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6: Interviews

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« on: August 28, 2023, 11:49:08 am »

ALTHOUGH Captain Cotton had never been a popular or even accepted member of the Regency Square circle, his strange and tragic death sent a ripple of horror and uneasiness through that architectural U: that such things could happen here! that their exclusive privacy should be broken into by vulgar sightseers and avid reporters: that pictorial records of their well-loved domestic retreats should be scattered through the pages of the daily newspapers! It seemed incredible. Unjustifiable. Even damnable.

“Look here, my dear,” said Sir Wilfred over his breakfast liver-and-bacon two days after the tragedy, “this place is becoming unbearable. God grant that I’m a democratic man---but there are limits. There are really. Some people seem to think that an affair of this sort is an excuse for familiarity. Why, only yesterday, White, my tobacconist----”

“I know,” sighed his wife. “It’s really too bad of people to be so inconsiderate. Why that dreadful man had to be killed here, in the square----” She sighed again. “But, of course---he was that type. A hateful thing to say, but true. A sensational, loud type of man without any respect for the finer feelings of his neighbours. That ghastly motor-bike---ugh!”

“I think,” said Sir Wilfred after a short silence, “that we’d better go.”

“Go?”

“Yes, my dear, to the South of France. To-day. Before we know where we are we shall be badgered---yes, even here in the White House---by these damned impertinent newspaper men. To say nothing,” he added, “of the police.”

And apropos of this conversation on 16th June, that very day, the striped sunblinds of the White House were drawn back into their sockets and the heavy wooden shutters closed and bolted across the windows. The staff were given a holiday.

Perhaps of all the people in the square the Misses Emmeline and Nancy Watt suffered the most. By nature quiet and retiring, they suddenly found themselves exposed to all the world in the glaring limelight of notoriety. Their morning jaunt to the Pump Room, prompted less by the need to take the waters than the desire to indulge in a little pleasant gossip and listen to the music, was utterly spoilt for them. The merest nodding acquaintances came up to them, dumped themselves down on adjacent chairs, and demanded to know the latest sensational tit-bits. It seemed that their mild and rather pathetic interest in crime was to be satisfied by an ever-present and disturbing realization that they had awakened one fine morning to find themselves slap-bang in the middle of one.

Events moved too fast for them. From the rumour that Captain Cotton had been accidentally shot, the Coroner’s inquest went on to prove that this couldn’t possibly be the case and that the Captain had been “murdered by person or persons unknown.” Rumour again stepped in. The Rev. Matthews was suspected of having connived with the murderer. Sir Wilfred and Lady Eleanor had fled from justice. Fitzgerald was the murderer. Dr. Pratt was the murderer. Poor Mr. West had been arrested for the murder stepping on to the boat at Dover. Miss Boon had shot all her dogs and then attempted to take her own life. Currents and cross-currents of suggestion and counter-suggestions crept into their shrinking ears and left the Misses Watt bewildered. They felt that at any moment, due to some horrible miscarriage of justice, they themselves might be warned that anything they had to say would be taken down in writing and (possibly) used in evidence.

“Well,” said Meredith as he dropped into a chair at the Inspectors office after the inquest at Number Five. “That’s that, Long. Of course it was a foregone conclusion. Considering the evidence we put up I don’t see how the verdict could have gone any other way. Dr. Newark’s point about the arrow entering the fleshy part of the skull without being deflected by the bone gave us a useful leg-up. Without that they wouldn’t have accepted our expert’s opinion that the arrow must have been fired from one of the three windows in the empty house.”

“Clever stunt of yours with that screen, sir,” put in Long admiringly. “It pinned our theory down and turned it into a nice, little corroborative fact. By the way, Mr. Hugh Bryant, the gentleman I got in to make the test, is an international. Draws a bow for merry England. Useful chap if we want any technical stuff.”

Meredith agreed.

“Well, now we’ve got our verdict, Inspector---what are we going to do about it?” Adding with genuine relief: “Thank heaven my Guv’nor at Lewes raised no objection to my working with you fellows here. Sporting of you, too, Long.”

