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8: Dr. Philpot’s Story

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« on: September 01, 2023, 08:32:33 am »

DOCTOR Philpot lived in a small detached house at the end of the High Street of the little town, close enough to the centre of things to be convenient for patients, and far enough away to have a strip of garden round his house and to avoid being overlooked by his neighbours.

The reply to the letter he had written from “Charles Musgrave” about the mythical gardener told French that the doctor’s consulting hours were from six to eight o’clock in the evening, and at two minutes to eight on the day he had returned from Edinburgh French rang the doctor’s bell. The door was opened by an elderly woman who led the way to the consulting room.

There seemed to French a vaguely unprosperous air about the place. The garden was untended, the railing wanted paint and the house, while well enough furnished, looked neglected and dirty. French wondered if these were the outward and visible signs of the betting proclivities of their owner, of which the hotel landlord had taken so serious a view.

Dr. Philpot was seated at a writing table, but he rose on French’s entry. His appearance was not exactly unprepossessing, but it suggested a lack of force or personality. Physically he was frail, neither tall nor short, and washed out as to colouring. His tired, dreamy-looking eyes were of light blue, his fair hair, thinning on the top, was flecked with gray and his complexion had an almost unhealthy pallor. He had well-formed, rather aristocratic features, but his expression was bored and dissatisfied. He struck French as a dreamer rather than a practical man of affairs. But his manner was polite enough as he wished his visitor good-evening and pointed to a chair.

“I have called, Dr. Philpot, not as a patient, but to consult you on a small matter of business.”

Dr. Philpot glanced at the clock on the marble chimney piece.

“It is just eight,” he answered. “I shall not have any more patients to-night. I am quite at your service.”

French sat down and made a remark or two about the weather, while he watched the man opposite to him keenly but unobtrusively. He was playing for time in which to ascertain what manner of man this doctor really was, so that he might handle the interview in the way most likely to achieve its end. Philpot replied politely but shortly, evidently at a loss to know why his visitor could not come to the point. But French presently did so with surprising suddenness.

“I am sorry, Dr. Philpot, that I am here on very unpleasant business, and I must begin by telling you that I am a detective inspector from New Scotland Yard.”

As he spoke French made no secret of his keen scrutiny. His eyes never left the other’s face, and he felt the thrill of the hunter when he noticed a sudden change come over its expression. From inattentive and bored it now became watchful and wary, and the man’s figure seemed to stiffen as if he were bracing himself to meet a shock.

“I regret to say,” French proceeded, “that information has recently been received by the Yard which, if true, would indicate that you are guilty of a very serious crime, and I have to warn you that if you are unable to offer me a satisfactory explanation I may have to arrest you, in which case anything which you may now say may be used in evidence against you.”

French was deeply interested by the other’s reception of this speech. Dr. Philpot’s face was showing extreme apprehension, not to say actual fear. This was not altogether unexpected---French had seen apprehension stamped on many a face under similar circumstances. But what was unexpected was that the doctor should show no surprise. He seemed indeed to take French’s statement for granted, as if a contingency which he had long expected had at last arisen. “He knows what is coming,” French thought as he paused for the other to speak.

But Philpot did not speak. Instead he deliberately raised his eyebrows, and looking inquiringly at French, waited for him to continue. French remained silent for a moment or two, then leaning forward and staring into the other’s eyes, he said in a low tone: “Dr. Philpot, you are accused of murdering your wife, Edna Philpot, at your home at Braeside, Kintilloch, about 5.30 on the afternoon of the 15th May, 1921.”

The doctor started and paled. For a moment panic seemed about to overtake him, then he pulled himself together.

“Ridiculous!” he declared coolly. “Your information must be capable of some other explanation. What does it consist of?”

“It purports to be the statement of an eyewitness,” French returned, continuing slowly: “It mentions---among other things---it mentions---a cricket bat.”

Again Philpot’s start indicated that the shot had told, but he answered steadily:---

“A cricket bat? I don’t follow. What has a cricket bat to do with it?”

“Everything,” French said grimly: “if the information received is correct, of course.”

