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11: A Startling Theory

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Author Topic: 11: A Startling Theory  (Read 19 times)
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« on: September 01, 2023, 11:17:36 am »

INSPECTOR French’s change of plans was due to a new idea which suddenly, like the conventional bolt from the blue, flashed across the horizon of his vision.

For some reason he had been unable to sleep on that night on which he had completed his proof that the Whymper incident had been engineered by Roper. French, as a rule, was a sound sleeper: he was usually too tired on getting to bed to be anything else. But on the rare occasions when he remained wakeful he nearly always turned the circumstance to advantage by concentrating on the difficulty of the moment. His brain at such times seemed more active than normally, and more than one of his toughest problems had been solved during the hours of darkness. It was true that he frequently reached conclusions which in the sober light of day appeared fantastic and had to be abandoned, but valuable ideas had come so often that when up against a really difficult case he had thankfully welcomed a sleepless night in the hope of what it might bring forth.

On this occasion, when he had employed all the conventional aids to slumber without effect, he turned his attention to the one problem in the Starvel Hollow tragedy which up to now had baffled him: the cause of Roper’s fate. How had the man come to lose his life? What terrible mistake had he made? How had Nemesis overtaken him? French felt he could see the whole ghastly business taking place, excepting always this one point. And the more he thought of it, the more difficult it appeared. It seemed almost incredible that so clever a man should have blundered so appallingly.

He had asked himself these questions for the hundredth time when there leaped into his mind an idea so startling that for a moment he could only lie still and let his mind gradually absorb it. Roper’s death seemed the incredible feature of the case, but was this a feature of the case at all? Had Roper died? What if his death was a fake, arranged to free him from the attentions of the police so that he might enjoy without embarrassment the fruits of his crime?

French lay trying to recall the details of a paragraph he had read in the paper a year or two previously and wondering how he had failed up to the present to draw a parallel between it and the Starvel Hollow affair. It was the account of the burning of a house in New York. After the fire it was found that a lot of valuable property had disappeared and further search revealed the remains of two human bodies. Two servants were believed to have been in the house at the time, and these bodies were naturally assumed to have been theirs. Afterwards it was proved---French could not remember how---that the two left in the house had planned the whole affair so as to steal the valuables. They had visited a cemetery, robbed a grave of two bodies, conveyed these to the house, set the place on fire and made off with the swag. Had Roper seen this paragraph and determined to copy the Americans? Or had the same idea occurred to him independently?

How Roper might or might not have evolved his plan was however, a minor point. The question was---had he evolved and carried out such a plan? Was he now alive and in possession of the money?

It was evident there were two possible lines of inquiry, either of which might give him his information.

The first was the definite identification of the body which had been found in the position of Roper’s bed. Was there any physical peculiarity about Roper which would enable a conclusion to be reached as to whether this body was or was not his? It was true that the remains had been examined by Dr. Emerson and unhesitatingly accepted as Roper’s, but the doctor had had no reason for doubt in the matter and might therefore have overlooked some small point which would have led to a contrary conclusion.

The second line of inquiry was more promising. If Roper had carried out such a fraud he must have provided a body to substitute for his own. Had he done so, and if he had, where had this body been obtained?

Here was an act which, French felt, could not have been done without leaving traces. Roper had proved himself a very skilful man, but the secret acquisition of a dead body in a country like England was an extraordinarily difficult undertaking, and of course the more difficult an action was to carry out, the greater were the chances of its discovery. Proof or disproof of his theory would be quickly forthcoming.

Hour after hour French lay pondering the matter, and when shortly before daylight he at last fell asleep, he had laid his plans for the prosecution of his new inquiry.

He began by calling on Dr. Emerson. The doctor was writing in his consulting room when French was shown in, and he rose to greet his visitor with old-fashioned courtesy.

“Sorry for troubling you again, doctor,” French began with his pleasant smile, “but I wanted to ask you a question. It won’t take five minutes.”

“My dear sir, there is no hurry. I’m quite at your disposal.”

“Very good of you, Dr. Emerson, I’m sure. It’s really a matter more of idle curiosity than a serious inquiry. I was thinking over that Starvel affair, and I wondered how you were able to identify the bodies. It was a phrase in the evidence that struck me. I gathered that you said that the bodies of each of the three occupants of the house were lying on the sites of their respective beds. I should like to ask if that was stated from definite identification of the remains, or if it was merely a reasonable and justifiable assumption?”