“Don’t you believe it, sir,” replied Long with a dismissing flap of his pudgy hand. “I’ve never been one to have any truck with the green-eyed monster, as the poet has it. A murder’s a murder and that’s all there is to it. Don’t matter a rap to me ’oo gets the promotion as long as the job’s tidied up. Question is, sir, can we do it? What about motive? That seems the thing to tackle first.”

Meredith suggested: “What about your green-eyed monster, Long? Jealousy’s a pretty powerful stimulant. You remember I told you about Cotton and Mrs. West? West had a motive, hadn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Long in musing tones. “I’ve been thinking a tidy bit about our friend West since Monday. Mark you, I haven’t seen him personally yet. I rather felt it would be better to get our verdict before putting him through the hoop.” He reached forward and scooped up a sheet of paper from the desk. “But Shanks has found out a few useful things about him. Living at 25, George Street---that’s a turning out of the High Street in case you don’t know, sir. Two rooms which he’s furnished himself. Elderly woman by the name o’ Mrs. Emmet does for him. Obviously in straightened circumstances, as the adverts say, judging from his choice of lodgings. Clean, respectable, mark you, but a big comedown after Regency Square. According to this Mrs. Emmet he’s looking around for a job, too---at forty---that speaks for itself. Shanks put a few casual questions about Monday night but the ole gal seems to have a memory like a sieve. Thinks he stayed in all the evening. Thought she saw a light burning in his room. That sort of stuff. About as much use to us as a damp squib. If you ask me, sir---which by the way you’ve omitted to do---I suggest we pop round and have a word with West at lunch-time.”

“O.K., Long---I’ll leave that to you. We don’t want to fluster the chap by turning up in force. Now what about the burglary? How does that fit in with West?”

“A second motive,” said Long emphatically. “Three thousand’s not to be sneezed at by a chap who’s really hard up. Pity we couldn’t get any prints off the safe.”

“Did you expect to?” asked Meredith with a suggestion of sarcasm. “If West did do both jobs then there wouldn’t have been any finger-prints on the safe. There were none on the arrow, were there? If he took the precaution in the first case, he’d take it in the second. Suggests even that we’re thinking along the right lines.”

“Which means,” added Long, “that it was West who bunked down the stairs when we were carrying in the remains. Then what about Albert? Remember how short of breath he was?”

“Complicating.”

“Very.”

“Well, you see West and let me know how you get on. I want to make a few inquiries on my own account. Can you give me Bryant’s address?”

When Long had done so, Meredith strolled back to Regency Square calculating to arrive there just in time for lunch. Now that it had been proved that the arrow had been shot from the Empty House things certainly didn’t look too cheerful for West. He and the house-agents, in whose hands the property had been placed, were probably the only people who had keys to the place. And since none of the doors or windows had been tampered with, a key was necessary. West was a good shot---brilliant on “on” days. He had two sound motives for the murder. A lot, of course, would depend on what sort of alibi he would be able to put up for Monday night. So far, at any rate, he hadn’t made the fatal mistake of clearing out of Cheltenham---but that might be an argument either for or against his innocence. He might have waited until that morning, Wednesday, to see which way the Coroner’s cat was going to jump. Long might find those rooms in George Street vacant.

“Mr. West in?” asked Long as the sour-faced Mrs. Emmet pushed her thin nose through six inches of space between the door and its frame.

“Not at lunch-time to nobody,” she said with asperity, reducing the six inches to three.

Long, who was in plain clothes and accustomed to this sort of reception, stuck a stout boot in the ever-closing gap.

“I think he might see me. Inspector Long, Mrs. Emmet. I wanted to catch him when he was in.”

Mrs. Emmet eyed the Inspector with obvious suspicion, then very reluctantly swung back the door.

“Oh, very well. Up the stairs and the first door on the left. I hope there’s no funny business. It’s bad for letting. He’s always seemed a nice, respectable sort, but, of course, there’s no telling.”

“Suppose I told you he hadn’t paid his dog licence?”

“I shouldn’t believe you,” snorted Mrs. Emmet abruptly. “Because he hasn’t got a dog.”

Long’s blue eyes twinkled under their bushy brows.

“Then, perhaps, I’m mistaken. Thank you, Mrs. Emmet---I’ll find my own way out. Good day.”

