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5: French Picks Up a Clue

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« on: September 01, 2023, 04:17:22 am »

THE more Inspector French pondered over the problems which his discoveries had raised, the more difficult these problems seemed to grow. There was so desperately little to go on. It was a common enough trouble in detective work certainly, but this business was worse than the average. He could not recall a case which offered fewer clues or “leads.”

As he turned over in his mind all that he had learned it seemed to him indeed that there was but one channel to be explored, and that a channel which offered a very poor chance of success---the £20 bank note. If he were unable to trace the £20 bank note, and the odds were enormously against his doing so, he did not see what other line of inquiry he could follow up.

Of course, there was the usual police question: Who was seen in the vicinity of the crime at the time of its commission? But he had already put this inquiry to Kent and the answer had been: “No one.”

If, as seemed likely, Tarkington’s theory were true and this crime had been committed by the burglars who had already brought off so many coups in the district, French was up against a very able gang. For over six months the police had been searching for these men and they seemed no nearer finding them now than in the beginning.

The bank note, then, appeared to be the only chance, and French decided that he would begin operations by trying to trace the passer, trusting that if this line failed, some other would by that time have opened out.

The night was still young, and desiring to lose no time, French left his comfortable corner in the bar and went out to call on Mr. Tarkington.

The bank manager was greatly interested when French revealed his calling and mission. He willingly repeated all he knew about old Simon Averill and his finances and explained his theories at length.

“The only other thing I wish to ask you,” French remarked when the other showed signs of coming to an end, “is about previous sums sent out to Starvel. Your clerk kept a record of the numbers of all the twenty-pound notes sent in the last consignment, but have you a similar record of former consignments?”

Mr. Tarkington nodded.

“I early appreciated that point and made inquiries,” he replied in his precise, measured tones. “By my own instructions it has been the practice to keep such records of all notes over ten pounds in value, and this was done in the case of those sent to Starvel. The records, however, are not retained very long, and I did not hope to be able to lay my hands on those of earlier consignments. But by a piece of pure chance my clerk, Bloxham, found some earlier records in an old notebook, and I am able to give you the numbers of the notes of eleven; not consecutive consignments, but stretching at intervals over nearly five years. They cover £3860, all of which was sent to Starvel in twenties; that is 193 twenties. I have their numbers here.”

“That’s a piece of luck for me,” French commented, as he pocketed the list which the other passed him. “Curious that Mr. Averill collected twenty-pound notes. Why not fifties or hundreds or tens?”

Mr. Tarkington shook his head.

“Like most of us,” he said, a hint of human kindness showing beneath his rather dry manner, “the poor old fellow had his weakness. Why he should prefer twenties to notes of other denominations I don’t know. I can only record the fact that he did.”

The next morning French occupied in making the acquaintance of the obvious dramatis personæ in the case. He paid a long visit to Ruth Averill, hearing her story at first hand and questioning her on various details which occurred to him. Oxley he saw at his office and the lugubrious Abel Hesketh, the town officer, he found at the toll room in the markets. He was waiting for Dr. Emerson as the latter concluded his morning round, and he went to the trouble of an excursion over the moor to interview the red-haired farmer, George Mellowes, who had driven Roper home on the fatal night. Dr. Philpot he also called on, to obtain his impressions of the Starvel household.

Lastly, he saw the bank clerk, Bloxham, who struck him at once as a man of character. Though seemingly not more than thirty, he had a strangely old face, sardonic and determined looking, almost sinister. He gave his testimony with a refreshing restraint of words, and seemed to have observed carefully and to know just what he had seen. He said that on three occasions when he was at Starvel Mr. Averill had opened his safe and he had had a glimpse of its contents. From the size of the stacks of notes he would estimate that these contained possibly 1500 separate notes. If these were twenties that would mean £30,000. There was also a cardboard box of sovereigns. If he had not heard the number he would have estimated that it contained about two thousand.

To all of these people, except Oxley, who already knew the truth, French accounted for himself by the story of the detective employed to ascertain the cause of an unexplained fire. All seemed anxious to help him, but unfortunately none could tell him anything more than he already knew.

Having thus completed the obvious local inquiries, he felt free to follow up the matter of the £20 note. He therefore left Thirsby by the afternoon train and late that night reached St. Pancras. Next morning saw him at the headquarters of the Northern Shires Bank in Throgmorton Avenue. In five minutes he was closeted with the manager, who shook his head when he heard what was required of him.

