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4: Inspector French Goes North

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« on: August 31, 2023, 12:37:34 pm »

THE stone which Messrs. Tarkington and Oxley had thrown into the turbid waters of the British Police Administration produced ripples which, like other similar wave forms, spread slowly away from their point of disturbance. One of these ripples, penetrating into the grim fastness of the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard, had the effect of ringing the bell of a telephone on the desk of Detective Inspector Joseph French and of causing that zealous and efficient officer, when he had duly applied his ear to the instrument, to leave his seat and proceed without loss of time to the room of his immediate superior.

“Ah, French,” Chief Inspector Mitchell remarked on his entry. “You should be about through with that Kensington case, I fancy?”

“Just finished with it, sir,” French answered. “I was putting the last of the papers in order when you rang.”

“Well, you’ve had a lot of trouble with it and I should have liked to have given you a breather. But I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Something come in, sir?”

“A Yorkshire case. A place called Thirsby, up on the moors not far, I understand, from Hellifield. We’ve just had a request for a man and I can’t spare any one else at present. So it’s you for it.”

“What is the case, sir?”

“Suspected murder, robbery and arson. The people there appear to know very little about it and the whole thing may turn out a mare’s nest. But they’re darned mysterious about it---say they don’t want it to be known that inquiries are being made and suggest our man might go to the Thirsdale Arms, the local hotel, in the guise of an angler or an artist. So, if you’re a fisherman, French, now’s your chance. You’re to call down at the police station after dark, when Sergeant Kent, who’s in charge, will give you the particulars.”

It was with mixed feelings that Inspector French received his instructions. He delighted in travelling and seeing new country, and the Yorkshire moors comprised a district which he had often heard spoken of enthusiastically, but had never visited. He was by no means averse, moreover, to getting away from town for a few days. It would be a welcome break in the monotony of the long winter. But on the other hand he loathed working away from headquarters, bereft of his trained staff and of the immediate backing of the huge machine of which he was a cog. Local men, he conceded, were “right enough,” but they hadn’t the knowledge, the experience, the technique to be really helpful. And then the “Yard” man in the country was usually up against jealousies and a more or less veiled obstruction, and to the worries of his case he had to add the effort always to be tactful and to carry his professed helpers with him.

However, none of these considerations affected his course of action. He had his orders and he must carry them out. He completed the filing of the papers in the Kensington murder case, handed over one or two other matters to his immediate subordinate, and taking the large despatch case of apparatus without which he never travelled, went home to inform his wife of his change of plans and pack a suitcase with his modest personal requirements. Then he drove to St. Pancras and caught the 12.15 restaurant car express to the north.

He was neither an artist nor an angler, and in any case he considered the month of November was scarcely a propitious time for worthies of either type to be abroad. Therefore beyond dressing in a more countrified style than he would have affected in town, he attempted no disguise.

He changed at Hellifield and took the branch line which wound up in a north-easterly direction into the bleak hills and moors of western Yorkshire. Six o’clock had just struck when he reached the diminutive terminus of Thirsby.

A porter bearing the legend “Thirsdale Arms” on his cap was at the station, and having surrendered his baggage, French followed the man on foot down the main street of the little town to a low, straggling, old-fashioned building with half-timbered gables and a real old swinging sign. Here a stout and cheery proprietor gave him a somewhat voluble welcome, and soon he was the temporary tenant of a low and dark, but otherwise comfortable bedroom, while an appetising odour of frying ham indicated that the pièce de résistance of his supper was in full preparation.

He smoked a contemplative pipe in the bar, then about half-past eight took his hat, and passing the landlord at the door, gave him a cheerful good-night and said he was going for a walk before bed.

While he did not intend to hide the fact of his visit to Sergeant Kent, he had no wish to draw attention thereto. He believed that in a small town such things invariably get out, and to shroud them in an air of mystery was only to invite publicity. He therefore did not ask for a direction, but instead strolled through the streets until he saw the police station. Walking quietly but openly to the door, he knocked. Two minutes later he was shaking hands with the sergeant in the latter’s room.