Philpot turned and faced him.

“Look here,” he said harshly, “will you say right out what you mean and be done with it? Are you accusing me of murdering my wife with a cricket bat, or what are you trying to get at?”

“I’ll tell you,” French rejoined. “The statement is that you arranged the---‘accident’---which befell your wife. The ‘accident,’ however, did not kill her, as you hoped and intended, and you then struck her on the temple with a cricket bat, which did kill her. That, I say, is the statement. I have just been to Kintilloch and have been making inquiries. Now, Dr. Philpot, when I mentioned the cricket bat you started. You therefore realised its significance. Do you care to give me an explanation or would you prefer to reserve your statement until you have consulted a solicitor?”

Dr. Philpot grew still paler as he sat silent, lost in thought.

“Do you mean that you will arrest me if I don’t answer your questions?”

“I shall have no alternative.”

Again the doctor considered while his eyes grew more sombre and his expression more hopeless. At last he seemed to come to a decision. He spoke in a low voice.

“Ask your questions and I’ll answer them if I can.”

French nodded.

“Did you ever,” he said slowly, “admit to any one that you had committed this murder?”

Philpot looked at him in surprise.

“Never!” he declared emphatically.

“Then how,” French went on, slapping the confession down on the table, “how did you come to write this?”

Philpot stared at the document as if his eyes would start out of his head. His face expressed incredulous amazement, but here again French, who was observing him keenly, felt his suspicions grow. Philpot was surprised at the production of the paper; it was impossible to doubt the reality of his emotion. But he did not read it. He evidently recognised it and knew its contents. For a moment he gazed breathlessly, then he burst out with a bitter oath.

“The infernal scoundrel!” he cried furiously. “I knew he was bad, but this is more than I could have imagined! That---Roper is at the bottom of this, I’ll swear! It’s another of his hellish tricks!”

“What do you mean?” French asked. “Explain yourself.”

“You got that paper from Roper---somehow, didn’t you?” The man was speaking eagerly now. “Even after he’s dead his evil genius remains.”

“If after my warning you care to make a statement, I will hear it attentively, and you will have every chance to clear yourself. As I told you I have learned about the case from various sources. I retain that knowledge to check your statement.”

Philpot made a gesture as if casting prudence to the winds.

“I’ll tell you everything; I have no option,” he said, and his manner grew more eager. “It means admitting actions which I hoped never to have to speak of again. But I can’t help myself. I don’t know whether you’ll believe my story, but I will tell you everything exactly as it happened.”

“I am all attention, Dr. Philpot.”

The doctor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts, then still speaking eagerly though more calmly, he began:---

“As you have inquired into this terrible affair, you probably know a good deal of what I am going to tell you. However, lest you should not have heard all, I shall begin at the beginning.

“In the year 1913 I was appointed assistant on the medical staff of the Ransome Institute. One of the attendants there was called Roper, John Roper: the John Roper who lost his life at Starvel some weeks ago. He was a sneering, cynical man with an outwardly correct manner, but when he wished to be nasty, with a very offensive turn of phrase. He was under my immediate supervision and we fell foul of each other almost at once.

“One day, turning a corner in one of the corridors I came on Roper with his arms round one of the nurses. Whether she was encouraging him or not I could not tell, but when he saw me he let her go and she instantly vanished. I spoke to him sharply and said I would report him. I should have been warned by his look of hate, but he spoke civilly and quietly.

“ ‘I have nothing to say about myself,’ he said, ‘but you’ll admit that Nurse Williams is a good nurse, and well conducted. I happen to know she is supporting her mother, and if she gets the sack it will be ruin to both of them.’

“I told him he should have considered that earlier, but when I thought over the affair I felt sorry for the girl. She was, as he had said, a thoroughly attentive, kindly girl, and a good nurse. Well, not to make too long a story, there I made my mistake. I showed weakness and I made no report.”

Philpot had by this time mastered his emotion and now he was speaking quietly and collectedly, though with an earnestness that carried conviction.

