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12: A Somewhat Gruesome Chapter

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Author Topic: 12: A Somewhat Gruesome Chapter  (Read 46 times)
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« on: September 01, 2023, 11:53:39 am »

TO inquire of a fully fledged and responsible medical man whether he has or has not given a false death certificate, without at the same time ruffling his feelings is an undertaking requiring a nice judgment and not a little tact. As French once again climbed the steps to Dr. Emerson’s hall door early that same afternoon, he felt that the coming interview would tax even his powers of suave inquiry. In a way, of course, it didn’t matter whether the doctor’s feelings were ruffled or not, but both on general principles and from a desire to prevent his witness becoming hostile, the detective was anxious to save the other’s face.

“How are you, doctor? Here I am back to worry you again,” French began pleasantly as he was shown in to the consulting-room. They chatted for a few moments and then French went on: “I wanted to ask you in confidence about an acquaintance of Miss Averill’s, a Mr. Giles who died recently. You knew him?”

“I attended him. I attended him for some years until Dr. Philpot came, then he took him over as well as most of my other country patients. I am not so young as I was and the arrangement suited us both. He died while Dr. Philpot was ill, and I went out and gave the necessary certificate.”

“So I gathered, and that’s why I came to you. What a curious coincidence it was that this man should pass away at the very time of the fire! That all four of Miss Averill’s closest acquaintances should die at practically the same time is, you must admit, as strange as it is tragic.”

Emerson looked at his visitor curiously.

“Strange enough and tragic enough, I admit,” he answered, “but such coincidences are not infrequent. It is my experience that coincidences which would be deemed too remarkable for a novel constantly occur in real life.”

“I quite agree with you. I have often said the same thing. Mr. Giles was an invalid, was he not?”

“Yes, from what he told me the poor fellow had a rather miserable life. He was always delicate, and when he volunteered in 1914, he was rejected because of his heart. As the war dragged on the authorities became less particular and in 1917 he was re-examined and passed for foreign service, wrongly, as I think. However, that’s what happened. He went to France and in less than a month he was in hospital, having been both gassed and wounded. As a result his heart became more seriously affected. Even five years ago he was in a state in which death might have occurred from a sudden shock, and myocarditis is a complaint which does not improve as the years pass.”

“Then it was myocarditis he died of?”

“Yes. He had an attack of influenza on the previous Thursday. When Dr. Philpot got laid up and asked me to take his patients over he told me he had seen Mr. Giles and that he was in a bad way. The influenza made an extra call on the poor man’s heart which no doubt hastened his end, but the actual cause of death was myocarditis.”

“Does this disease leave any infallible signs after death? I mean, can a doctor say definitely from the mere inspection of the remains that death was due to it and to no other cause? Don’t think me impertinent in asking. I told you we inspectors were always out after first-hand information.”

Dr. Emerson raised his eyebrows as if to indicate delicately that the question was perhaps not in the best taste, but with only the slightest hint of stiffness he replied:---

“In this case the question does not arise. This man was in a serious condition of health; his heart might have failed at any moment. Moreover, he was suffering from influenza, which puts an extra strain on the heart. Dr. Philpot gave it as his opinion that he would not recover. When therefore I learned that he had died suddenly I was not surprised. It was only to be expected. Further, when I examined him he showed every sign of death from heart failure.”

“But that is just the point, doctor. Excuse my pressing it, but I really am interested. For my own information I should like to know whether these signs that you speak of were absolutely peculiar to a death from heart disease. I understood, please correct me if I am wrong, but I understood that only an autopsy could really establish the point beyond question.”

Dr. Emerson hesitated.

“These are very peculiar questions,” he said presently. “I think you should tell me what is in your mind. It seems to me that I am equally entitled to ask how the death of Mr. Giles affects the cause of the Starvel fire?”

French nodded, and drawing forward his chair, spoke more confidentially.

“You are, doctor. I had not intended to mention my suspicion, but since you have asked me, I’ll answer your question. I will ask you to keep what I am about to say very strictly to yourself, and on that understanding I must tell you that I’m not connected with an insurance company: I’m an inspector from Scotland Yard. Certain facts which I do not wish to go into at present have led me to suspect that Mr. Giles may have been murdered. I want to make sure.”

Dr. Emerson stared as if he couldn’t have believed his ears, and his jaw dropped.

“God bless my soul!” he cried. “Murdered? Did I hear you say murdered?”

“Yes,” said French, “but I am not sure about it. It is only a suspicion.”

