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3: Mr. Tarkington Develops a Theory

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Author Topic: 3: Mr. Tarkington Develops a Theory  (Read 35 times)
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« on: August 31, 2023, 11:54:55 am »

AS Ruth emerged from the comparative gloom of the courthouse into the bright September sunshine her spirits seemed to rise. A reaction had set in from the strain of the inquiry, with its continuous suggestion of the hideous details of the tragedy. Now with the ending of the inquest, it seemed to her that the terrible affair was all but over. The final episode, the funerals, would not be anything like so harrowing. Not since the first hint of disaster had come in the shape of Mr. Oxley’s telegram to York had she felt so lighthearted and in love with life. She seemed to have awakened from an evil dream.

It was therefore no indication of heartlessness that she should glance eagerly around as she and her friends advanced from the shadow of the old building into the little square. She was young and the claims of the living were more to her than those of the dead. And who will reproach her for the thrill of pleasurable excitement which she experienced as the sight she was hoping for met her eyes? There was Pierce Whymper evidently waiting for a chance of speaking to her. With a smile she invited him over, and he came and joined her. At the same moment Mr. Tarkington, the thin hawk-like bank manager, whom she had seen in the courthouse, approached and spoke to Mr. Oxley.

“Will you go on?” the latter said to his wife. “I want to go round to the bank with Mr. Tarkington. I’ll follow in a few minutes.”

Mrs. Oxley, Ruth and Whymper moved off in one direction while Mr. Oxley and Mr. Tarkington disappeared in the other. For a time the trio chatted with animation, then Ruth grew gradually more silent, leaving the burden of the conversation to the others. She was in fact puzzled and a little hurt by a subtle change which she felt rather than noticed in Whymper’s manner. He seemed somehow different from the last time she had seen him---that time in another existence when she had left Thirsby for her visit to York. Then he had been obviously eager for her company, anxious to talk to her, even before Mrs. Oxley making no secret of his admiration and regard. But now, though he was just as polite as ever, his manner was less spontaneous, indeed at times she thought it almost embarrassed. It occurred to her that possibly the change might be in herself, and even when their ways parted at the turn to the church she had not completely made up her mind. But whatever the cause, a certain disappointment remained, and when she went up to change for dinner she had lost a good deal of the lightheartedness she had felt on emerging from the courthouse.

Mr. Oxley, when he arrived shortly after, also showed a change of manner. He was a kindly, jovial man, fond of a joke and the sound of his own voice, but during dinner he was strangely silent and wore an expression of concern and disappointment. But he did not offer any explanation until the meal was over, and then he followed the ladies into the drawing-room and unburdened his mind.

“I am awfully sorry, Miss Ruth,” he began hesitatingly, “but I am afraid I have brought you some more bad news. It’s about money,” he added hurriedly as the girl turned a piteous glance towards him. “I’ll tell you exactly what has happened. You know, or perhaps you don’t, that in spite of the way he lived, your uncle was a rich man. As his solicitor I have known that for many a year, but I had no idea of just how much he had. Tarkington knows I was his solicitor and he was talking about it just now. He tells me that Mr. Averill must have been worth between thirty and forty thousand pounds when he died. Of course one would naturally suppose that the money was in securities of some kind, but here is my terrible news. Tarkington assures me that it was not, that practically the whole sum was in Mr. Averill’s safe.”

“Oh, Arthur!” Mrs. Oxley burst out. “You can’t mean that it’s gone.”

“I’m afraid I do,” her husband answered. “It’s awful to think about, but there were only some five hundred pounds in the bank. The rest was in Mr. Averill’s safe in notes and gold. The nineteen hundred odd pounds in gold are there all right, but the whole of the paper money has been destroyed.”

“Oh, how perfectly dreadful! But surely it can be replaced? Surely something can be done by the bank?”

Mr. Oxley shook his head.

“Nothing, I’m afraid. I talked it over with Tarkington. The money is a total loss.”

Mrs. Oxley took Ruth into her arms.

“You poor child,” she commiserated. “I just can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

But Ruth took the news coolly.

