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21: Action at Last

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Author Topic: 21: Action at Last  (Read 58 times)
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« on: August 10, 2023, 06:32:16 am »

FRENCH was getting tired of working in that bedroom at the hotel. Not so much tired either of the room itself, nor yet of work, of which he was not afraid, but tired of the thankless and unprofitable and unsuccessful work with which the room had become associated. Now as he turned once again to this problem which had so long baffled him, he vowed he would not stop wrestling with it until it had yielded up its secret, or if not its whole secret, at least some vital part of it.

During the progress of the case he had successively suspected and acquitted in his mind no fewer than six persons: Julia, Marjorie, Slade, Campion, Mrs. Frazer and Gates. Beyond these six he had been unable to think of anyone who might be guilty, and now, reconsidering the point, he found himself still unable to do so. Going slowly over the names of all the other persons he had come in contact with since his arrival, he felt satisfied that not one of them could be involved.

He felt thrown back therefore on his six former suspects. Had he made a mistake? Could it be that one or more were guilty after all?

As a sort of desperate last resource he decided he would once again go over the case against these six and satisfy himself absolutely of their innocence.

However, second thoughts left him precisely where he was before. So far as he could still see, not one of the six could be guilty. It was out of the question that either Julia Earle or Marjorie Lawes could have poisoned old Frazer, though conceivably (but most improbably) they might have been guilty of the other three crimes. French did not for a moment believe they were guilty of even these, but of Frazer’s death they were innocent beyond yea or nay.

Slade was the next possibility. French had not been thinking so much of Slade lately owing to his preoccupation with the Frazer affair. Slade he recognised as the most likely member of his band of suspects, though even Slade by no means filled the bill.

In the first place he had been unable to think of any reason why Slade should have desired old Frazer’s death. Nor could he obtain any evidence that Slade had been in the old man’s room during his illness and therefore could have administered the poison. Admittedly the young man had been several times in the house at Polperro since Frazer had became seriously ill, but this in itself proved nothing.

Slade, moreover, had alibis in the cases of all three other victims. Admittedly those covering the deaths of the nurse and Earle were not very convincing and conceivably might be broken down, but that for the day of Ursula Stone’s murder seemed absolutely watertight.

On the other hand the most suspicious item of the entire case was against Slade: the clay found in his car. There could be no question then that it indicated a visit to the by-pass, but French could not prove that Slade had paid it, nor could he break down Slade’s rebuttal of the charge.

Incidentally he wondered whether a search for clay on the shoes of all his suspects---or at least those who might have killed Ursula Stone---would be of any use. None, he decided. Too much time had elapsed since that fatal Sunday. However, he noted the idea as a last resource.

Deeply dissatisfied as to the part Slade had played in the affair, French turned to his next possibility, Campion.

Campion he had suspected of stealing the manuscript of Earle’s book, and of murdering Earle to allow him to obtain the benefits and fame of Earle’s discoveries. But the case against Campion had broken down for five reasons:
1.   The book had not been stolen.
2.   Campion was with his womenfolk at the time, or almost at the time, of Earle’s disappearance.
3.   Campion was with his womenfolk all the afternoon and evening of Ursula Stone’s disappearance and could not conceivably have murdered her.
4.   Though Campion could have met the nurse on the Hog’s Back, he could not possibly have had time to bury the body.
5.   Campion might conceivably have sent the nurse out of the room during a visit to Frazer, while he put arsenic into his patient’s medicine. This, however, was most unlikely for two reasons. First, if the nurse were afterwards to suspect poison, she would be almost certain to remember the incident: which would doubtless give her to think. Second, it looked as if before taking the poison Frazer’s faculties were quite clear, and if so, it would be impossible for Campion to tamper with the medicine unknown to him.

French saw that Campion might be ruled out. Since the book theory had collapsed there was no reason to suspect him, while there was definite proof of his innocence of at least two of the murders.

His next suspect had been Mrs. Frazer. She could have poisoned her husband, and might, though it was most unlikely, have murdered Ursula Stone. But she was unquestionably innocent of the deaths of Nurse Nankivel and Earle.

