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22: French Propounds a Theory

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Author Topic: 22: French Propounds a Theory  (Read 62 times)
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« on: August 10, 2023, 07:04:05 am »

A COUPLE of days later a little party assembled in Sheaf’s room at police headquarters at Farnham. French was there and Sheaf, and at French’s special request, Sergeant Sheepshanks. Also there was no less a person than Chief Inspector Mitchell of the Yard. Mitchell had been down on business at Alton, and on his way back to Town had halted at Farnham with the express object of being present at the gathering.

Its purpose was to hear French tell the story of how he had arrived at the truth. He had already given a rough synopsis of his results to Sheaf, but now he proposed to recount the actual steps of the reasoning by which he had reached his conclusion. All four men were eagerly looking forward to the coming demonstration, French with the desire of the artist for recognition, the others with keen personal and professional interest.

“Now, French,” said Mitchell, when pipes and cigarettes had been lit and trial and error had revealed the best way of dealing with the superintendent’s somewhat spartan chairs, “I don’t know about the others, but I want to get home to-night. Wire in and get the thing off your chest. The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll be done, and the sooner we can relax and enjoy ourselves.” His eye twinkled. “What do you say, super?”

Sheaf, if the truth were to be told, was so much interested in the case that he didn’t care how long French took. However, he stolidly agreed with the chief inspector, thus indicating that the elucidation of a complex murder mystery by Scotland Yard experts was one of the normal experiences of his life.

French, on his part, knew that these preliminaries were mere camouflage to conceal the eagerness of both men, which it would not be proper to reveal in the presence of a professional inferior. He smiled internally therefore and took up his parable.

“I need not go over the early history of the case: you all know it as well as I do. I will pass over its gradual unfolding, as shown in the disappearance of Earle, the identification of Nurse Nankivel, the discovery that she also had disappeared, the vanishing of Miss Stone, the finding of the secret safe, the discovery of the bodies, and finally the proof that Frazer was also murdered. Instead of dwelling on these, I will start where I started a few days ago, and give you the steps of the argument as they then occurred to me. I shall of course have to go back on facts and arguments previously mentioned, but only as required to build up my case.”

At this beginning the chief inspector assumed the painfully cheerful air of the conscientious martyr. He tried another experiment with his chair, but did not speak. French went on.

“I explored every line of argument I could think of again and again and again, but without success. Though I knew that there was necessarily a perfectly complete explanation of the facts, I couldn’t find it.

“Before I go on to explain how at last I began to make progress, I should like to remind you of two sets of facts, as these, though not appreciated at the time, afterwards proved fundamental.

“The first set concerned the murder of Ursula Stone in the study and the finding of the safe. You remember the details? The depressions in No. 1 Thicket and the trail of blood leading to the corner of the study beside the safe, the sandy footsteps in the same corner and behind the tree, the fact that from Miss Stone’s window a watcher behind the bush could be seen from the house, the finding of the safe, and finally of No. 2 Depression and the marks of the car in the road near by. You remember also my theory that Ursula Stone, looking out of her window, had seen the watcher behind the bush approach and enter the study and had gone down to give the alarm; that she had found him at the safe, and to hide his actions he had struck her on the chin, carried her insensible body out to the nearest thicket and there murdered her. Probably he had returned to the study to see that all was right, and had then carried the body to No. 2 Thicket, where he or an accomplice afterwards removed it in a car. Also, of course, you remember that I assumed that Miss Stone’s murderer was also the murderer of Earle, and that when discovered he was attempting to remove from the safe proof of that former murder.”

“Even I remember all that,” said Mitchell, “and I’m sure the super is sick of the sound of it.”

“I’ve heard it before,” Sheaf admitted.

“Must just mention it, gentlemen,” French pointed out with a grin, “as it leads on to what I’m coming to. Well, that was one set of facts. The other was about the finding of the clay in Slade’s car, leading to the discovery of the bodies.”

“We remember that too,” the chief inspector said hastily.

“Yes, sir. Well, it was from this point I began to go ahead. First of all I was at a deadlock. The clay in the car proved that Slade had run the body to the by-pass, but he had an alibi which proved he hadn’t. This was of course the usual alibi deadlock and I expected I had been diddled over the alibi. But I couldn’t see how. I stuck at this point for a long time, then the simplest idea occurred to me. This was the idea which put me on the right track.”

French here made the first of those pauses which afterwards brought down so heavily the shafts of Mitchell’s wit. However, this time none of the others made a remark, and presently he resumed.

“This idea was simply that my dilemma didn’t exist. Both premises might easily have been true: that the body had been carried to the by-pass in Slade’s car, and that Slade’s alibi was sound. Suppose the car had been borrowed by the real murderer, borrowed without Slade’s permission?”

“You think that possible?”

