followed it along, and as he did so his excitement grew. The joints around a complete panel of some twelve by eighteen inches were clean!

French was immediately tempted to indulge in an orgy of pressing, pulling, shoving, squeezing and twisting, but he restrained himself. Before touching anything he got out his powdering apparatus and dusted a large area of the panelling for fingerprints.

His forethought was rewarded. Certain portions of the panelling bore prints. But as French examined them he became conscious of something even more interesting.

Practically none of the prints were whole. There were half-prints and quarter-prints and narrow strips of prints. Little round or oval patches of the markings had been wiped out, and French had no difficulty in guessing the cause. Gloves! Someone who wore gloves had been feeling over the panelling!

There seemed little use in photographing such prints as remained, but French was taking no chances, and he made records of all the marks. Then he gave himself up to manipulation. For a considerable time he worked upon the area covered by the prints, but without result. Then it occurred to him that many secret panels were opened by a simultaneous pressure on the panel and on another point perhaps four or five feet away. He therefore began searching with his lens for clear joints at some other part of the wall.

At last he found a decoration on the oak mantelpiece which also was surrounded by clean joints. At once he began a new orgy of pressures and twists.

And then a wave of delight shot over him, for the decoration moved. Moreover, pressure on the panel now had its effect. It slid backwards and then to one side, revealing in the brick wall behind a small steel safe!

French felt that at last he was on to something material. This was what the murderer had come for! This probably was what Ursula had seen him operating, and for her knowledge she had paid with her life!

The safe was locked. French remembered, however, having seen a number of keys in Earle’s desk. He took these out and tried them one after another. None of them would enter the lock.

He wondered if Julia knew of the safe. Without a search warrant he daren’t break it open, but Julia might give him permission. He stepped out into the hall and called her.

Her amazement when she saw the safe was so obviously genuine that French couldn’t doubt it. She emphatically denied ever having seen or heard of it before.

“It’s his book!” she exclaimed. “You were asking where he kept it and I didn’t know. He was very secretive about his book. Except that it was about some medical subject, he never would give any information. Certainly you may have it opened. Indeed, if you don’t, I shall do it myself.”

“When was it put in, Mrs. Earle?” French asked.

“It must have been when we took the house and before we moved in,” she answered. “The panelling of this room was done then at all events. I remember I wasn’t very pleased about it. It seemed a waste of a lot of good money. If all the sitting-rooms had been done I shouldn’t have said a word. But only this study! Dr. Earle said it was because of the damp. It never occurred to me to doubt that, but now I remember that I was in this room before it was done and I never saw any damp.”

When Julia had gone French telephoned to the Yard to send down an expert to open the safe. Then he returned to the study, determined not to leave the room till he had seen the contents.

While waiting he had another orgy with his dusting powder: with the same result. Obviously the last person to open the safe had worn gloves.

Scotland Yard put its best foot forward and in five minutes less than two hours a car drove up with two efficient-looking men and a formidable kit of tools. A short inspection told them that the lock could not be forced, and they rigged their oxy-acetylene plant and began playing a high temperature flame on the plates. Presently the hard steel burned away and soon a small circle of plate was lifted out. Then came a delay while the remaining metal cooled sufficiently to be touched; but eventually, working through the hole they had made, the experts were able to disconnect the lock and the little door swung back. Eagerly French gazed in.

Julia Earle was right! Here was the book! There were scores, probably hundreds, of quarto sheets covered with Earle’s rather untidy handwriting: these sheets---and nothing else!

French turned them over. Yes, they were about medical subjects: so far as he could see in a rapid glance, the production of disease from cultivations of bacilli.

He swore bitterly. Seldom had he had so great a disappointment. This discovery of the safe, reached by a process of reasoning and investigation which he felt did him immense credit, should surely have led to something really helpful. And what had he gained from it? Nothing!

Less than nothing! It had removed from the possibilities one theory of the crime and one criminal! French had never very seriously suspected Campion of stealing the book, but now here was proof that the doctor had done nothing of the kind. So much time wasted!

Automatically French worked on, testing the inside of the safe for fingerprints: again with the same result. Gloves had been at work within as well as without. Then he sat down at Earle’s desk and gave himself up to thought.

There was in this whole matter something which he was quite unable to understand. A secret safe was a very unusual thing. What was it for? It could not have been put in because of anything which had recently happened. Obviously the panelling had been undertaken as a mask for its installation; six years ago; before the Earles moved into the house. Had Earle’s disappearance, then, to do with some long-standing secret?

Or was the safe simply to hold the manuscript of the book? French did not think so. An ordinary safe would have held it all right. It was not as if there had been any secret about the book itself. Everyone knew Earle was writing it. Was there something more in Earle’s life than he had yet suspected? Things were beginning to look very like it.

French, having obtained Julia’s permission, parcelled up the manuscript to send to a doctor who sometimes did police work for the Yard and who had become rather a friend of his own. He did not think it was important, but it would be well to be sure it could have had no bearing on the affair.

Apart from its raison d’être, the existence of the safe did certainly clear up some of the detail of Ursula’s murder. It seemed obvious that she had in some way become suspicious and come down and discovered the thief in the act of burglary. In self-defence he had killed her---defence, that is, from the legal consequences of his act. But if so, why had he not removed the book?

Then French saw that he was being stupid. Why limit the contents of the safe to the book? The book didn’t fill it. Had there not been something else more vital to the thief?

At once French’s previous idea recurred to him. Was it something which, if found, would prove that the thief had murdered Earle? It might well be. Even it might prove that he had murdered Nurse Nankivel also. French was puzzled and for the moment he didn’t see how he was to settle the point. The whole affair was confoundedly exasperating.

Then still another idea flashed into his mind. What if the space in the safe had been filled, not with proof of the murder of Earle, but with money? What if here had been what he had so long sought under the guise of a second banking account? What if Earle had not been murdered at all, as he, French, had just been supposing? What if, taking from this safe a large sum of money or negotiable securities, Earle had after all gone away with Helen Nankivel? Was there any evidence for his death? There was not. French had assumed it, partly because Ursula had been murdered, but principally because he had taken no money with him. Suppose he had taken money with him. How would the question then stand?

Again, was there any evidence of Helen Nankivel’s death? There was not. Was there any motive for it? None. Why had he ever thought of such a thing? Simply because he had been driven to assume Earle’s death. Now was that assumption not invalid?

French swore. Instead of clearing up the case, this discovery of the safe was making it a hundred times worse confounded! Its foundations were cracking. He now knew no more what had happened to Earle than on the day of his first visit. And if this idea of the money were correct, what had the thief been after, and why had Ursula been killed? Damn it all, had Ursula been killed? For all the evidence there was, she might merely have been rendered unconscious in the study and then kidnapped. She mightn’t be dead at all.

Overcome with exasperation and disappointment, French rode dejectedly back to Farnham.

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