Climbing the stairs, pursued by a vague odour of boiled cabbage and suet pudding, the Inspector arrived at a dingy landing, furnished with a mahogany hat-rack and a small table on which stood a stuffed owl, a vase of artificial carnations and a clothes-brush. A hat and a mackintosh hung on the rack. In answer to his knock, slow footsteps crossed the room and the door was opened, this time to its fullest extent, by Mrs. Emmet’s lodger.

“Mr. West?” West nodded. “Inspector Long---may I come in sir?”

“Certainly. I’ve only just finished lunch so you’ll have to excuse the litter.” He smiled wryly. “Try the basket-chair, Inspector, it’s a trifle less hostile than the others. Well---what’s it all about? The trouble in Regency Square, I imagine?”

“And correctly, sir,” smiled Long with his customary endeavour to put his witness at ease. “You may not know this yet---but at the Coroner’s inquest this morning a verdict of Murder was brought in.”

“Murder?” repeated West quietly, yet obviously shocked by the news. “No---I’d no idea about this. What a ghastly business. I suppose you’ve no idea----?”

“None at all, sir, at present. I may as well be honest with you. We’re groping. Papers may talk about an imminent arrest but that’s all . . . balderdash. The only thing we do know is that the arrow which killed Captain Cotton was shot from one of the second-floor windows of your house.”

“Impossible!” contested West.

“Why?”

“The place is all locked up. I hold one key and Gregg and Foster, the house-agents, the other.”

“They wouldn’t have lent the key to a prospective purchaser, perhaps?”

West summoned up a rather hollow smile.

“No such luck. There’s no demand these days for that type of house. Number Two’s a white elephant, Inspector. I was talking to Gregg only this morning. He hasn’t had a single inquiry. If I had the money, I’d convert the place into flats.”

“Then how do you account---” began Long laboriously.

“I don’t,” cut in West. “Unless the place has been broken into. But I imagine it’s part of your duty to tell me if this were the case.”

Long agreed and went on to explain how he had investigated the house and found everything in order. Bit by bit, his casual, seemingly irrelevant questions interspersed with his own racy footnotes and amendments, he led the conversation round to West’s movements on Monday night. But, at once, a change came over the man---his former uncalculated replies gave way to more studied and cautious answers. A disturbed look crept into his eye, an uneasiness which he attempted to conceal behind a mask of bewildered surprise.

At length he burst out: “But I’ve already told you, Inspector---I didn’t move out of this room all the evening. Have you any reason to doubt my word? Why do you think I should want to prevaricate?” Long remained silent, turning the palms of his hands outward and letting them fall again to his knees. His gesture seemed to say: “You should know best about that.” At this innuendo West became really agitated. The Inspector’s obvious inference roused his simmering anger to boiling-point. “But good God, man---you don’t think I had anything to do with it? What right have you to even suggest such a thing? Was I seen in the square? In the vicinity of the square? Had I any reason to kill Cotton? The idea’s not only repulsive---it’s a damned insult!”

“Steady, sir, steady,” wheezed Long a trifle alarmed by the other’s vehemence and quickness to take offence. “You’re jumping to conclusions. As things stand I had to put these questions. I mean nothing personal by ’em. All I want is facts. That’s our chief commodity, as you probably know. Now then---you say you were in this room from five o’clock onward---just to make things more comfortable all round do you think you could lay your hand on some independent witness who’d corroborate your statement? Mrs. Emmet for example?”

“Well, she brought in my supper at eight.”

“And cleared it away?”

“Yes---about a quarter to nine as far as I remember.”

“And you didn’t see her again that night?”

“No---I didn’t. So you’ll have to draw your own conclusions and act accordingly. If my word alone isn’t sufficient to convince you that----”

“It is,” said Long bluntly, pushing himself up with a grunt of effort from the wicker-chair. “All this, sir, is just an elimination of possible suspects---nothing more. I’m sorry you’ve taken offence because I don’t like upsetting people. You may take it from me that I meant nothing personal, Mr. West.”

“And I’ll admit I was a trifle hasty, Inspector,” apologized West, adding with surprising frankness: “I suppose the police have already learnt something about my domestic life? The relationship, for instance, between Cotton and my wife?”