“I think so, sir. I admit that such a thing would have been impossible before six o’clock. From the time that Slade got it out, until he reached the golf club at six, the car was either under observation or there would not have been time to borrow it. Similarly after eleven it could scarcely have been taken without the chauffeur’s knowledge. But between six and eleven the circumstances were different.

“Slade, as you know, reached the golf club-house at six and stayed till eleven. I wonder, sir, if you remember my description of the place? The cars are parked in a space at the side of the building. They are not overlooked and in the dark anyone could have removed and returned one unseen. But was there, I asked myself, a potential murderer available at that time?

“Obviously my next step was to go over the whereabouts of all my possible suspects between six and eleven, or rather, between eight and eleven, for until dinner was over I thought there would have been too much movement for tricks to be tried. I reached a very surprising and unexpected result. One of my former suspects and one only could have done it. This was my first great step towards a solution.”

French once again paused and shifted his position.

“French always waits at this sort of stage in a story, super,” the chief inspector remarked. “Dramatic effect and all that. Artistic, you know. Get along, French. We’re too old birds to be caught with that sort of chaff. Let’s hear the thing and get home.”

“I don’t know, chief inspector,” said Sheaf with heavy humour, “that we don’t want a bit of relief from such concentrated wisdom.”

Both French and Sheepshanks stared at this attempt to play up to the chief inspector’s lead. Then French grinned tactfully and resumed.

“Julia Earle and Marjorie Lawes were at St. Kilda. Slade was at the club. Mrs. Frazer was with her cousin, Mrs. Hampton. Gates gave me a little thought. He dined with the ladies at 7.30 that evening and admitted going out into the grounds from about half-past eight till nine. This the butler had substantiated, and though he couldn’t say the exact length of the walk, he was positive that Gates had not been out more than an hour.

“But in an hour Gates could not have used Slade’s car. To start with, he would have had about eight miles to walk, because I found the chauffeur locked the yard gates about half-past seven, and neither car nor bicycle could have been got out without his knowledge. And Gates would never have risked being seen in a bus. In fact it would have taken him two and a half hours to do what was done. Gates therefore was out of it.

“That left only Campion of all those who had at any time been on my list. Could Campion have borrowed the car?

“At first glance this seemed out of the question. Campion had been with his womenfolk all that afternoon and evening. He had driven over with them to St. Kilda, then had come the search for Miss Stone, and then he had rung you up, super. But suddenly in thinking this over, it occurred to me that I was wrong. Campion had not been with his womenfolk all the evening. He had been alone for something like forty minutes.

“It was Campion who organised the search. He set Mrs. Earle and Miss Lawes to work in the house, and his sisters to go over the roads in the car, while he himself did the paths in the wood. By himself, mind you. Could he not have borrowed Slade’s car during that period?

“The more I thought over this, the more likely it seemed. Two considerations indeed seemed to prove it. You know that country, super. How long do you think it would have taken him to go over all the paths concerned?”

Sheaf nodded. “That’s a point, certainly. I should say he could have done them all, good and plenty, in a quarter of an hour.”

“Just what I thought. He spent about twenty-five minutes too long. That’s the first consideration and the second’s the converse. If he had done what I suspected, it would have taken him the whole time. I worked it out. He would have had to hurry from St. Kilda to the club-house, start up Slade’s car, drive to Thicket No. 2, get the body on board, drive to the by-pass, carry the body to the grave, drive back to the club-house, park the car, and finally walk back to St. Kilda. He couldn’t very well have run on the last stage of the journey, as he daren’t arrive breathless. Well, I estimated how long all that should have taken. It came to forty-three minutes. Not a bad shot for the forty he actually took.”

“But look here, French,” Mitchell interrupted. “Aren’t you going a bit too quick? How would Campion have known that Slade’s car was there at the club-house waiting to be borrowed?”

French nodded. “Quite, sir. That bothered me at first, but I saw there was nothing in it. Campion was a member of the club and on his way home with the ladies from having tea at St. Kilda, he called there to see a man about going up to Town on the following morning. He spoke to the secretary, who was at the door. As it happened, at that moment Slade drove up. Slade called to the secretary that he had come for an evening’s bridge, and Campion must have heard him. He would know then that the car was to be had.”

“And you think he would have taken all that risk with another man’s car when he had his own available?”

“I suggest, sir, that his own was not available. I suggest that one of the ladies insisted on accompanying him in it, so that both sides of the road should be examined. You remember they did this in Earle’s case. If so, Campion couldn’t refuse without rousing suspicion. I suggest he acted on a brilliant inspiration. Of course this is guesswork and I don’t insist on it. My case is simply that he took Slade’s car.”

“Very well, we’ll pass that. But Campion couldn’t have committed the murder, nor could he have buried the body. He could only have supplied transport?”