“But though I hadn’t reported him, Roper from that moment hated me. He was outwardly polite, but I could see the hatred in his eyes. I, on my part, grew short with him. We never spoke except on business and as little as possible on that. But all the time he was watching for his revenge.

“In May, 1914, I married and set up house at Braeside. Then came the war and in ’15 I joined up. After two years I was invalided out and went back to Kintilloch. Roper, I should say, was exempted from service owing to a weak heart.

“On my return after that two years I was a different man. I am not pleading neurasthenia, though I suffered from shell-shock, but I had no longer the self-control of my former days. Though I still dearly loved my wife, I confess I felt strongly attracted to other women when in their company. Thus it happened---I don’t want to dwell on a painful subject---that I, in my turn, became guilty of the very offence for which I had threatened to report Roper.” He spoke with an obvious effort. “There was a nurse there---I need not tell you her name: she’s not there now---but she was a pretty girl with a kindly manner. I met her accidentally in Edinburgh and on the spur of the moment asked her to lunch. From that our acquaintance ripened and at last, by Fate’s irony---well, Roper found her in my arms one evening in a deserted part of the Institute shrubbery. I can never forget his satanic smile as he stood there looking at us. I sent the girl away and then he disclosed his terms. The price of his silence was ten shillings a week. If I would pay him ten shillings a week he would forget what he had seen.

“Well, just consider my position. The incident was harmless in itself and yet its publication would have been my ruin. As you probably know, in such institutions that sort of thing is very severely dealt with. If Roper had reported me to the authorities my resignation would have followed as a matter of course. And it was not I alone who would have suffered. The nurse would probably have had to go. My wife also had to be considered. I needn’t attempt to justify myself, but I took the coward’s way and agreed to Roper’s terms.

“Then there was triumph on his evil face and he saw that he had me. With outward civility and veiled insolence he said that while my word was as good to him as my bond, the matter was a business one, and should be settled in a business way. To ensure continued payment he must have a guarantee. The guarantee was to take the form of a statement written and signed by myself, stating---but I can remember its exact words. It was to say:---

“ ‘I, Herbert Philpot, doctor of medicine and at present assistant on the staff of the Ransome Institute in this town, under compulsion and in the hope of avoiding exposure, hereby admit that I have been carrying on an intrigue with Nurse So-and-so of the same institution. I further admit unseemly conduct with her in the grounds of the Ransome Institute on the evening of this 2nd October, 1920, though I deny any serious impropriety.’ ”

Philpot was now speaking in low tones with every appearance of shame and distress, as if the memory of these events and the putting of them into words was acutely painful to him. His manner was convincing, and French felt that the story, at least so far, might well be true.

“You can’t think less of me than I do of myself, Inspector, when I tell you that at last after a protest and a long argument I submitted even in this humiliation. I am not trying to justify myself, but I just couldn’t face the trouble. I wrote the statement. Roper took it, and thanking me civilly, said he would keep it hidden as long as the money was paid. But if there was a failure to pay he would send it anonymously to the Institute authorities.

“After that everything seemed to become normal again. Every Saturday I secretly handed Roper a ten-shilling note and our relations otherwise went on as before. And then came that awful afternoon when my wife lost her life.

“I can never forget the horror of that time and I surely need not dwell on it? If you have made inquiries at Kintilloch you will know what took place. Every word I said then was the literal truth. I shall pass on to what happened afterwards, but if there is any question you want to ask I will try to answer it.”

“There is nothing so far.”

“One evening about a week after the funeral Roper called at my house and asked for an interview. I brought him into my study and then he referred to the ten shillings a week and said that he was sure I would see that his knowledge had now become vastly more valuable, and what was I going to do about it? I said that on the contrary it was now almost worthless. My wife was dead and I didn’t care what became of myself. There was only the nurse to think of, and even about her I didn’t now mind so much, as she had gone to America. At the same time for peace’ sake I would continue the payments. He need not, however, think he was going to get any more out of me.