“Dear Mrs. Oxley,” she answered. “How kind you are! But indeed I look upon this as a comparatively little thing. I shall have far, far more than I ever expected. I want to get some work, and I shall have plenty to support me while I am training and perhaps even a little after that. I am more than content.”

Mrs. Oxley kissed her and commended her spirit, though she felt the girl’s attitude was due more to her unworldliness and ignorance of life than to courage under disappointment. She wished to change the subject, but Ruth asked to have her position made clear to her and begged the others’ advice as to her future. The Oxleys, delighted by her common sense, willingly agreed to discuss the situation, and after a long talk a proposal of Mr. Oxley’s was provisionally agreed to.

It appeared that, assuming the old man’s money had really been lost, Ruth’s capital would amount to about £2400. Of this Mr. Oxley was to invest all but £100, so as to bring Ruth about £130 per annum. The remaining £100 was to be spent in taking a secretarial course at one of the London training colleges. With the backing of the £130 a year and what she could earn for herself she ought, Mr. Oxley believed, to be quite comfortably off. “But you must,” Mr. Oxley went on, “stay here for as long as you like, until you have rested and got over the shock of this terrible affair.”

Mrs. Oxley warmly seconded this invitation, and Ruth thankfully accepted it. It was true that she was anxious to start work as soon as possible, and life in London and the undergoing of the course of training appeared to her as a glorious and thrilling adventure. But even more anxious still was she to meet Pierce Whymper and find out if there really was a change in his feelings towards her. At the time she had imagined that there was, but now she thought that perhaps she had been mistaken and that after the inquest he had simply been suffering from a headache or some other trifling indisposition. That he loved her she had not the slightest doubt, and she could not bring herself to go away until she was sure that no stupid, unnecessary misunderstanding should have been allowed to come between them.

Two days later she met him in the main street of the little town. She stopped to chat and he turned about and walked with her, and presently they had tea at the local confectioner’s. But the interview left her more puzzled than ever. Her belief that Whymper loved her was confirmed beyond any doubt by his manner, by the way he looked at her, by the tones of his voice. But it was evident to her that something was weighing on his mind which prevented him making the proposal which, if the truth must be admitted, she had been expecting. He gave her the impression that he would speak if he could, but that he was being held back by matters outside his own control. And the same state of mind was evident at their subsequent encounters, until Ruth’s pride asserted itself and she grew colder and more distant and their intimacy bade fair to come gradually to an end.

She would have made a move for the metropolis to begin her course of training had not Mrs. Oxley, from what was probably a quite mistaken sense of kindliness, suggested that a rest would be good for her after the shocks she had experienced. On the excuse of desiring the girl’s assistance in the remodelling of her garden, which, owing to the difficulty of obtaining labour, she was doing with her own hands, the good lady invited her to stay on for a few weeks. Ruth did not like to refuse, and she settled down with the intention of remaining at Thirsby for at least another month.

During the month the little town also settled down again after its excitements and alarms, and events once more began to pursue the even tenor of their ways. The Starvel Hollow Tragedy ceased to be a nine days’ wonder and was gradually banished from the minds of the townspeople, until an event happened which was to bring up the whole matter again, and that in a peculiarly sensational and tragic manner.

One morning in mid-October, some five weeks after the fire, Mr. Tarkington called to see his friend Oxley. The bank manager’s thin face wore a serious and mystified expression, which at once informed Mr. Oxley that something out of the ordinary had occurred to disturb the other’s usual placid calm.

“Good morning, Oxley,” said Mr. Tarkington in his thin, measured tones. “Are you busy? I should like a word with you.”

“Come along in, Tarkington,” the solicitor rejoined heartily. “I’m not doing anything that can’t wait. Sit you down, and have a spot.”

“Thanks, no, I’ll not drink, but I’ll take one of these cigarettes if I may.” He drew the client’s big leather covered chair nearer to Mr. Oxley and went on: “A really extraordinary thing has just happened, Oxley, and I thought I’d like to consult you about it before taking any action---if I do take action.”

Mr. Oxley took a cigarette from the box from which the other had helped himself.

“What’s up?” he asked, as he struck a match.