“I naturally imagined some such question might arise,” the manager said, “and I questioned the clerk who had received the note. At first he was unable to give me even the slightest hint, but on thinking over the matter he said the balance of probability was in favour of its having been paid in by the messenger from Cook’s office in Regent Street. He explained that in Cook’s deposit, which was an unusually heavy one, there were no fewer than seventeen notes for twenty pounds, and he remarked to the messenger: ‘You’re strong in twenties to-day.’ It was shortly afterwards that the clerk discovered he held one of the numbers sent in by Mr. Tarkington. He had twenty-two twenties in hand when he made his discovery and he believed he had not parted with any since the Cook lodgment, therefore, the chances that the note came from Cook’s are as seventeen to five.”

“There is no certainty about that,” said French.

“No certainty, but a good sporting chance,” the manager returned with a smile as he bade his visitor good day.

The next step was obviously Cook’s office. Here again French asked for the manager, and here again that gentleman shook his head when French stated his business.

“I should be only too glad to help you, Mr. French,” he declared, “but I fear it is quite impossible. In the first place we don’t know the numbers of any of the notes which passed through our hands, and we don’t, therefore, know if we had the one in which you are interested. Apparently you don’t even know it yourself. But even if we did know, we couldn’t possibly tell you who paid it in. So much money comes in over the counter that individual notes could not be traced. And then we have no idea of the date upon which we received this one, if we did receive it. You think we lodged it yesterday week. We might have done so and yet have received it weeks before. You see, we keep a fairly large sum in our safe in connection with our foreign exchange department.”

“Do you give receipts for all monies received?”

“For most transactions. But not all. If a man came in for a ticket to Harrogate, for example, we should hand him the ticket, and the ticket would be his receipt. Again, no note other than that of the actual sums passing is taken in our exchange department.”

French smiled ruefully.

“It doesn’t seem to get any more hopeful as it goes on, does it?” he remarked, continuing after a moment’s silence. “You see what I’m trying to get at, don’t you? If I could look over your receipts for some time prior to yesterday week I might find a name and address which would suggest a line of inquiry.”

“I follow you,” the manager returned. “It is just possible that you might get something that way, though I must warn you it’s most unlikely. You see, the balance of the payments in notes would not, in the nature of things, require receipts, and conversely most of the accounts requiring receipts are paid by cheque. However, if you wish to make a search, I am prepared to help you. How far back do you want to go?”

“The note in question was known to be in the possession of the dead man on Friday, 10th September. It was discovered in the bank here on Monday, October 18th. That is,” he took out his engagement book and rapidly counted, “thirty-three working days: a little over five weeks.” He looked deprecatingly at the other, then added: “Rather a job to go through all that, I’m afraid.”

“It’ll take time,” the manager admitted. “But that’s your funeral. If you wish to see our books, I shall be pleased to facilitate you in every way I can.”

French thanked him and a few minutes later was hard at work under the guidance of a clerk going through interminable lists of names and addresses. For two hours he kept on steadily, then suddenly surprised his companion by giving a muttered curse. He had come on a name which dashed all his hopes and showed him that his one clue was a wash out. The item read:---

“Oct. 6th. Pierce Whymper, Oaklands, Bolton Road, Leeds,---£16 8s. 4d.”

“Curse it!” French thought. “There goes all my work! There’s where the twenty-pound note came from all right. That young man has been out at Starvel before the fire and Averill has given him the note for some purpose of his own.”

French was disgusted. Though he had known his clue was weak, he had, nevertheless, subconsciously been building on it, and now that it was gone he felt correspondingly at a loss. However, thoroughness before all things! He continued his study of the books, working through the period until he reached the end, but nowhere else did he get any hint of a possible connection with the tragedy.

But the same habit of thoroughness prevented his dropping the matter until he had explored its every possibility. He asked the clerk to take him once again to the manager.

“Your kind help, sir, and this young gentleman’s, have not been wasted,” he began. “I’ve almost certainly got the man who gave you the note. Unfortunately, however, he turns out to be some one who could have obtained it from its owner in a perfectly legitimate way. So I fear its usefulness as a clue is nil. At the same time I should like to follow up the transaction and make quite sure it is all right. It is this one that I have marked---name of Whymper.”