“We can’t help hearing things,” admitted Long with a deep sigh for the perfidy and disloyalty of all gossips. “For one person that we can’t force to talk there are twenty that we can’t stop talking. I hope things may straighten out a bit for you now, sir.”

West nodded absent-mindedly and crossing to the ornate, marble mantelshelf, began to fill his pipe from a toby-jar. Feeling that the police should hear the facts from him in preference to the garbled accounts of his neighbours, he began to talk again. Swiftly, unemotionally this time, as if he were reciting a piece he had learnt by heart. Long, ever on the alert for odd scraps of unsolicited information, dropped back into the chair and listened attentively.

It was, in its essence, a very commonplace story. An extravagant, somewhat flighty woman married to an intelligent but serious-minded man. Money difficulties arising through a bad break on the Stock Exchange---the refusal of the wife to cut her cloth according to the enforced economy resulting. An adventurer arriving on the scene, the kind of glib and practised Lothario who exercises a curious fascination upon a certain type of woman. The final, inevitable quarrel and separation.

“And here I am now,” concluded West, “at forty-three, looking round like any youngster for a job. Any job. I’ve had to sink my pride and kowtow to half-educated bits of boys almost half my age. And the trouble is that I’ve not been trained to earn a living in the ordinary sense of the word. You don’t make money out of biological research; you spend it. It seems ironical that now I could do with my inheritance to keep myself alive my capital losses have been so heavy that unless something turns up----” he raised his hand in a gesture of hopelessness. “What a lot of time I’ve wasted looking at life through a microscope. Your way, the direct human contact, is safer and saner in the long run. Take that from me!”

“Well, I’ve never had any inheritance to lose but I do seem to rub along quite comfortable on what I get. Some people might think it a queer manner of earning a living, dealing with the misdeeds of fellow-mortals. But it’s interesting. Makes you think. Instructive, too, because it brings you in touch with all sorts o’ things which in the ordinary run o’ life you wouldn’t meet. Archery, for instance---four days ago I didn’t know----” he clicked his stumpy fingers---“that much about the game.”

It almost seemed that Meredith’s observation, as he sat in Hugh Bryant’s summer-house, was an echo of his subordinate’s confession.

“In a matter of this sort, Mr. Bryant, we’re bound to ask the opinion of experts. Crime puts you in touch with all manner of specialized pursuits---sport, business, law, medicine, to mention a few. We can’t know more than a few general facts about these things. Hence this visit.”

“And the information you’re after?”

“First of all,” said Meredith, as he carefully unwrapped the arrow from its sheet of tissue-paper, “this!”

Bryant put forward a reluctant hand.

Meredith laughed. “It’s all right, sir, I’m not asking you to handle it. I want you to take a close look and see if you can tell me anything interesting about it. Where it was bought, for instance? If the barb was added after purchase? If the shaft is much the same as those you use yourself?”

After a prolonged scrutiny, during which Meredith twisted the arrow from the tip so as to display every side of it, Bryant leant back and said diffidently: “I can’t tell you much, I’m afraid, but I should say that the barbed head, without much doubt, has been specially fitted to an ordinary shaft. This is a normal twenty-eight-inch shaft, which suggests, of course, that it was used with a six foot bow. There is one rather unusual point about the shaft, however. Did you notice that dark patch level with the nock?”

“Here,” indicated Meredith with a finger-tip. “Yes---I thought it looked like a flaw in the wood.”

“It is in a sense,” agreed Bryant. “Only it happens to occur at the usual point where the manufacturers name is stamped into the wood. It looks to me as if the name has been carefully sliced away and a thin veneer of plastic wood substituted in order not to upset the flight of the arrow. Different colour, you’ll notice, from the ordinary red deal of the shaft itself.”

“You see how useful an expert is,” grinned Meredith with approval. “I shouldn’t have realized the significance of that flaw. So you think the shaft came from one of the recognized makers?”

“Decidedly. Ayres, Gamages, Harrods---any of the well-known sports people. But arrows differ so little in appearance that it would be difficult to say where the arrow was bought without the maker’s imprint.”

“And the barb?”