“It’s about that terrible Starvel affair, the fire, you know. I begin to doubt if the matter is really over, after all.”

“Not over? What on earth do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you, and it is really a most disturbing thought. But before you can appreciate my news I must explain to you how Averill carried on his bank business. The poor fellow was a miser, as you know, a miser of the most primitive kind. He loved money for itself---just to handle and to look at and to count. His safe was just packed full of money, but of course you know all this, and that it was through this dreadful weakness of his that poor girl lost what should have come to her.”

“I know,” Mr. Oxley admitted.

“Averill’s income passed through the bank, and that’s how I come to be aware of the figures. He had between sixteen and seventeen hundred a year and it came from three sources. First he had a pension; he had held a good job with some company in London. That amounted to about three hundred pounds. Next he had an annuity which brought him in £150. But the major portion came from land---land on the outskirts of Leeds which had been built over and which had become a very valuable property. In this he had only a life interest---not that that affects my story, though it explains why that poor girl didn’t get it.”

“I know about that property,” Mr. Oxley interjected. “I’ve had a deal to do with it one way and another. The old man got it through his wife and it went back to her family at his death.”

“I imagined it must be something of the kind. Well, to continue. Averill’s income, as I said, was passed through the bank. He received it all in cheques or drafts and these he would endorse and send to me for payment. He had a current account, and my instructions were that when any cheque came I was to pay in to this account until it stood at something between £40 and £60---whatever would leave an even £20 over---and I was to send the surplus cash in £20 notes out to Starvel. Averill evidently looked upon this as a sort of revenue account and paid all his current expenses out of it. It never of course rose above the £60 and seldom fell below £20. To carry on my simile, any monies that were over after raising the current account to £60 he considered capital, and they went out to swell the hoard in the safe at Starvel. In addition he kept a sum of £500 on deposit receipt. I don’t know exactly why he did so, but I presume it was as a sort of nestegg in the event of his safe being burgled. You follow me?”

“I follow you all right, but, by Jove! it was a queer arrangement.”

“Everything the poor old man did was queer, but, as you know, he was----” Mr. Tarkington shook his head significantly. “However, to go on with my story. These monies that were to be sent out to Starvel I used to keep until they reached at least a hundred, and then I used to send a clerk out with the cash. The mission usually fell to Bloxham---you know Bloxham, of course? Averill liked him and asked me to send him when I could. Bloxham has seen into the safe on two or three occasions, and it is from him I know that it was packed with notes as well as the gold.”

“I never can get over all that money being burnt,” Mr. Oxley interjected. “It makes me sick to think of even now. Such stupid, needless, wicked waste!” Mr. Tarkington took no notice of this outburst.

“It happened that about a week before the tragedy,” he went on in his precise manner, “a cheque for £346 came in from the Leeds property. The current account was then standing at £27, so I paid £26 into it, raising it to £53, and sent Bloxham with the balance, £320, out to Starvel. The money was in sixteen twenties, the numbers of which were kept. As I said, it was one of the old man’s peculiarities that he liked his money in £20 notes. I suppose it made it easier to hoard and count. Bloxham saw Averill lock these notes away in his safe and brought me the old man’s receipt.”

Mr. Tarkington paused to draw at his cigarette, then continued:---

“In my report about the affair to our headquarters in Throgmorton Avenue, I mentioned among other things that these notes, giving the numbers, had been destroyed in the fire. Well, Oxley, what do you think has happened? I heard from headquarters to-day and they tell me that one of those notes has just been paid in!”

Mr. Oxley looked slightly bewildered.

“Well, what of it?” he demanded. “I don’t follow. You reported that these notes had been destroyed in the fire. But wasn’t that only a guess? How did you actually know?”

“It was a guess, of course, and I didn’t actually know,” Mr. Tarkington agreed. “But I think it was a justifiable guess. I am acquainted with Averill’s habits; he made no secret of them. Monies he paid out he paid by cheque on the current account---everything that one can think of went through it, even the Ropers’ salaries. The cash sent out to Starvel went into the hoard.”

“All of it didn’t.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

“The ten pounds to Ruth Averill didn’t.”