“Fortunately,” the manager answered, “that is an easier proposition than the last.” He directed the clerk to conduct French to a Mr. Bankes. “Mr. Bankes will give you details about that case,” he went on, “and if there is anything further you require, just come back to me.”

Mr. Bankes proved most willing to assist, and in a few moments the whole of the transactions between Mr. Pierce Whymper of the one part and Messrs. Thos. Cook & Son of the other part, stood revealed. They were as follows:---

On Saturday, 18th September, the day of the inquest at Thirsby, Whymper had written to ask the cost of a second class return ticket from London to Talloires, near Annecy, Savoy, and to know if a passport would be necessary for the journey, and if so, where such was to be obtained. This letter was received at Cook’s on Monday evening and replied to on Tuesday 21st. Two days later Whymper wrote asking Messrs. Cook to provide the tickets as well as various coupons for meals, etc., en route, which, he said, he would call for on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 6th. He evidently had done so, as on that date a receipt had been made out to him for the £16 8s. 4d.

“What was the route covered?” French inquired.

“Dover-Calais, Paris Nord, Paris P.L.M., Bourg, Amberieu, Culoz, and Aix-les-bains. Return the same way. Meals on the outward journey were included as well as three days’ pension at the Hotel Splendide, Annecy.”

“I don’t know Annecy at all. What kind of place is it?”

“Delightful little town on the lake of the same name. A tourist place, becoming better known in recent years. I could recommend it for any one who liked a fairly quiet change.”

“But surely October is too late for it?”

“Well, yes, it’s rather late. Still, I have no doubt it would be pleasant enough even then.”

Next day French travelled back to Thirsby. He was in a very despondent frame of mind, for he did not see a single clue or line of inquiry which might lead to the solution of his case. He would, of course, interview Whymper and follow up the affair of the bank note, but he felt certain that the young man had obtained it in a legitimate way, and that his inquiries would lead nowhere.

From the talkative Miss Judith Carr, the barmaid at the Thirsby Arms, French learned that Whymper had lodgings on the outskirts of the town, at 12 Stanhope Terrace, and when dusk had fallen he went out to make the young man’s acquaintance.

Whymper was at work on some plans when French was shown into his sitting-room. He was a typical, healthy-looking Englishman of the upper middle class. French observed him with some favour, as not at all the type to be mixed up in criminal enterprises. He rose on French’s entry, and with a slight look of surprise, indicated an arm-chair at the fire.

“Mr. Pierce Whymper?” French began with his pleasant smile. “My name is French, and I called to see you on a small matter in which I am going to ask your kind help.”

Whymper murmured encouragingly.

“I must explain in the very strictest confidence,” French went on, glancing searchingly at the other, “that I am an inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard, and it is in connection with an investigation I am making that I want your assistance.”

As he spoke French had been watching his companion, not with inimical intent, but as a matter of mere habit. He was surprised and interested to notice a look of apprehension amounting almost to fear in the young man’s eyes, while his face paled perceptibly, and he moved uneasily in his seat. French decided at once to be more careful in his examination than he had intended.

“I have been,” he resumed, “working at Messrs. Cook’s office in Regent Street. I need not go into details, but there has been a robbery, and they have been handling some of the stolen money. Your name appeared among others who had been dealing with them during the period in question, and I am trying to find out if you or these others could unwittingly have passed in the money.”

That Whymper was experiencing considerable relief French was sure. He did not reply, but nodded expectantly.

“I can ask everything I want in a single question.” French’s voice was friendly and matter of fact, though he watched the other intently. “Where did you get the twenty-pound note with which you paid for your trip to Annecy?”

Whymper started and the signs of uneasiness showed tenfold more strongly.

“Where did I get it?” he stammered, while French noted the admission his bluff had drawn. “Why, I couldn’t tell you. I had it for a considerable time. It probably came in my pay.”

“You get your pay in notes?” French’s voice was stern.

“Well, sometimes---that is, I may have got the note from my father. He makes me an allowance.” The young man twisted nervously in his chair and gave every sign of embarrassment. French, whose experience of statement makers was profound, said to himself: “The man’s lying.”