“His answer dumbfounded me. It left me terribly shaken and upset. He said he expected I hadn’t known it, but the police suspected me of murdering my wife, and were making all sorts of inquiries about me. He pointed out that it was generally believed my wife and I hated each other: that we were seldom seen together and that she had been overheard speaking disparagingly of me. Then he said I was alone in the house when she met her death; no one had seen the accident and there was only my word for what had taken place. He said it was known there was a cricket bat in the hall, and that it would be obvious to any one that a blow on the temple from the flat side of the bat would look just like a bruise caused by striking the floor. All this, he said, the police had discovered, but what prevented them taking action was the fact that they didn’t think they could show a strong enough motive to take the case into court. That, he said---and I shall never forget the devilish look in his eyes---that was where he came in. He had but to go forward and relate the incident in the shrubbery to complete their case. He explained that he could do it in a perfectly natural way. He would say that while the affair was only a mere intrigue he did not consider it his business to interfere, but when it came to murder it was a different thing. He did not wish to be virtually an accessory after the fact.

“His remarks came as a tremendous shock to me. The possibility of such a terrible suspicion had not occurred to me, but now I saw that there was indeed a good deal of circumstantial evidence against me. I need not labour the matter. The result of our long conversation is all you wish to hear. In the end I was guilty of the same weakness and folly that I had shown before; I asked him his price and agreed to pay it. Two pounds a week, he demanded, until further notice, and I gave way. But when he went on to say that as before he required a guarantee and must have a written confession of the crime, I felt he had passed the limit. I refused to avow a crime of which I was not guilty, and dared him to do his worst.

“But once again he proved himself one too many for me. With his cynical evil smile he took two photographs out of his pocket and handed me one. It was an extraordinarily clear copy of my confession of the intrigue with the nurse. Then he handed me the other photograph and at first I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a copy of this,” and Dr. Philpot picked up the note that French had found in Roper’s safe deposit.

“I asked him, of course, for an explanation and he admitted brazenly that he had forged the letter. He had spent the week since the accident making copy after copy until he had got it perfect. When I stormed at him and threatened him with arrest he just laughed and said the boot was on the other foot. He said I needn’t have the slightest uneasiness, that so long as the money was paid the letter would never see the light of day. Otherwise the document would be enclosed anonymously to the police. You may guess how it ended up. I promised to pay: and I paid.”

Dr. Philpot’s face looked more grey and weary than ever and his eyes took on a deeper sombreness as he said these words. He waited as if for French to speak, but French did not move and he resumed:---

“After all that had happened, life at Kintilloch became inexpressibly painful for me and I began to look out for another job. Then I heard that the principal doctor of this little town was old and in failing health, and there was a possible opening for a new-comer. I resigned the Ransome job and set up my plate here. But every week I sent two treasury notes to Roper.

“Some fifteen or sixteen months ago, when I had been here between three and four years, I had a letter from Roper saying that he had seen an advertisement for a man and wife to act as servants to a Mr. Averill of Starvel in my neighbourhood. As he had shortly before left the Ransome he wished to apply. As a matter of fact, I found out later that he had been dismissed for drugging a patient. I forgot to say also that he had married my former servant. If, he went on, I would use my influence with Mr. Averill to get him the job, he would cease his demand for the two pounds a week and send me the note he had forged.

“Mr. Averill was by this time my patient, and I mentioned Roper to him. I could do so with a clear conscience for with all his faults Roper was an excellent attendant. His wife, Flora, also was a good servant and I believed they would suit Mr. Averill well. At the same time I told Mr. Averill just why he had left the Ransome. But Mr. Averill thought that for that very reason he could get them cheap and after some negotiations they were engaged.

“The very same week Roper called on me and said I had kept my word in the past and he would keep his now. He said he was tired of crooked going and wished to live straight. He would blackmail me no longer. He handed me the forged note and watched me put it in the fire. I ceased paying him the money. From then to the day of his death he was civil when we met, and no unpleasant subjects were touched on. I began to believe his reformation was genuine, but now since you show me this I see he was unchanged. It is evident he must have made a copy of his forgery and kept one while he let me destroy the other. I wish you would tell me how you got it. What his motive can have been you may be able to guess, but I cannot.