“If that is what you read, I am afraid I have not been correctly reported. I certainly never said that the body found at each bed was that of the owner of the bed. That they were so I have no doubt: from every point of view I think that is a reasonable and justifiable assumption, to use your own phrase. But actual identification was quite impossible. It is rather an unpleasant subject, but fire, especially such a furnace as must have raged at Starvel, destroys practically all physical characteristics.”

“But you were able to tell the sex and age of the victims?”

“The sex and approximate age, yes. Given a skeleton or even certain bones, that can be stated with certainty. But that is a very different thing from identification.”

“I thought I was right,” French declared. “I had always heard that was the result of fire, and therefore was puzzled. Identification of burnt remains has however been frequently established from rings or jewelry, has it not?”

“Certainly, though there was nothing of the kind in the instance in question. Indeed, such identification would have been almost impossible in any case. In that intense heat gold rings or settings would have melted and the stones themselves would have dropped out and would only be found by an extraordinarily lucky chance.”

French rose.

“Quite so. I agree. Well, I’m glad to know I was right. We Yard Inspectors are always on the look-out for first-hand information.”

So the first of the three lines of inquiry had petered out. The bodies were unidentifiable, and therefore so far as that was concerned, his theory might be true or it might not.

As he strolled slowly back to the hotel, French considered his second clue: the provision by Roper of a body to take the place of his own.

From the first the difficulty of such a feat had impressed French, and as he now thought of it in detail, this difficulty grew until it seemed almost insurmountable. Where could bodies be obtained? Only surely in one of three ways: from a medical institution, from a cemetery, and by means of murder.

With regard to the first of these three, it was true that bodies were used for medical purposes, for dissection, for the instruction of students. But they were not obtainable by outside individuals. French thought that it would be absolutely impossible for Roper to have secured what he wanted from such a source. So convinced of this was he that he felt he might dismiss the idea from his mind.

Could then the remains have been obtained from a cemetery?

Here again the difficulties, though not quite so overwhelming, were sufficiently great as almost to negative the suggestion. Of one thing French felt convinced; that neither Roper nor any other man in Roper’s position could have carried out such an enterprise single-handed. One or more confederates would have been absolutely necessary. To mention a single point only, no one person would have had the physical strength to perform such a task. No one person, furthermore, could have taken the requisite precautions against surprise or discovery, nor could one person have carried out the needful transport arrangements between the cemetery and Starvel.

The whole subject, as French thought out its details, was indescribably gruesome and revolting. But so interested was he in its purely intellectual side---as a problem for which a solution must be found---that he overlooked the horror of the actual operations. For him the matter was one of pure reason. He did not consider the human emotions involved except in so far as these might influence the conduct of the actors in the terrible drama.

Assuming then that the remains had not been procured from a cemetery, there remained but one alternative---murder! Some unknown person must have been inveigled into that sinister house and there done to death, so as to provide the needful third body! If Roper were guilty of the Starvel crime as French now understood it, it looked as if he must have been guilty of a third murder, hitherto unsuspected.

Here was food for thought and opportunity for inquiry. Who had disappeared about the time of the tragedy? Was any one missing in the neighbourhood? Had any one let it be known that he was leaving the district or going abroad about that date? Instead of being at the end of his researches, French was rather appalled by the magnitude of the investigation which was opening out in front of him. To obtain the necessary information might require the prolonged activities of a large staff.

He was anxious not to give away the lines on which he was working. He decided therefore not to make his inquiries from Sergeant Kent at the local station, but to go to Leeds and have an interview with the Chief Constable.

Accordingly, unconsciously following the example of Oxley and Tarkington several weeks earlier, he took the 3.30 train that afternoon and two hours later was seated in Chief Constable Valentine’s room at police headquarters. The old gentleman received him very courteously, and for once French met some one who seemed likely to outdo him in suavity and charm of manner.

“I thought, sir, my case was over when I had cleared up the matter of the bank notes passed to Messrs. Cook in London,” French declared as he accepted a cigarette from the other’s case, “but one or two rather strange points have made me form a tentative theory which seems sufficiently probable to need going into. In short----” and he explained with business-like brevity his ideas about Roper with the facts from which they had sprung.

The Chief Constable was profoundly impressed by the recital, much more so than French would have believed possible.

“It’s a likely enough theory,” he admitted. “Your arguments seem unanswerable and I certainly agree that the idea is sufficiently promising to warrant investigation.”

“I’m glad, sir, that you think so. In my job, as you know, there is always the danger of being carried away by some theory that appeals because of its ingenuity, while overlooking some more commonplace explanation that is much more likely to be true.”