“I’m sure I’m grateful to you for giving me the chance of a change from London,” French began in his pleasant, cheery way as he took the chair the other pulled forward to the fire. “Will you join me in a cigar, or do you object to smoking in the office?”

The sergeant dourly helped himself from French’s case, and gruffly admitted he was not above the use of tobacco after office hours. French seemed in no hurry to come to business, but chatted on about his journey and his impressions of the country, drawing the other out and deferring to his views in a way that was nothing less than flattering. Before ten minutes Kent had forgotten that his visitor was an interloper sent to him over his head because his superiors imagined that he was not good enough for his own job, and was thinking that this stranger, for a Londoner and a Yard man, was not as bad as he might reasonably have been expected to be. Under the soothing influences of flattery and good tobacco, he gradually mellowed until, when French at last decided the time had come, he was quite willing to assist in any way in his power.

At French’s request he gave him a detailed account of the tragedy together with a copy of the depositions taken at the inquest, and then went on to describe the bomb which Mr. Tarkington had dropped when he mentioned his theories to Major Valentine.

“Chief Constable, he told me to find out what kind of safe it was in the house,” the sergeant went on. “I knew, for I had seen it at the time, but I went out again to make sure. It was made by Carter & Stephenson of Leeds, number---” he referred to a well-thumbed notebook---“12,473. I went down to Leeds, and saw the makers, and they said the safe was twenty years old, but it was the best fireproof safe of its day. I asked them would the notes have burned up in it, and they said they wouldn’t scarcely be browned, not no matter how fierce the fire might be.”

“And what exactly was in the safe?”

“Just paper ashes and sovereigns. No whole papers---all was burned to ashes.”

“Could I see those ashes? Are any of them left?”

“I think so. We took out the sovereigns and left the rest. The safe is lying in the rubbish where we found it.”

French nodded, and for some minutes sat silent, drawing slowly at his cigar while he turned over in his mind the details he had learned. As he did so the words of Chief Inspector Mitchell recurred to him: “The people down there don’t appear to know much about it, and the whole thing may turn out to be a mare’s nest.” Now, having heard the story, he wondered if this was not going to be another of his chief’s amazing intuitions. It certainly looked as like a mare’s nest as anything he had ever handled. The only shred of evidence for foul play was the safe-builders’ statement that their safe would protect papers even in the fiercest fire, and that statement left him cold. What else could the builders say? They had sold the thing as fireproof; how could they now admit they had made a false claim? And this Tarkington’s theory of the twenty-pound note was even less convincing. There was no real reason to believe that Averill had not handed it to his servant or to a visitor or sent it away by post. In fact, the whole tale was the thinnest he had listened to for many a day, and he saw himself taking a return train to St. Pancras before many hours had passed.

But he had been sent up to make an investigation, and make an investigation he would. He rapidly planned his line of action. The first thing to be done was to get rid of this sergeant. He might be right enough for his own job, but French felt that he would be no help in an affair of this kind. Left to himself, he would go out and examine the house and then interview Tarkington. By that time he should have learned enough at least to decide whether or not to go on with the case. He turned to Kent.

“Your statement, sergeant, has been so very complete that I do not believe there is anything left for me to ask you. But I think I should understand the affair even better if I went and had a look at the house. I’ll do that to-morrow. But, much as I should like your company, I cannot ask you to come with me. I entirely agree with and admire your wisdom in keeping the affair secret, and if we were seen together the cat would be out of the bag. I will give out that I am a representative from the insurance companies and I think no suspicion will be aroused. If now you will kindly tell me where the place lies, I think that’s all we can do in the meantime.”

Five minutes later French turned from the main street into the door of the Thirsdale Arms. The landlord was standing in the hall and French stopped in a leisurely way, as if ready for a chat. They discussed the weather for some moments, and then French asked the other if he would join him in a drink.

It was not long before they were seated before a glowing fire in the private bar, when French proceeded to account for himself.

“I like your country,” he began, “what I’ve seen of it. I’ve been a bit run down lately, and though it’s not the time one would choose for a holiday, my doctor thought I should take a week or two’s rest. So, as I had a bit of business here I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and do my business and take my holiday at the same time. And about that bit of business I thought that if you would be good enough you could maybe give me some help.”