“That, Inspector, is the whole truth of this unhappy affair. I had hoped never to have to speak of it again, and now that I have told you of it I trust that the whole miserable business may be decently buried and forgotten.”

French nodded gravely. He was puzzled by this long story of the doctor’s. The tale was certainly possible. As he reviewed each point he had to admit that not only was it possible, but it was even reasonably probable. Given a man of weak character as this doctor appeared to be, and a clever and unscrupulous ruffian, as Roper had been painted, the whole affair could have happened quite naturally and logically. Moreover it adequately covered all the facts.

On the other hand, if Philpot had killed his wife he would tell just some such tale as this. There was no one to refute it. Roper and his wife were dead and the nurse had left the country. Of course, it might be possible to trace the nurse, but it certainly couldn’t be done easily or rapidly.

As he turned the matter over in his mind it seemed to French that the crucial point was the authenticity of the confession. If Philpot had written it, he had done so because he was guilty and because he, therefore, could not help himself. However terrible the putting of such a statement in black and white would be to him, it would be the lesser of two evils, the alternative being immediate betrayal. But if the confession were a forgery all this would be reversed. It could only have come into being in some such way as the doctor had described. In fact, in his case it would amount to a powerful confirmation of his story.

Now, upon this point there was no doubt. The confession definitely was a forgery. The Yard experts were unanimous, and their opinion under such circumstances might be taken for gospel. French might therefore start with a strong bias in favour of Philpot.

This French realised, and then he found himself again weighed down by doubt. Was it credible that a man would really pay blackmail for fear of having an obviously forged confession produced? At first French did not think so---he would not have done it himself---but as he considered the special circumstances he saw that this question did not accurately describe the situation as it would appear to the doctor. In the first place, Philpot did not know how bad a forgery the document was. It seemed to him his own writing, and he had no guarantee that it would not be accepted as such. But he knew that if it were produced he would almost certainly have the misery of arrest and imprisonment and possibly of trial also. Moreover, the episode of the nurse would come out, and the result of the whole business would have been ruin to his career. If Philpot had been a strong man he would no doubt have faced the situation, but as it was, French felt sure that he would take the coward’s way. No, there was nothing in this idea to make him doubt the man’s story.

On the contrary, Philpot’s admission that he had submitted to blackmail was actually in his favour. If he had intended to lie surely he would have invented a tale less damaging to himself. He had not hesitated to tell French about the nurse and so present him with the very motive for his wife’s murder which was lacking in the case against himself.

On the whole it seemed to French that the probabilities were on Philpot’s side and he himself inclined to the view that he was innocent. Whatever the truth, he saw that he had no case to bring into court. No jury would convict on such evidence.

And if here was no evidence to convict the man of the murder of his wife, there was still less to associate him with the Starvel affair. In fact there was here no case against him at all. Even leaving Philpot’s illness out of the question, there was nothing to indicate any connection with the crime. It would be just as reasonable to suspect Emerson or Oxley or even Kent.

French had an uncomfortable feeling that he had been following will-o’-the-wisps both in this affair and in Whymper’s. The circumstances in each had been suspicious and he did not see how he could have avoided following them up, but now that he had done so it looked as if he had been wasting his time. Ruefully he saw also that he had rather got away from his facts. He had forgotten that the motive of the Starvel crime had not to be sought in anything indirect or ingenious or fanciful. The motive was obvious enough and commonplace enough in all conscience; it was theft. And such a motive French could not see actuating either Philpot or Whymper.

No, he must get back to the facts. Who had stolen the money? That was what he had to find out. And he would not get it the way he was going. He must start again and work with more skill and vision. First, he must reassure this doctor, and then he must get away to some place where he could think without interruption.

“I am sorry, Dr. Philpot, to have had to give you the pain of reopening matters which I can well understand you would have preferred to leave closed. It was necessary, however, that my doubts on these matters should either be confirmed or set at rest. I may say that I accept your story and am satisfied with the explanation you have given me. I hope it may be possible to let the affair drop and at the present time I see no reason to prevent it.” He arose. “I wish you good-night, doctor, and thank you for your confidence.”

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