Lastly French had suspected Gates. Gates could have poisoned old Frazer and might, though again it was most unlikely, have murdered Ursula Stone. But he could not have killed either the nurse or Earle.

Not one of his suspects could possibly have killed all four victims. Nor could any combination of them have done so, for so far as he could see, none of them could have killed Earle.

And once again, if these six were innocent, he couldn’t think of anyone else who might be guilty.

All that evening his difficulties weighed on French’s mind. He tried very hard to dismiss the case from his mind while he was dining, but found that even then he could not do so. And when after the meal was over he withdrew to the lounge, he remained silent from preoccupation; morose, his manner was considered by certain other visitors who essayed light conversation.

Bankrupt! That was the proper word for his condition. All the promising strings he had had to his bow had failed him and he was left without any. He simply did not know where to turn or what further investigations to make.

It was not good enough, he told himself. The thing had an explanation. He was not like an inventor working on what might really be an insoluble problem. He was more like a man trying to solve a crossword puzzle, the antecedent condition of his work being that the puzzle had a solution. Equally certainly, this case had a solution: more certainly, in fact, because in the crossword there was always the possibility of a misprint. In real life there was no possibility of error, unless such error as he had made himself.

His stalemate worried him terribly, though he kept on trying to assure himself that the affair was taking its normal course. Other cases he had been held up in, many of them, but always temporarily. (Or very nearly always.) But he could not afford to be held up in this. It was an important case. It had fired the imagination, not only of the British people, but of those of the Continent and America. In an age when murder was unhappily far too common, it stood out as a notable case: one of those big cases which for some reason best known to itself the public exalts into tests by which it may measure the efficiency of the police. French had not only his own reputation in his keeping, but that of his entire service. Was he going to let both down?

All the evening he wrestled unhappily with the problem; wrestled till he felt himself stale and tired to death of the whole thing. He went out hoping to achieve a change of thought, but the advertisement of the Eastern train was still on the boards at his customary cinema and he felt he could not summon up the energy to find another picture-house. For some time he walked, through an unpleasant drizzle, then returned to the hotel and his puzzle.

He went to bed at his usual time, but still he could not get rid of the gnawing uneasiness. Up till this stage in the case he had always had something to fall back on. Whatever point he was engaged on, there was another line to turn to if it failed. Now that was so no longer. His last hope had petered out.

The more French tried to compose himself, the farther sleep seemed to go from him. His mind was vividly alive and full of energy. His imagination also was abnormally active. Ideas poured out, ideas of all kinds. He marvelled at their range and originality. For a time he found himself wishing he were a novelist, so simple did the provision of the necessary matter seem.

But all this wealth of mental picture and imagery had one outstanding feature: it did not help with his case. None of these brilliant ideas solved his problem or suggested where he might profitably search for a solution.

He remembered vividly a similar experience through which he had passed some years previously. In Glasgow in the smoking-room of the St. Enoch Hotel he had spent hours wrestling with the Sir John Magill problem: agonising over it would rather describe his state of mind. He had been up against blank despair and---he had pulled through! He had got his idea and his case. How he wished that on this occasion history might repeat itself!

It was well on into the small hours and French was growing tired of tossing and turning and thinking at a white heat of irrelevant matters, when something happened. A still further new idea flashed into his mind: an idea this time about his case. For a moment he toyed with it, then with an intense shock he realised that this was something different, something vital. He grew rigid, as if afraid that movement might dispel the thought, while he lay wondering, wondering, had he got his solution? Did he really see the end of his case? Were his troubles over?

He sweated with excitement as he turned this precious idea over in his mind. Had he got his solution? Fearfully he allowed himself to admit it looked like it!

Quietly he got up, switched on the light, and slipped on some clothes. Then he lit the gas fire, poured himself out a stiff drink from his pocket flask, and drawing the most comfortable chair up to the fire, sat down with a writing-pad to consider systematically the great thought.

He soon reached the conclusion that while he had stumbled on something of the utmost value---nothing more nor less than, he believed, the actual truth of what had happened---he had by no means cleared the affair up. His main idea, he could swear, was sound, but several of the details wouldn’t work in. There were discrepancies and there were contradictions; fundamental discrepancies and contradictions which he couldn’t reconcile. He made a list of these so far as he could visualise them.