“I know that, and this may of course be an instance. I am glad, however, that you mentioned your theory to me. It is an idea which should be kept secret, and I shall set inquiries on foot without giving away the Starvel connection.”

“Then, sir, you can’t recall any disappearances about the time?”

“I can’t. And I don’t expect we shall find any. Do you?”

“Well, I was in hope that we might.”

Major Valentine shook his head.

“No, Inspector; there I think you’re wrong,” he said with decision. “If Roper really carried out these crimes, he’s far too clever to leave an obvious trail of that kind. We may be sure that if he inveigled some third person to the house and murdered him, a satisfactory explanation of the victim’s absence was provided. You suggested it yourself in your statement. The man will ostensibly have left his surroundings, never to return. If he was a native he will have gone to America or some other distant place. If he was a visitor he will have left to return home. Somehow matters will have been arranged so that he will disappear without raising suspicion. Don’t you think so?”

“Yes, sir, I certainly do. But it’s going to make it a hard job to trace him.”

“I know it is. If he lived in a large town it will be so hard that we probably shan’t succeed, but if he came from the country or a village the local men should have the information.”

“That is so, sir. Then I may leave the matter in your hands?”

“Yes, I’ll attend to it. By the way, where are you staying?”

French told him, and after some desultory discussion, took his leave and caught the last train back to Thirsby. He was partly pleased and partly disappointed by his interview. He had hoped for the co-operation of the Chief Constable, but Major Valentine had gone much further than this. He had really taken the immediate further prosecution of the investigation out of French’s hands. French was therefore temporarily out of a job. Moreover French had the contempt of the Londoner and the specialist for those whom he was pleased to think of as “provincial amateurs.” And yet he could not have acted otherwise than as he had. The organisation of the police with all its ramifications was needed for the job, and the Chief Constable controlled the organisation.

Next morning after he had brought his notes of the case to date, French left the hotel, and walking in the leisurely, rather aimless fashion he affected in the little town, approached the church. It had occurred to him that he would spend his enforced leisure in an examination of the cemeteries in the immediate district, to see if any local conditions would favour the operations of a body-snatcher.

Owing to the renovation, the church gate was open and French, passing through, turned into the graveyard surrounding the picturesque old building. It also was old---old and completely filled with graves. As French leisurely strolled round the paths, he could not find a single vacant lot. Even on the wall of the church itself there were monuments, one of which bore the date 1573 and none of which were later than 1800. Though the place was carefully tended there were no signs of recent interments, and French was not therefore surprised to learn from one of the workmen that there was a new cemetery at the opposite end of the town.

He stood looking round, considering the possibilities of grave robbing. The church was almost in the centre of the town and the graveyard was surrounded on all sides by houses. In front was the old High Street, fenced off by a tall iron railing and with a continuous row of houses and shops opposite. The other three sides were bounded by a six-foot wall, the two ends abutting on the gables and yards of the High Street houses, and the back on a narrow street called Church Lane, again with houses all the way along its opposite side. There were heavy wrought iron gates leading to both Church Lane and High Street.

The longer French examined the place, the more certain he became that the robbery of a grave by less than three or four persons was an absolute impossibility. However, he saw the sexton and made sure that both gates were locked on the night in question.

He next paid a similar visit to the new cemetery. Here the difficulties were not quite so overwhelming as it was farther from the town and much less overlooked. At the same time even here they were so great as to make theft practically impossible.

In the afternoon he tramped to the only other cemetery in the district---that of a village some three miles north-east of Starvel. But again his investigations met with a negative result and he definitely put out of his mind the theory that Roper had robbed a grave.

For two days he kicked his heels in Thirsby, hoping against hope that he would hear something from Major Valentine and wondering whether he should not go back to London, and then he accidentally learned a fact which gave him a new idea and started him off on a fresh line of investigation.

As a forlorn hope it had occurred to him that he would call again on Ruth Averill to inquire whether she could think of any one who might have visited Starvel after she left for York. He did not expect an affirmative reply, but he thought the inquiry would pass the time as profitably as anything else.

Ruth, however, had known of no one.

“We never had a visitor, Mr. French,” she went on, “rarely or ever. Except those three or four calls of Mr. Whymper’s of which I told you, I don’t think a single person had come to the place for a year. Why should they?”

“It must have been lonely for you,” French said sympathetically.

“It was lonely. I didn’t realise it at the time, except just after coming back from school, but now that I have plenty of people to speak to I see how very lonely it was.”

“You didn’t feel able to make confidants of the Ropers? Of course,” French went on hastily, “I know they were only servants, but still many servants are worthy of the fullest confidence.”