The landlord, evidently curious, was anxious to do anything in his power and French, following out his theory that where absolute truth is inadmissible, deviations therefrom should be as slight as possible, went on confidentially:---

“It’s about a place called Starvel where there was a big fire recently. You know all about it, of course.” The landlord nodded eagerly. “Well, I may tell you strictly between ourselves that I am a detective. A fire unaccounted for is a very disturbing matter to insurance companies, and I have been sent down to try to find the cause of the outbreak. I’ve seen the police sergeant, and he has very kindly promised to show me his notes of the inquest, but I should like more general information than that. I wondered if you could, perhaps, tell me something about the affair; about the people who lived in Starvel, and so on?”

With this beginning, and the help of whiskies and sodas and two more of his cigars French was soon in possession of all the landlord knew and surmised about the Starvel Hollow tragedy. But he learned nothing helpful. The man’s story agreed with that of Sergeant Kent, though it was obvious that the idea of foul play had never entered his mind.

One thing he remarked on which Kent had not mentioned---about which indeed, as French afterwards learned, Kent knew nothing---and that was the incipient affair between Ruth Averill and Pierce Whymper. When French learned later on how slight this affair had been he was filled with amazement, as he had been so many times before, at the range and exhaustiveness of local gossip.

“Nice young fellow, Mr. Pierce Whymper,” the landlord went on. “He’s a son of Mr. Stephen Whymper, the Leeds surgeon, and a junior assistant of Nixon and Arbuthnot’s, the church architects. He’s here as clerk of works of the renovation of the church---a fine old church, this of ours! I got to know Mr. Whymper a bit, for he stayed here for a few days when he came first, and before he got lodgings. Our terms are a bit high for him, you know, for a constancy. They don’t overpay these young fellows that are just starting on their jobs.”

“It’s a fact,” French admitted. “And how is the affair with the young lady getting on?”

“No one rightly knows. It seemed to be going on thick enough before the fire and then, somehow, it seemed to be cooled off. I suppose one of these here lovers’ quarrels.” And the landlord smiled tolerantly, as one man of the world to another.

But whether or not the landlord was a man of the world, there was no doubt whatever that he was a thoroughly accomplished and successful gossip. French soon found that by the mere interjection of an occasional phrase he could obtain a detailed description of the life, habits and character of any of the inhabitants of Thirsby that he cared to name. Very willingly, therefore, he suggested more whisky and proffered further cigars, while he sat registering in his memory the impressions of his neighbours which the other sketched with such evident relish.

He was a likeable old fellow, the landlord, or so French thought. Though a gossip first and always, he was something of a philosopher and his outlook was human and kindly. The people he spoke of were real people, and French could picture them living in the little town and going about their businesses, with their loves and hates, their ambitions and their weaknesses. Old Mr. Averill---well, the landlord hadn’t a great opinion of him. He was dead, and one didn’t ought to say too much about the dead, but there was no denying that he was mean---a regular miser, he was. The way he had treated that niece of his---as nice a young lady as ever stepped---was just a fair scandal. A young lady just grown up, like Miss Ruth was, should have a bit of pleasure sometimes, and the poor girl hadn’t even decent clothes to wear. Mean, the landlord called it. And what use, he asked, growing oratorical, was the old man’s money to him now? That was what he said---and he waved his cigar to give point to his remark---that was what he said: What had the old man got for all his screwing and saving? It would have paid him better . . .

French insinuated the idea of Roper.

Roper, the landlord did not know so much about, though he had to confess he had not particularly liked him. Roper had a squint, and if French took the landlord’s advice, he would just keep his weather eye open when dealing with a man with a squint. Roper was quiet enough and civil spoken, and they said he was good enough at his job, but he was close---very close. Sly, the landlord would call it, though, mind you, he hadn’t known anything wrong about the man. Mrs. Roper? He had only met her once. He didn’t know much about her, but she was well enough spoken of. Neither of them could have had much of a time out at Starvel, but they had served the old man well and made no complaint.