It did not occur to him that this thoroughly normal looking youth could be guilty of the Starvel Hollow crime, but it suddenly seemed possible that he might know something about it.

“I should like you to think carefully, Mr. Whymper. The matter is more serious than perhaps you realise. You handed Messrs. Cook a stolen twenty-pound note. I am not suggesting that you stole it or that you are in any way to blame for passing it. But you must tell me where you got it. You cannot expect me to believe that you don’t know. Twenty-pound notes are too uncommon for that.”

Rather to French’s surprise the young man began once more to show relief.

“But that’s what I must tell you, Inspector,” he declared, but he did not meet French’s eye, and again the other felt he was lying. “I have had that note for a long time and I don’t really remember how it came into my possession.”

“Now, Mr. Whymper, as a friend I should urge you to think again. I am not making any threats, but it may become very awkward for you if you persist in that statement. Think it over. I assure you it will be worth your while.”

French spoke coaxingly and the other promised he would try to remember. He seemed to French like a man who felt he had been exposed to a danger which was now happily past. But if he thought he had got rid of his visitor he was mistaken.

“When were you last at Starvel, Mr. Whymper?”

At this question Whymper seemed to crumple up. He stared at his questioner with an expression of something very like horror. When he answered it was almost in a whisper.

“The day after the fire. I have not been there since.”

“I don’t mean that. I mean, when were you last there before the fire?”

Whymper’s composure was coming back. He seemed to be nerving himself for a struggle. He spoke more normally.

“Really, I couldn’t tell you, Inspector. It was a long time ago. I was only there half a dozen times in my life. Once it was by Miss Averill’s invitation, the other times on the chance of seeing her.”

“Were you there within a week of the fire?”

“Oh no. The last time was long before that.”

“Had you any communication with Mr. Averill---I mean within a week of the fire?”

“No. I never had any communication with Mr. Averill. I have never seen him.”

“Or with any one in the household; either by letter, telegram, telephone, personal interview or in any other way whatever?”

“Yes. I met Miss Averill accidentally on the day before the fire. Mrs. Oxley, the wife of a solicitor here, came round to the church where I am working to see about some stones she was buying, and Miss Averill was with her. Miss Averill was on her way to stay with some friends and I saw her to the station.”

“Did she give you the twenty-pound note?”

“She did nothing of the kind,” Whymper returned with some heat.

“Was Miss Averill the only member of the Starvel household with whom you communicated during the week before the fire?”

Whymper hesitated and appeared to be thinking.

“Well, Mr. Whymper?”

“I met Roper, Mr. Averill’s valet and general man, for a moment on the evening of the fire. We met by chance and merely wished each other good-evening.”

“Where did you meet him?”

“On the street just outside the church gate. I was leaving work for the night.”

“At what hour was that?”

“About half-past five.”

“And do you assure me that you had no other communication with any member of the Starvel household during the period in question?”

“None.”

“Nor received any message through any third party?”

“No.”

“Well, Mr. Whymper, it is only fair to tell you that the note in question was in Mr. Averill’s safe five days before the fire. You will have to explain how it came into your possession, if not to me, then later on in court. Now think,” French’s voice was suave and coaxing, “would you not rather tell me here in private than have it dragged out of you in the witness box?”

“I would tell you at once, Mr. French, if I had anything to tell, but I’ve nothing. There must be some mistake about the note. The one I gave to Messrs. Cook couldn’t possibly have been in Mr. Averill’s safe at any time.”

The words sounded reasonable, but Whymper’s manner discounted them. More than ever was French convinced that the man was lying. He pressed him as hard as he could, but Whymper stuck to his story and nothing that French could say shook him. French, of course, could only bluff. He was quite unable to prove that Whymper had really passed the stolen note, and though he believed he had done so, he fully realised that he might be mistaken.

Recognising he had failed for the moment, French set himself to calm the other’s anxieties before taking his leave. He pretended to accept the young man’s statement, saying he was afraid his journey had proved a wild-goose chase, and that he would now have to interview the other persons whose names he had obtained from Cook’s. Whether his efforts were successful he wasn’t sure, but the look of relief on Whymper’s face made him think so. Outwardly at all events both men seemed to consider the incident closed when, after French had again warned the other as to secrecy, they bade each other good-night.