After continuing his broad survey of the case till he thought he had extracted from it everything that it could be made to yield, he changed his method. Taking up the difficulties one after another, he began trying to find ways of overcoming them. In this, it must be admitted, he had little success.

About half-past four he suddenly grew sleepy. Well satisfied with what he had accomplished, he got into bed again and a few minutes later he was slumbering as peacefully as an infant.

Next morning he settled down with the dossier to consider systematically the difficulties of his new theory. He was a profound believer in the motto: Take care of the cons and the pros will take care of themselves. Obviously on its objections the theory would stand or fall.

Hour after hour he sat racking his brains, turning the facts about, looking up details of time or place or action from the dossier, considering possibilities and alternatives and generally going through the slow tedious work of those who solve problems. But all without result.

Presently feeling stale, he went out for a sharp walk, then after a light lunch with plenty of strong coffee, he set to work again. For two more hours he worked, then suddenly his experience of the night was repeated.

His first difficulty was no difficulty at all! There was a solution to it, an obvious solution, so simple that he was now lost in amazement that it should have baffled him so long!

This discovery, he felt, practically proved his new theory, and it was with renewed zeal that he set himself to deal with the remaining objections. Though minor in character, these proved no easier to meet than the first, and night came before he had any more progress to record.

However, he was now convinced that success was merely a matter of time, and happier than he had been since he started the case, he resolutely put it out of his mind, dined and went to the pictures. Next morning, however, he was at it again, and almost at once he had another success. A second difficulty was overcome.

The clearing away of this second difficulty seemed to have removed the dam which was holding up the stream, and with an ease and speed which delighted French, further fact after further fact dropped into place. In an hour his theory was complete. He spent another hour noting his facts and deductions in logical sequence, then turned to consider what, if any, confirmation he could get.

At once he found his ardour checked. The possibility that certain happenings had taken place was one thing; the proof was quite another. His theory was good, but if he couldn’t prove it, it was no more use to him than if the whole thing had been a fairytale. At present he had no case to take into court: he doubted if he had enough even to justify an arrest.

Then at last he saw that there was one point, admittedly a secondary and incidental point, which he might be able to establish. It would, he thought, provide “moral” proof of the whole affair, though unquestionably it would not be sufficient for court. However, moral proof was better than none.

It hinged on one question, a question which could only be answered by a certain firm with a headquarters at Kentish Town. French immediately walked down to the station and took the first train to Town. In due course he found the firm’s office and saw its principal.

To him he put his question. The principal sent for an assistant. Books were looked up. The assistant answered the question. Satisfactorily.

Full of a great happiness French returned to Farnham. No longer was there any doubt as to the correctness of his theory! All the same he would give a good deal for some more direct proof. Was such quite unobtainable?

His theory postulated that a certain car had passed along certain roads at certain hours on the night of Earle’s murder. If so, surely someone must have seen it?

He thought the matter would be worth a further effort. Part of his hypothetical itinerary lay outside the area Sheaf had already explored, and fresh enquiries might produce something of value.

French put his back into it and on the third day he received his reward. He found a young man who had been keeping a tryst behind some bushes along one of the roads in question. This man had seen a car---the car; he had noted its number---drive up and stop fifty yards beyond the gate of a certain house. A man, whom he believed he had recognised, had alighted and gone up to the house, returning in three or four minutes and driving away.

This French considered complete confirmation, though still he knew his case was thin for court. However, he had no doubt that further proof would become available.

With deep satisfaction he walked to the station and called on Sheaf. Sheaf would be a surprised man! On the last occasion on which they had discussed the case, French had been unable to hide his despondency. Sheaf, French knew, believed that he, French, was going to fail in the case. How delightfully his mind would be disabused! French was looking forward to the interview with delight.

Sheaf nodded his greeting as French entered. “I’m glad you came in,” he said; “I wanted to talk to you about one or two things. But take your own business first. You wanted to see me?”

“As a matter of fact I did, super. I’ve got something to tell you.”