About Tarkington, the landlord waxed almost lyrical. Tarkington was a white man, straight as a die and no fool either. He was more than a bank manager. He was, so French gathered, a sort of financial father confessor to the neighbourhood. Every one trusted Tarkington, and took their difficulties to him for help and advice. And Tarkington gave both, in good measure pressed down and shaken together. He did not spare himself, and if he could help a lame dog over a stile, he did it. What Tarkington said went, as far as most things were concerned.

The landlord also approved of Oxley. Oxley would have his joke, if he was to be hung for it the next minute, but he was a very sound man and a good lawyer. If you had Oxley on your side he would make a keen fight for you, and for all his jokes and his breezy manner he wouldn’t give nothing away. Oxley was well liked and he deserved it.

Of the medical profession in Thirsby the landlord was equally ready to impart information. Dr. Emerson was a good doctor and well respected, but he was growing old. He hardly did any work now, but he had made plenty and he could afford to retire. Not that he had been a money-grubber---the landlord had known many a case where he had treated poor patients free---but until Dr. Philpot had come he had the whole of the practice, and he hadn’t done badly with it. The landlord wished that hotel keeping was half as profitable. Well off, Dr. Emerson was.

French next murmured Dr. Philpot’s name, but the landlord spoke with more reserve. He was a clever man, first rate at his job, the landlord believed, though he was thankful to say he hadn’t ever needed to call him in. But he had made some good cures and people that had had him once wouldn’t have anybody else. And he was pleasant spoken and likeable enough, and there was no reason why he shouldn’t have done extra well at Thirsby, for there was an opening for just such a man on account of Dr. Emerson’s age. But---the landlord sank his voice and became more confidential than ever---the truth was he had made a muck of things, and no one would be surprised to see him take down his plate any day. He was all right in every way, but the one---he was a wild gambler. Fair ruining himself, he was. Horses mostly. It was a pity, because he was well liked otherwise. But there you were. The landlord had nothing to say about backing an occasional horse---he did it himself---but, systematic gambling! Well, you know, it could go too far.

French was interested to learn that Sergeant Kent was a fool. The landlord did not put it quite in those words, but he conveyed the idea extraordinarily well. Kent was bumptious and overbearing, and carried away by a sense of his own importance. French, the landlord was afraid, wouldn’t get much help there.

The landlord showed signs of a willingness to go on talking all night, but by the time eleven-thirty had struck on the old grandfather’s clock in the hall French thought he had all the information that was likely to be valuable. He therefore began insinuating the idea of bed, and this gradually penetrating to the other’s consciousness, his flow of conversation diminished and presently they separated.

The next day was Sunday, and after a late breakfast and a leisurely pipe, French asked for some sandwiches, saying he was going out for a long tramp over the moor. Having thus explained himself he strolled off and presently, by a circuitous route, reached the lip of Starvel Hollow.

In spite of the fact that his professional and critical interests were aroused, French could not help feeling impressed by the isolation of the ruins and the morbid, not to say sinister atmosphere which seemed to brood over the entire place. Around him were the wild rolling spaces of the moor, forbidding and desolate, rising here into rounded hills, dropping there into shallow valleys. The colouring was drab, in the foreground the dull greens of rushes and sedgy grass, the browns of heather and at intervals a darker smudge where stone outcropped, on the horizon the hazy blues of distance. Scarcely a tree or a shrub was to be seen in the bare country, and the two or three widely separated cottages, crouching low as if for protection from the winds, seemed only to intensify the loneliness of the outlook.

At French’s feet lay the Hollow, a curious, saucer-like depression in the moor, some quarter of a mile or more across. Its rim looked continuous, the valley through which it was drained being winding and not apparent at first sight. In the centre was the group of pines which had surrounded the old house, stunted, leaning one way from the prevailing wind, melancholy and depressing. Of the walls of the house from this point of view there was no sign.

French walked down toward the ruins, marvelling at the choice which would bring a man of means to such a locality. He could understand now why on that night some five weeks earlier a building of the size of this old house could be burned down without attracting more attention. The Hollow accounted for it. Even flames soaring up from such a conflagration would not surmount the lip of the saucer. Truly a place also, as Tarkington had pointed out, where burglars could work their will unseen and undisturbed.