Mr. Tarkington seemed slightly taken aback.

“Well, that’s true,” he admitted slowly. “I forgot about the ten pounds. I----”

“And there’s another twenty that didn’t,” Mr. Oxley continued, “and that’s the twenty that turned up in London. I don’t get your idea, Tarkington. Just what is in your mind?”

Mr. Tarkington moved uneasily in the big arm-chair.

“It seems far-fetched, I know, and I hardly like putting it into words, but are you satisfied in your own mind that business was all just as it appeared to be?”

“What? The fire? How do you mean ‘as it appeared to be’?”

“That it really was the accident we thought it.”

Mr. Oxley whistled.

“Oh, come now, Tarkington, that’s going a bit far, isn’t it? Do you mean arson? What possible grounds could you have for suggesting such a thing?”

“I don’t exactly suggest it; I came to ask your opinion about it. But what passed through my mind was this: There have been several burglaries lately---skilful burglaries, and, as you know, the police have been completely at fault. Averill was universally believed to be wealthy---the legend of the safe was common property. Is it impossible that some of these burglars might have decided to make an attempt on Starvel? Remember the situation was one of the loneliest in England. Assume that they got in and that something unexpected happened---that they were surprised by Roper, for example. In the resulting disturbance Roper might easily have been killed---possibly quite accidentally. The intruders would then be fighting for their lives as well as their fortunes. And in what better way could they do it than to murder the other members of the household, lay them on their beds and burn the house down?”

Mr. Oxley did not reply. The idea was chimerical, fantastic, absurd, and yet---it was certainly possible. There had been a number of daring burglaries within the last few months, which were generally believed to be the work of one gang, and in no single instance had the police been able to effect an arrest. The belief in the old miser’s hoard was universal, and from the point of view of the thief, Starvel would be one of the easiest cribs to crack. Moreover, on second thought Tarkington’s suggestion as to the origin of the fire was not so fanciful, after all. The safe containing the money was in Averill’s bedroom, and the old man would have to be quieted in some way before it could be opened. Roper’s attention might easily have been attracted, and the burglars, either by accident or in self-defence, might have killed him. If so, the fire would be their obvious way of safety. Yes, the thing was possible. All the same there wasn’t a shred of evidence that it had happened.

“But my dear fellow,” Oxley said at last, “that’s all my eye! Very ingenious and all that, but you haven’t a scrap of evidence for it. Why invent a complicated, far-fetched explanation when you have a simple one ready to hand? Sounds as if you had been reading too many detective stories lately.”

Tarkington did not smile with his friend.

“You think it nonsense?” he asked earnestly. “You think I needn’t tell the police about the note?”

“I don’t think you have any evidence: not evidence to justify even a suspicion. You’ve no real reason to suppose Averill did not hand that twenty-pound note to some one from whom it passed to the man who paid it in.”

“To whom, for example?”

“I don’t know. Neither of us knows what visitors the old man might have had. But that doesn’t prove he had none.”

Mr. Tarkington seemed far from satisfied. He threw away his cigarette and took another from the box, handling it delicately in his long, thin fingers. He moved nervously in his chair and then said in a low voice:---

“I suppose then, Oxley, I may take it that you were quite satisfied about that business---I mean at the time?”

Mr. Oxley looked at his friend in surprise.

“Good gracious, Tarkington, what bee have you in your bonnet? Do you mean satisfied that the fire was an accident and that those three poor people were burned? Of course I was. It never occurred to me to doubt it.”

The other seemed slightly relieved.

“I hope sincerely that you’re right,” he answered. “But I may tell you that I wasn’t satisfied---neither at the time nor yet since. That’s the reason that when I heard about the note I came at once to consult you. There’s a point which you and the coroner and the police and every one concerned seem to have overlooked.” He dropped his voice still further and became very impressive. “What about the papers that were burnt in the safe?”

Mr. Oxley was surprised at his friend’s persistence.

“Well, what in Heaven’s name about them? For the life of me I don’t see what you’re driving at.”

“Haven’t you ever been in Averill’s bedroom?”