Sheaf looked up, struck by something in French’s manner. “Well?” he grunted distrustfully.

“The result of two days and two nights of solid thinking: I should say, just sweating myself with thought. No sleep and all that sort of thing.” French grinned. “Do you know, super, that I had in my possession every single bit of information that was required to solve this problem; and until a couple of days ago I didn’t know it! And what’s more, super, from my reports you have in your possession at this moment every single bit of information that you require to solve it too! And as for proof: I went up to a certain firm in Town and asked them a question, and the answer gave me all the proof I wanted. More than that, a certain car was seen in a certain place at a certain time, which clinches the thing.”

Sheaf stared as if he couldn’t believe his ears. He blinked at French, then he said heavily: “But I don’t know your question and its answer, nor yet about your car; so these won’t help me.”

“You’ve enough without them to work out what must have happened. You’ll then think of the question and want to ask it yourself. And when I tell you now that the answer is satisfactory, you’ll know what it is. Same about the car.” French paused for a moment grinning. “Listen to me, super.” He bent forward and began to speak rapidly and in a low tone, as if imparting the most profound secret. Sheaf, disparaging at first, grew more and more interested as the tale progressed, until finally a suspicion of actual excitement appeared on his somewhat heavy features.

“I declare, French,” he said at last with a strange but efficient sounding oath, “that’s a neat bit of work! You’re right; you’ve got the thing at last! And you’re right also that I knew everything you’ve used to get it; everyone connected with the case knew it, but we just didn’t think of what the facts involved. Congratulations, and all that!”

“Just a bit of luck, super. I got it because I had nothing to do but think of it, while you and the others were busy with your ordinary work. However, we’re not out of the wood yet. I take it, you’ve got to decide now what you’re going to do.”

“I guess,” returned Sheaf, “I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to act. With all that information of yours I daren’t do anything else.”

French nodded. “I hoped you would take that view. You realise that my proof would scarcely do for court.”

“You’ll get the rest. What about going out as soon as possible?”

“I’m on.”

“Then I’ll get some men and we’ll go.” Sheaf looked as nearly excited as French believed he had it in him. “This’ll cause a sensation, French,” he declared. “I tell you it will.”

He pressed his bell and gave some orders. “That’ll do,” he went on, “I’ll get the papers. Well, French, the sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll be there. What about ten o’clock from here?”

“Right, super. I’ll be ready.”

It was with difficulty that French possessed his soul in patience while Sheaf was making his arrangements. He hated what was coming, and yet it was an experience with which he was only too familiar. Many a time the climax of a case had come under more difficult and dramatic circumstances. He recalled his expedition up the Cave Hill with the Belfast Police on that dreadful night of storm, when in the inky darkness of the dripping trees he and his friends fought for their lives against the Sir John Magill gang. He remembered also standing in the saloon of a launch in Newhaven Harbour, in an atmosphere charged with petrol vapour, expecting every moment that a shot from his quarry’s automatic pistol would turn the whole air into flame. And he seemed even yet to feel the desperation with which he had clung to a Mills bomb, from which the pin had been extracted, while the wanted man struggled further to dislodge his grip so that both might be blown to atoms. To-night there would be nothing of this kind. What they had to do would be done quietly, if equally relentlessly.

Ten o’clock arrived at last, and presently two cars left the police station at Farnham. In the first were French and Sheaf, in the second Sheepshanks and three men. All were in plain clothes and all were excited and on the stretch.

Though French did not lack the courage of his convictions, his excitement was not unmixed with uneasiness. This expedition was being undertaken at his suggestion, and though the final decision necessarily lay with Sheaf, it was French who would be primarily held responsible if anything were to go wrong. He was the expert. He had advised Sheaf, and Sheaf was only carrying out his advice.

Sheaf also felt doubts gnawing at his mind. French’s theory sounded well and was probably true, but Sheaf was now realising more and more that it hadn’t been proved, and well, unless a thing is absolutely proven, there is always the chance of error. And if error occurred it would not help with that promotion to which Sheaf was so anxiously looking forward.