“A pretty nasty suspicion for me, after my certificate! But you couldn’t be right. The very idea is absurd! Who could have murdered such a harmless man, and badly off at that!”

“Well, I think it might be possible to find a motive. But if you don’t mind, I’d really rather not discuss what may prove to be a mare’s nest. However, you see now the object of my questions. I want to know the possibilities from the medical point of view. Perhaps you will tell me about that autopsy?”

Dr. Emerson was manifestly disturbed by French’s suggestion. He moved uneasily in his chair and gave vent to exclamations of scepticism and concern. “Of course,” he went on, “I’ll tell you everything I can, and I needn’t say I most sincerely hope your suspicion is unfounded. You are perfectly correct on the other point. Only an autopsy can establish beyond question the fact of a death from myocarditis. If I had had the slightest doubt in Mr. Giles’ case I should have required one before giving a certificate. But I had no doubt, and with all due respect to you I have none now.”

“You may be right, doctor. I’ll tell you as soon as I know myself. In the meantime thank you for your information and not a word to a soul.”

French left the house with a deep satisfaction filling his mind. Dr. Emerson’s admission was what he had hoped for and it very nearly banished his last remaining doubt. But he felt that he ought to get Dr. Philpot’s views also. Philpot had seen the man before death and his evidence would certainly be required if the matter went further.

Accordingly, he turned in the direction of the younger man’s house, and a few minutes later was entering a consulting-room for the second time that day.

“Good-afternoon, doctor,” he said, with his usual cheery smile. “I’ve come on my old tack of looking for information. But it’s a very simple matter this time: just one question on quite a different subject.”

Dr. Philpot was looking changed: old and worn and despondent. French was rather shocked at his appearance. He was sitting forward in his chair, hunched over the fire, with his head resting in his hands and a look of brooding misery on his features. He looked like a man upon whom a long expected blow had at last fallen; a man at the end of his tether, who does not know which way to turn for relief. And then, somewhat to French’s surprise, the cause came out.

“Of course, of course,” the other murmured, rousing himself as if from an evil dream. “If you want to know anything from me ask it now, for I’m leaving the town almost at once.”

French was genuinely surprised.

“Leaving the town?” he repeated. “You don’t mean----? Do you mean for good?”

“For good, yes. And I don’t want ever to see the cursed place again. But it’s my own fault. I may as well tell you, for you’ll hear it soon enough. I have failed.”

“Financially, you mean?”

Philpot glanced at his visitor with sombre resentment.

“Financially, of course. How else?” he growled. “It was never a land flowing with milk and honey, this place, but for the last few months my position has been getting more and more impossible. The only things I get plenty of are bills---bills everywhere, and no money to meet them. I’ve struggled and fought to keep my end up, but it has been no good. When I came, I couldn’t afford to buy a practice, and though I’ve not done so badly owing to Dr. Emerson’s giving up his more distant patients, I haven’t built up quickly enough and my little capital couldn’t stand the strain. Another three or four years and I might have got my head above water.” He made a gesture of despair. “But there it is and complaining won’t help it.”

French’s natural reaction was to show sympathy with any one in trouble, and he could not help feeling sorry for this doctor who had made a mess of his life and who now, nearing middle age, was going to have to begin all over again. But when he remembered what the landlord of the Thirsdale Arms had told him of the man’s gambling proclivities, his sympathy was somewhat checked. To continue gambling when you know that your indulgence is going to prevent your paying your just debts is but a short way removed from theft. Of course, French did not know how far the landlord’s story was true, so it was with relief that he reminded himself that he was not Philpot’s judge, and that his business was simply to get the information he required as easily and pleasantly as he could.

“I am exceedingly sorry to hear what you say,” he declared gravely, and he was not altogether a hypocrite in making his manner and tone express genuine regret. “It is a terrible position for any one to find himself in and I can well understand how you feel. But, though bad, you must not consider it hopeless. Many a man has passed through a similar trouble and has come out on top in the end.”

Philpot smiled faintly.

“I appreciate your kindness,” he answered. “But don’t let us talk about it. I told you in order to explain my departure and because you would hear it in any case. But if you don’t mind, I would rather not speak of it again. You said something about a question, I think?”

“Yes, but first I must ask just this. You say you are leaving here. Suppose through some unexpected development in this Starvel case you are wanted to give evidence. Can I find you?”

“Of course. I am going to a friend in Glasgow who says he can find me a job. I shall be staying with Mrs. MacIntosh, of 47, Kilgore Street, Dumbarton Road.”

French noted the address.