But to French it was very far indeed from being closed. He saw that the matter must be probed to the bottom. There was, however, nothing he could do that night except to take one obvious precaution. Whymper must be watched, and going to the police station he surprised Sergeant Kent considerably by asking him to put the young man under careful surveillance.

This precaution was a bow drawn at a venture, but to French’s surprise and delight, on the very next day it proved that the arrow had found its way between the joints of Whymper’s harness. While he was breakfasting a note was brought to him from Kent. In it the sergeant said that as a result of the order to put a watch on Whymper, Constable Sheldrake had made a statement which he, Kent, thought the inspector should hear. Sheldrake said that on the evening of the fire he had spent a couple of his free hours in taking a walk in the direction of Starvel with a friend of his, a young lady. Between half-past nine and ten the two were approaching the junction where the Starvel lane diverged from the road which circled round the outside of the hollow, when they heard steps approaching. Not wishing to be observed, they had slipped behind some bushes, and they had seen a man coming from the Starvel lane. He had passed close to them, and by the light of the moon Constable Sheldrake had not only recognised Whymper, but had seen that his face bore an expression of horror and distress. At the time there was no suspicion either of Whymper or of foul play at Starvel, and the constable, not wishing to be chaffed about the girl, had not mentioned the matter. But now he believed it to be his duty to come forward with his report.

Here was food for thought. The Starvel lane after passing through the Hollow almost petered out. As a rough track it wound on past one or two isolated cottages, debouching at last into a cross road some four miles farther on. It was therefore most unlikely that Whymper could have been coming from anywhere except Starvel. But if he had been coming from Starvel he had lied, as he had stated that he had not been there within a week of the fire.

This fact made French’s next step all the more imperative. He went down to the police station and saw Kent.

“Look here, sergeant,” he explained, “I want to search that young man’s rooms and I want your help. Will you do two things for me? First, I want you to find out at what time he goes home in the evening and let me know, and second to make some pretext to keep him half an hour later than usual at the church to-night. Can you manage that?”

“Of course, Mr. French. You may count on me.”

Kent was as good as his word. When French returned to the hotel in the afternoon a note was waiting for him, saying that Whymper always reached home about six. Accordingly ten minutes before six found French once more knocking at the door of 12, Stanhope Terrace.

“Has Mr. Whymper come back yet?” he asked the stout, good-humoured looking landlady.

She recognised her visitor of the night before and smiled.

“Not yet, sir. But he won’t be long. Will you come in and wait?”

This was what French wanted. It was better that she should suggest it than he. He paused doubtfully.

“Thanks,” he said at last, “perhaps it would be better if you think he won’t be long.”

“He might be here any time. Will you go up, sir? You know your way.”

French thanked her and slowly mounted the stairs. But once in Whymper’s sitting-room with the door shut behind him his deliberation dropped from him like a cloak and he became the personification of swift efficiency. Noiselessly he turned the key in the lock and then quickly but silently began a search of the room.

It was furnished rather more comfortably than the average lodging-house sitting room, though it retained its family resemblance to the dreary species. In the centre was a table on half of which was a more or less white cloth and the preparations for a meal. Two dining-room chairs and two easy chairs, one without arms, represented the seating accommodations. A sideboard, a corner cabinet laden with nondescript ornaments, a china dog and a few books, together with a small modern roll-top desk completed the furniture. On the walls were pictures, a royal family group of the early eighties and some imaginative views of sailing ships labouring on stormy seas. A gilt clock with a bell glass cover stood on the chimney-piece between a pair of china vases containing paper flowers.

French immediately realised that of all these objects, only the desk was of interest to him. It was evidently Whymper’s private property, and in its locked drawers would lie any secret documents the young man might possess. Silently French got to work with his bunch of skeleton keys and a little apparatus of steel wire, and in two or three minutes he was able to push the lid gently up. This released the drawers, and one by one he drew them out and ran through their contents.

He had examined rather more than half when he pursed his lips together and gave vent to a soundless whistle. In a small but bulky envelope at the back of one of the drawers was a roll of banknotes. He drew them out and counted them. They were all twenties. Twenty-four of them—£480.

With something approaching excitement French took from his pocket the list given him by Tarkington of the numbers of twenty-pound notes sent to Starvel. A few seconds sufficed to compare. Every single one of the twenty-four was on the list!

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