French had seen the remains of many a fire, but as he gazed on the wreckage of Starvel he felt he had never seen anything quite so catastrophic and complete. He felt a growing awe as he began to examine the place in detail.

The walls were built of stone, and except these walls and the small outhouse at the opposite side of the yard, nothing remained standing. The house was two storied and “L” shaped, with the remains of a single story porch in the angle of the two wings. French compared the ruins with the sketch plan given him by Kent and identified the places where the bodies had been found. Then after a general survey he stepped through the gaping hole that had evidently been the front door and ploughed his way across the débris to the safe.

It was red with fire and rust, but the makers’ name and number, in raised letters on a cast iron plate, were still legible. The safe had been lifted upright and fixed on a roughly built pile of stones, as the town officer of Thirsby had deposed at the inquest. The doors were now shut, but with some difficulty owing to the rusty hinges French was able to swing them open. Inside, as he had been told, was a mass of paper ash.

Fortunately it was a calm day or the heap might have whirled away in dust. As it was, French sat down on a stone, and putting his head into the safe, began to examine the ash in detail.

The greater part had been ground to dust, doubtless by the fall of the safe from the second story, and the churning of the sovereigns, though there still remained a number of small flakes of burnt paper. These French began to turn over with a pair of forceps, examining them at the same time with a lens.

He was delighted to find that on nearly all he could distinguish marks of printing. But, as he turned over piece after piece he became conscious of growing astonishment. For this printing was not the printing of bank notes. Rather it seemed to him like newspaper type. Wrapping paper, he supposed. But why should the contents of the safe have been wrapped up in newspapers? More important still, why should portions of the newspapers rather than of the notes have been preserved?

His interest keenly aroused, he set to work in his careful, methodical way to check over all the fragments he could find. As he did so something very like excitement took possession of him. There were no fragments of notes! Every single piece that bore any marking was newspaper!

What, he asked, himself, could this portend? What other than robbery? And if robbery, then murder! Murder and arson! Could Tarkington and the Chief Constable be right, after all? Certainly, after this discovery he couldn’t drop the investigation until he had made sure.

He had brought with him a small case of apparatus, and from this he now took a bottle of gum and some thin cards. Painting over the cards with the gum, he laid on them such flakes of ash as bore legible words. From one piece in particular he thought he might be able to identify the newspaper of which it had been a part. It was a roundish scrap about the size of half a crown, along the top of which were the words: “---ing as we---” in small type, with below it in capitals, as if the headline of a small paragraph: “RAT-CATCHER’S F----”

French secured the cards in a case specially designed to preserve specimens, and re-closed the safe. It certainly looked as if Tarkington’s suggestions might be true, and as he put the case away in his pocket, he wondered if there was any further investigation he could make while he was on the ground.

Stepping outside the building, he considered how a hypothetical burglar might have forced an entrance. The window frames and doors were all gone; moreover, any marks which might have been made approaching them must long since have been defaced by time and the footprints of sightseers and workmen. French, nevertheless, walked all round the house and about the grounds, looking everywhere in the hope of coming on some clue, though he was scarcely disappointed when his search ended in failure.

He was anxious, if possible, to find out what newspaper had been burned. He did not think the point of vital importance, but on general principles the information should be obtained. There was no knowing what clue it might not furnish. On his way back to Thirsby, therefore, he turned aside to Mr. Oxley’s house and sent in his card.

In the privacy of the solicitor’s study French introduced himself and in confidence declared his mission to the town. He apologised for troubling the other on Sunday, but said that at the moment he wished only to ask one question: Could Mr. Oxley tell him, or could he find out for him from Miss Averill, what daily paper the late Mr. Averill had taken?

Mr. Oxley did not know, and excused himself to interrogate Ruth. Presently he returned to say it was the Leeds Mercury.