The night was dark but fine as they took the now familiar road along the Hog’s Back. French sat watching the black road as it streamed towards them in the beam of the headlights. To the left the white concrete curb and the grass edging quivered as they rushed past. Outside the area of the lamps was impenetrable blackness. They were running at a good speed on this stretch of straight smooth-surfaced road. No one spoke. Each was fully occupied with his own thoughts.

Reaching the by-pass bridge, they slackened speed and turned down the Compton road. A little short of Polperro they drew up and the two officers and two men descended. They walked up to the house and French rang.

The butler opened the door. He recognised French with apparent surprise.

“I want a word with Mr. Gates,” said French. “Is he in?”

“Yes, sir, he’s in the study. I’ll tell him.”

“And Mrs. Frazer?”

“Gone up to Town, sir.”

French nodded. “Thanks, we’ll just go in.”

Paying no attention to the man’s somewhat scandalised expression, French and Sheaf pushed past him, and tapping at the study door, threw it open and entered. Gates was reading at the fire and as he looked round and saw the intruders he swore a blustering oath.

“Damn you, inspector, that’s not the way to walk into a man’s house. What in hell do you mean? And who’s this you’ve got with you?” He rose slowly to his feet and scowled at them.

Sheaf stepped forward closely followed by French, while the forms of police constables became visible in the hall.

“Arthur Gates,” Sheaf said solemnly, “I am a police officer. I hold a warrant for your arrest on a charge of conspiring to murder John Duncan Frazer, Helen Nankivel, James Earle and Ursula Stone on the 22nd September and the 9th and 23rd of October respectively, and I have to caution you that anything you say will be used in evidence. Be a wise man, Mr. Gates, and come with us quietly. There are four of us here.”

For a moment Gates seemed stupefied with surprise, standing staring with wide-opened eyes at the others. Then instantaneously he roused himself. Like a flash his hand flew to his pocket, came out and rose to his mouth. Like flashes also French and Sheaf threw themselves on him. French gripped his wrist in both hands, while Sheaf, throwing his arms round him from behind, sought to pinion him. Gates, however, had the strength of a giant. He shook Sheaf off, big man as the superintendent was, and turned to grapple with French. But French held his grip of the wrist, and before Gates could transfer what he held to the other hand, Sheaf was on to him again. At the same moment a constable laid hold, and in a few seconds Gates was handcuffed and helpless. From his hand they took a tiny sealed package of some powder.

“Potassium cyanide, I expect,” French panted as he put the unbroken package into his pocket-case.

Sheaf was panting too. He nodded briefly, then turned to Sheepshanks. “Take him back with two men in one of the cars,” he ordered. “The inspector and I want the other.”

Gates, now pale and broken, was led out. French called the butler.

“Tell Mrs. Frazer, will you,” he said in a low voice, “what has happened. We’re very sorry, but what could we do? Tell her he’ll get every chance to prove his innocence. You better ring her up if you know her address.”

“What---what’s it for?” stammered the man, himself pale and trembling.

French hesitated. “Well,” he said, “it’s this case of Dr. Earle,” and hastened out after the superintendent.

“Come along, French,” Sheaf called from the car. “This is a beastly business; let’s get it over as soon as we can. Go on, driver.”

The other car had driven up again towards the Hog’s Back, but French and Sheaf, with the third constable, moved off in the opposite direction. Through Compton they went along the Peasmarsh road, turning presently to the left towards Binscombe. At the Red Cottage they drew up.

Here the same distressing scene was enacted. French, enquiring for Campion, was told he was in his workshop. He and Sheaf and the remaining constable went round there at once, and after getting so near Campion as to prevent any attempt at suicide, Sheaf arrested him for conspiring with Gates to commit the four murders. Campion grew very pale but made no reply. But in the car he tried the same trick as Gates. Unnoticed his hand stole slowly to his pocket, was withdrawn, and was flashing towards his mouth when French seized it. Handcuffed, Campion had no chance against the two officers. From his fingers was taken a little paper package of powder similar to that Gates had tried to swallow. French’s guess was afterwards found to be correct---it was potassium cyanide; a dose large enough to kill a dozen persons.

So to an end came the dreams and the schemes of two miserable men.

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