Ruth shook her head.

“No, I didn’t feel that I could make friends with either. It was not in the least because they were servants. Some of the cottagers were even lower socially, and yet they were real friends. But there was something repellent about the Ropers, or at least I thought so. I was never happy with either of them. And yet both were kind and attentive and all that. Of course, there was Mr. Giles. He was always friendly, and I enjoyed helping him with his insects. But I didn’t really see a great deal of him.”

French felt sorry for the young girl, as he thought of the unhappy life she must have led.

“I think I understand how you feel,” he returned gently. “Personality is a wonderful thing, is it not? It is quite intangible, but one recognises it and acts on it instinctively. And that Mr. Giles whom you mentioned. Who is he, if it is not an impertinent question?”

“Oh, he is dead,” Ruth answered sadly and with some surprise in her tones. “Did you not hear about him? He lived close to Starvel---at least, about half a mile away---but his cottage was the nearest house. He was dreadfully delicate and, I am afraid, rather badly off. He was wounded in the War and was never afterwards able to work. He was interested in insects and kept bees. He collected butterflies and beetles and wrote articles about them. Sometimes I used to help him to pin out his specimens. He taught me a lot about them.”

“And you say he died?”

“Yes, wasn’t it tragic? The poor man died just at the time of the Starvel affair. It was too terrible. When I came back from York I found he had gone too.”

French almost leaped off his seat as he heard these words. Was it possible that in his careless, half-interested inquiries he had blundered on to the one outstanding fact that he needed? Could it be that Mr. Giles’ death represented Roper’s search for a body? That he was his third victim?

Crushing down his eagerness French did his best to simulate a polite and sympathetic interest.

“How terrible for you, Miss Averill!” he said with as real feeling in his tones as he could compass. “One shock added to another. Tell me about it, if it is not too painful a recollection.”

“Oh no, I’ll tell you. He fell ill a few days before I went to York---influenza, Mrs. Roper thought, but he must have been fairly bad as he had Dr. Philpot out to see him. Both the Ropers were certainly very good to him. They went up and nursed him, for the woman who usually looked after him had not time to stay with him for more than an hour or so in the day. I went up and sat with him occasionally, too. On the morning I went to York he seemed much worse. I called on my way into Thirsby, and he was lying without moving and was terribly white and feeble looking. His voice also was very faint. He just said he was comfortable and had everything he wanted. Mrs. Roper said that if he didn’t soon get better she would send Roper in for Dr. Emerson. Dr. Philpot, I should explain, had just gone down with influenza.”

“And what was the next thing you heard?”

“Why,” Ruth made a little gesture of horror, “the next thing I knew of it was that we met the funeral. It was awful. It was the second day after the fire. I wanted to go out and see Starvel, and Mrs. Oxley drove me out in their car. When we were coming back, just as we reached the point where the Starvel road branches off, we saw a funeral coming in along the main road. It was trotting and we waited to let it pass on. Mr. Stackpool---that’s the vicar---and Dr. Emerson were there and they told us whose it was. Of course we joined them. Poor Mr. Giles. I was sorry for him. But nothing could have been done. Dr. Emerson said he became unconscious the same day that I saw him, and passed away without suffering. That was something to be thankful for at least.”

“Indeed, yes,” French agreed with feeling. “I wonder if I haven’t heard about Mr. Giles. He was a very tall old man, wasn’t he, and walked with a stoop?”

“Oh no, he wasn’t specially tall or old either. Just medium height and middle age, I should say. Nor did he walk with a stoop. You must be thinking of some one else.”

“I suppose I must,” French admitted, and as soon as he reasonably could he took his leave.

That he now held in his hand the solution of the mystery he no longer doubted. He would have wagered ten years of his life that this Giles’ remains had been taken from the wreck of Starvel and interred under the name of John Roper. Such a supposition, moreover, was consistent with the medical evidence. Dr. Emerson had stated at the inquest that the third body was that of a man of middle height and middle age. This, of course, had been taken as applying to Roper, but it might equally apply to Giles. It was certainly a lucky thing for Roper’s scheme that a person so suitable for his diabolical purpose should happen to live so near to the scene of the crime. Or more probably, it was this very fact that had suggested the idea of the substitution to Roper.

But if Giles had been murdered, what about Dr. Emerson’s certificate? In this wretched case the solution of one problem only seemed to lead to another. French felt that he had still further work before him ere he could begin the second stage of his case---the search for Roper. Lost in thought he returned to the Thirsdale Arms for lunch.
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