“There you’ve got me. Quite possibly it’s hand-wrought. I mean it would have to be specially ordered from the sports firms because they only fit theirs, naturally, with a target pile. A dangerous procedure if the arrow were to be used criminally. If made by hand then it would not have to be of exactly the same weight as the pile which was removed. In fact, a slightly heavier arrow would be all to his advantage if he knew he would not be taking a long shot. It would enable him to take an almost point-blank aim.”

“Do target arrows vary in weight as well as length?”

“Good heavens---yes. We all have our special fads---like golfers. Personally I get on best with a four-and-ninepenny arrow---it suits my bow, I suppose.”

“Would you consider that expensive?” asked Meredith practically.

“Expensive? I don’t quite----?”

“At four and nine?”

Bryant laughed: “Here! we’re talking at cross purposes. Four and ninepence is the weight of the arrow. You see, they’re weighed up against shillings. An ordinary shilling being the unit of measurement. Some people prefer a lighter arrow---say a four-shilling. This fellow, on the other hand, seems to have used the same weight arrow as I do myself. If you want to make sure about that point, I suggest you borrow a balance and weigh the arrow against four shillings and ninepence. In silver, of course!”

After Meredith had made a few notes about those facts which might have some bearing on the case, he began to question Bryant, who was captain of the Wellington Club, about certain of its members. What sort of shots they were, the type of bow they used, the usual weight of their arrows, and so on. At the end of fifteen minutes he had drawn up the following comprehensive list.

Miss Boon---Fair shot---26 in. arrow---3/6 weight---5 ft. 6 in. bow.
West---Good to brilliant shot---28 in. arrow---4/9 weight---6 ft. bow.
Matthews---Sound shot---28 in. arrow---4/6 weight---6 ft. bow.
Fitzgerald---Erratic shot---28 in. arrow---4/9 weight---6 ft. bow.
Pratt---Good shot---27 in. arrow---4/-weight---6 ft. bow.


After thanking Bryant for his information and patience, Meredith returned via the High Street to the police-station. In the High Street he called in at Boots, and with the help of one of the dispensers weighed the arrow. As Bryant had anticipated, it turned the balance at exactly four shillings and ninepence. Armed with this piece of information he went in to Long’s office and found the Inspector had only just returned from George Street. After a full exchange of the results of their inquiries they fell, naturally, into a discussion of what theories they were justified in assuming from the new facts.

On the face of it Long’s visit to Mrs. Emmet’s had proved abortive. West had an alibi up until 8.45 p.m., but after that time they only had his own word for it that he had not left his lodgings. According to Buller, in a further cross-examination, his study clock had just struck the half-hour when the tragedy had happened. This would have left West three-quarters of an hour, at least, to have walked round to Regency Square, entered his house and loosed the fatal arrow. He, alone, of all the archers in the square, seemed unable to prove a satisfactory alibi. Miss Boon was out with her dogs---a perfectly customary habit of hers at that particular hour, though so far not corroborated. Matthews was with his sister, a fact which Shanks had cunningly elicited from Prudence, the maid, without her realizing why the question had been put. Fitzgerald had been listening-in with his wife in a back room. Their housekeeper had been out to the cinema, which meant that no disinterested witness could vouchsafe for the truth of this statement. Pratt had been out on a call and had only arrived in the square after the tragedy had taken place. Up to the moment the validity of this call had not been proved.

From this question of alibi they turned to a perusal of Meredith’s list. Out of the five archers in the square only two were in the habit of using a 4/9 arrow---West and Fitzgerald. Out of these two, West, according to Bryant, was indisputably the better shot. Furthermore, Barnet had gleaned quite a lot of information from the Misses Watt concerning the personal relationships existing between the various people in the square, and, in their opinion, Fitzgerald was definitely friendly towards Captain Cotton. They often walked back from the town together after business and seemed to have the run of each other’s houses.

“So you can’t help but think,” concluded Long, “that if West didn’t do it then fate has bloomin’ well loaded the dice against the poor blighter. Every clue we’ve got points towards him---like so many o’ those accusing fingers you see on the front page o’ magazines. I wouldn’t be in his shoes, sir---not with you on the case---and that’s straight!”

Meredith accepted this flattery with a non-committal smile. He realized that they had a long road to travel from mere suspicion, however well-based, to the law’s more exacting demand of proven guilt.

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