“Yes. What of it?”

“Did you notice the safe?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, I’ve both been there and noticed it.” He bent forward, and his thin face seemed more hawk-like than ever as he said impressively: “Oxley, that safe was fireproof!”

Mr. Oxley started.

“Good Heavens, Tarkington! Are you sure of that?” he queried sharply.

“Not absolutely,” the other replied. “It was certainly my strong opinion and if I had been asked before the fire I should have had no doubt. When I heard the evidence at the inquest I concluded I had made a mistake. But now this affair of the twenty-pound note has reawakened all my suspicions.” He paused, but as Oxley did not reply, continued: “Perhaps I’ve got a bee in my bonnet as you said, but I’m now wondering if Roper’s drunkenness doesn’t support the theory? Could he not have been enticed into Thirsby by some member of the gang and treated so as to make him sleep well and not hear what was going on? Remember, he was an absolutely temperate man.”

“Not absolutely. Ruth had smelt drink on other occasions.”

“You are right. Perhaps that is a trifle far-fetched. But what do you think on the main point, Oxley? Ought I to tell the police of my suspicions?”

Mr. Oxley rose and began to pace the room. Then he went to the window and stood for some moments looking out. Finally he returned to his chair, and sat down again.

“I declare, Tarkington, I think you ought,” he said slowly. “When you first made your---I might perhaps say---your amazing suggestion I confess I thought it merely grotesque. But if you are right about the safe it certainly puts a different complexion on the whole business. I take it it’s not too late to ascertain? The safe is not too much damaged to trace the maker and find out from him?”

“I should think the police could find the maker quite easily.”

“Well, I think you should tell them. If you are wrong no harm is done. If not, there are murderers to be brought to justice and perhaps a fortune to be recovered for Ruth.”

Mr. Tarkington rose.

“I agree with you, Oxley. I’ll go down to the police station and tell Kent now.”

Mr. Oxley waved him back into his seat.

“Steady a moment,” he said. “Don’t be in such a hurry.” He drew slowly at his cigarette while the other sat down and waited expectantly.

“It seems to me,” went on Mr. Oxley, “that if your suspicions are correct the thing should be kept absolutely quiet. Nothing should be said or done to put the criminals on their guard. Now Kent, you know as well as I do, is just a bungling ass. My suggestion is that we both take the afternoon off and go see Valentine. I know him pretty well and we could ring him up and make an appointment.”

“Valentine, the Chief Constable of the County?”

“Yes. He’s as cute as they’re made and he’ll do the right thing.”

“Kent will never forgive us if we pass him over like that.”

“Kent be hanged,” Mr. Oxley rejoined. “Can you come in by the three-thirty?”

“Yes, I’ll manage it.”

“Right. Then I shall ring up Valentine.”

Five hours later the two friends found their way into the strangers’ room of the Junior Services Club in Leeds. There in a few moments Chief Constable Valentine joined them, and soon they were settled in a private room with whiskies and sodas at their elbows and three of the excellent cigars the Chief Constable favoured between their lips.

Mr. Tarkington propounded his theory in detail, explaining that he was not sure enough of his facts even to put forward a definite suspicion, but that he and his friend Oxley agreed that Major Valentine ought to know what was in his mind. The major could then, if he thought fit, investigate the affair.

That the Chief Constable was impressed by the statement was obvious. He listened with the keenest interest, interjecting only an occasional “By Jove!” as Mr. Tarkington made his points. Then he thanked the two men for their information, and promised to institute inquiries into the whole matter without delay.

Two days later Mr. Tarkington received a letter from Major Valentine saying that he thought it only fair to inform him in the strictest confidence that his belief that the safe was fireproof was well founded, that he, the Chief Constable, strongly suspected that more had taken place at Starvel on that tragic night than had come out in the inquest, and that as he considered the matter was rather outside the local men’s capacity he had applied to Scotland Yard for help in the investigation.

Mr. Tarkington, honouring the spirit rather than the letter of the Chief Constable’s communication, showed the note to Mr. Oxley, and the two men sat over the former’s study fire until late that night, discussing possible developments in the situation.
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