“Quite, but my point is that no one but he could have supplied transport. The thing at least was suspicious, suspicious enough to make me concentrate on Campion. I switched off to consider again whether he could have taken any part in the other murders.

“I did not see how he could possibly have killed Frazer without arousing suspicion. But it was clear that if someone else had put the poison into the old man’s medicine, Campion could have played an equally vital part in the murder. He could have prevented suspicion arising, by treating the death as natural and signing the certificate.

“There was of course no proof that he had done so---fraudulently, of course, I mean. On the other hand, there was nothing inconsistent in it. The suspicions of the nurse, the analysis, the interview at Staines, and the locking of the evidence in the safe; all this would be perfectly consistent with Campion’s guilt.”

“Yes, that’s right enough so far,” Sheaf admitted gloomily, “but go on. How does Campion know that the evidence is in the safe?”

“I was just going to ask that,” put in the chief inspector.

French nodded. “That bothered me for quite a while, but I think it’s simple enough. Even if the nurse should have suspected Campion, she doesn’t say so to Earle. It would be too dangerous without absolute proof. She simply tells him the facts and leaves it there. Now Earle will never believe Campion guilty. He is his partner and he has worked with him for years and so on. He tells Campion the whole thing and consults him as to who the real criminal could be. Even suppose Earle does suspect him, he still tells him the facts, so as to put Campion on his guard and give him every chance of proving his innocence.”

“But you’ve not explained how Campion knows of the secret safe?”

“I suggest that Earle has shown it to him. According to Campion’s own story, they read over and discussed Earle’s book. Very well, Campion would see for himself the danger of Earle’s discovery becoming public. They would undoubtedly speak of the need for keeping it secret. It is impossible to believe that the safe should never have been mentioned.”

“Yes, I dare say you’re right.”

“Very well, sir, that left me believing that in spite of certain obvious difficulties, Campion might have been party to Frazer’s murder. Nurse Nankivel was the next victim. Could he have murdered her?”

“Another chapter,” said Mitchell with a significant glance at the superintendent.

French laughed.

“As you say, sir, it’s the artistic method. Campion according to his own story might have met the nurse on the Hog’s Back at six o’clock. He had, he said, and I checked the statement, had tea on that Sunday afternoon with some people called Slater at Puttenham. After tea he had driven home somewhere between half-past five and half-past six. He could unquestionably have picked up the nurse, and no doubt could have murdered her and disposed of her body. I didn’t see exactly how, but I felt sure it could have been done.

“Next I went on to consider whether Campion could have murdered Earle. I had gone into this when I had suspected him of stealing the manuscript, and I had found Campion had an alibi. You remember it, I’m sure. He was with his womenfolk at the time, or within a minute or two of the time of the murder. I thought over the thing for long enough and I felt I couldn’t break the alibi down. There was too much independent evidence.

“This was my second great difficulty and it stuck me for a long time. Then like the first, I saw that it was no difficulty at all.”

French paused again and Mitchell seized on the delay. “A short chapter, that! Short but pithy, eh, super?”

“He feels all these tricks are necessary to make it go,” said Sheaf, continuing to be heavily humorous.

“Of course. Well, what was the great idea that put you on the right track for the second time?”

“Simply,” French went on, “that again there wasn’t any contradiction. I’ll tell you how I got on to that. I dropped this question of Earle’s murder and went back to that of Ursula Stone. Now in Ursula Stone’s case, Campion could have provided transport, but could neither have committed the murder nor buried the body. Hence obviously Campion must have had an accomplice. Now I asked myself, Could this accomplice have murdered Earle?”

The others nodded appreciatively. “And were you able to answer it?” Mitchell asked.

“Yes, sir, though not quite in the way I thought at first. This idea involved going over once again everyone who could possibly be suspected, because the conditions of suspicion were now altered. Could there be anything between Campion and Mrs. Frazer? There might, but I had never heard such a thing whispered. I took a note to make enquiries. An entanglement with Mrs. Earle would not account for Frazer’s death. Nor would dealings between Campion and Miss Lawes, Miss Stone or Slade. Gates was left, and when I thought about Gates he seemed to fill the bill.

“Gates was hard up. Gates would benefit to the tune of £30,000 or thereabouts by his uncle’s death. What was more, Gates was associated with Campion at race-meetings. Campion was reported to be hard up. I asked myself whether these two had conspired to murder Frazer and to share the proceeds, and had been forced into these other three murders to keep their secret from leaking out.”

“Quite good theory,” Mitchell approved, “but still only theory.”

French agreed. But he held that it was progress, because it gave him something to test. He had, he pointed out, from nothing reached the definite opinion that Campion and Gates were guilty. That was the first half of his analysis. He would now go on to the second, the proof that this opinion was the truth.

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