Next morning French took the first train to Leeds, and going to the Mercury office, asked to see the files of the paper for the month of September. Commencing at the 15th, the day of the fire, he began working back through the papers, scrutinising each sheet for a paragraph headed “RAT-CATCHER’S F----”

He found it sooner than he had expected. Tucked in among a number of small news items in the paper of Tuesday, 14th September, he read: “RAT-CATCHER’S FATAL FALL.” And when he saw that the type was similar to that on the burnt scrap and the last line of the preceding paragraph was “Mr. Thomas is doing as well as can be expected,” with the “---ng as we---” in the correct position relative to the “RAT-CATCHER’S F----” he knew he had really got what he wanted.

French was extraordinarily thorough. Long experience had taught him that everything in the nature of a clue should be followed up to the very end. He did not therefore desist when he had made his find. Instead he worked on to see if he could identify any of the other scraps he had found. And before he left he had found eight out of the eleven he had mounted, and proved that the burnt papers were those of the 13th, 14th, and 15th; the three days before the fire.

So far, then, the indications were at least for continuing the investigation. Leaving the Mercury office, French walked up the Briggate to Messrs. Carter & Stephenson’s, the makers of the safe. He asked for one of the principals, and was presently shown into Mr. Stephenson’s room. Introducing himself in the strictest confidence in his true guise, he propounded his question: Was the safe absolutely fireproof?

Mr. Stephenson rose and went to a drawer from which he took a number of photographs.

“Look at those,” he invited, “and tell me was the fire at Starvel any worse than those fires?”

The views were all of burnt-out buildings, most of them completely gutted and resembling the wreckage of Starvel. French assured him that the cases seemed on all fours.

“Very well, there were safes in all those fires---safes just the same as that at Starvel, and all those safes had papers in them, and there wasn’t a single paper in any one of them so much as browned.”

French took out his burnt fragments.

“Look at those, Mr. Stephenson,” he invited in his turn. “Suppose there were newspapers in that safe before the fire, could they have come out like that after it?”

“Not under any conceivable circumstances,” Mr. Stephenson declared emphatically, “that is, of course, unless the door had been left open. With the door shut it’s absolutely impossible. And I’ll be prepared to stand by that in any court of law if you should want me to.”

The man’s manner was convincing, and French saw no reason to doubt his statement. But he saw also that its truth involved extremely serious consequences. If Mr. Stephenson was right the newspapers had not been burnt during the Starvel fire. They could only have been burned while the safe door was open. But the door was locked during the fire; Kent had had to get an expert to open it. They must therefore have been burned before it was locked. A sinister fact truly, and terribly suggestive!

On his way back to Thirsby French sat smoking in the corner of a carriage, weighing in his mind the significance of his discoveries. He considered the points in order.

First. Old Averill was a miser who had filled up his safe with notes and gold. The notes had been seen on more than one occasion by Mr. Tarkington’s clerk, Bloxham, the last time being only a few days before the tragedy. Mr. Tarkington estimated there must have been some £30,000 to £40,000 worth of notes in the safe, though this was probably only a guess. But it was at least certain that before the fire it contained a very large sum in notes.

Second. After the fire the gold was intact, or at least part of it was there, but there was no trace of the notes. It was perfectly true that a number of notes might have been burned and been crushed to powder by the falling sovereigns. But it was straining the probabilities too far to believe that no single fragment of any one note should remain. On the other hand fragments did remain---but these were all of newspapers.

Third. The newspapers, according to Mr. Stephenson’s evidence, were burned before the door of the safe had been closed.

Gradually French came to definite conclusions. As far as his information went the following facts seemed to be established:---

First. That the safe was unlocked, and the notes were taken out before the fire.
Second. That three or four newspapers were put in to replace them.
Third. That the newspapers were set on fire and allowed to burn to ashes while the safe door was open.
Fourth. That after they were burned the safe was locked.

If these conclusions could be sustained it unquestionably meant that French was on to one of the most dastardly and terrible crimes of the century. He felt the sudden thrill of the hunter who comes across the fresh spoor of some dangerous wild beast. But he did not disclose his feelings. Instead he kept his own counsel, simply reporting to headquarters that the case seemed suspicious and that he was remaining on to make further inquiries.

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