“Thanks. I do not think I shall want you, but I should be remiss in my duty if I failed to keep in touch with you. The other question is about a friend of Miss Averill’s, a man named Giles, who died about the time of the fire. I wish you would tell me what he died of.”

Dr. Philpot looked at him in surprise. Then something approaching a twinkle appeared in his eye.

“Hullo! Another---er---unexpected development? Is it indiscreet to inquire?”

“It is,” French answered, “but I’ll tell you because I really want my information. It may be a very serious matter, Dr. Philpot, and I am mentioning it in strict confidence only. I have certain reasons to suppose that Mr. Giles may have been murdered and I want to get your views on the possibility.”

Dr. Philpot’s astonishment at the announcement was quite as marked as that of his confrère, but he made less effort to conceal his scepticism.

“My dear Inspector! You’re surely not serious? Giles? Oh come now, you don’t expect me to believe that? What possible motive could any one have for doing such a thing?”

French did not explain the motive. He said he didn’t claim infallibility and admitted he might be wrong in his theory. He was simply collecting facts and he wanted any the other could supply.

“Well,” Philpot declared, “these are the facts so far as I know them.” He crossed over to an index, and rapidly looking through it, withdrew a card. “This is the man’s record. He was seriously ill to begin with: he had a heart affection which might have killed him at any moment. I have attended him for years and his disease was growing worse. His life in fact was precarious. That is your first fact.

“The second is that during the week before his death he developed influenza. I went out and saw him on the Thursday. I believed that his days were numbered and I expected to hear of his death at any time. He did die, if I remember correctly, on the following Tuesday. I did not see him then, as I was myself down with ’flu, but Dr. Emerson saw him and he can tell you if his death was natural. I don’t know, Inspector, what you are basing your opinion on, but I can say with certainty that I shall be surprised if you are right.”

“It is your outlook on the matter which most strongly supports my suspicion,” French rejoined: “yours and Dr. Emerson’s, for I have seen him and his is the same. He was expecting that Mr. Giles would die from his disease, consequently when he did die he assumed that the disease was the cause. Perfectly naturally, mind you: I’m not criticising him. But my point is that his preconceived idea made him less critical than he might otherwise have been.”

“Ingenious no doubt, but to me unconvincing. However, it is not my affair, but yours. Is there any other question that you wish me to answer?”

French rapidly reflected. He thought that there was nothing more. Between these two men he had got what he wanted.

“I don’t think there is, doctor,” he returned. “I’m afraid your information hasn’t helped me on much, but after all it was facts that I wanted. I’ll not detain you any longer. Allow me just to say that I hope your present difficulties will be short-lived and that you may soon settle down satisfactorily again.”

So, as far as the medical testimony was concerned, his theory about Giles’ murder might well be true. Dr. Emerson had really been very lax and yet, French imagined, most medical men in similar circumstances would have acted as he had done. But whether that was so or not, Emerson had jumped to conclusions and had signed the death certificate without having really taken any trouble to ascertain the cause of death. And this, if necessary, he could be made to admit in the witness box.

French saw that only one thing would settle the matter. Giles’ coffin must be opened and the contents examined.

To obtain the necessary powers from the Home Office was a simple matter in London, where the request could be put through direct from the Yard. But here in Yorkshire it must come from the local authorities. French decided therefore that his proper course would be to put the additional facts that he had learned before Major Valentine and let that officer see to the rest. It was not a matter upon which he cared to telephone or write, so having made an appointment by wire, he once again took the afternoon train for Leeds.

“I believe, sir, that I have found where that third body was obtained,” he began, as he took his seat for the second time in the Chief Constable’s room. “It is, of course, only theory, indeed, you might almost say guess-work, but I think it works in. The nearest inhabitant to Starvel, a man living alone, died on the night before the fire.” French went on to relate in detail what took place and to give his views thereon.

The Chief Constable heard him in silence, and then sat for some moments thinking the matter over.

“I’m afraid I don’t feel so sanguine about it as you seem to,” he said at last. “At the same time I agree that the matter must be settled by an examination of the coffin. But I shall be surprised if Giles’ body is not found within it.”

“It may be, sir, of course,” French admitted. “But I’m glad you agree that we should make sure. In that case there is no object in delay. Will you obtain the necessary exhumation order, or is there anything you wish me to do in the matter?”

“No, I’ll see to it. You may arrange with Kent to get the work done. Let Kent arrange for a magistrate to be present. A representative will be required from the Home Office, of course?”

“I’m afraid so, sir.”

“Then you may expect the order in a day or two. I shall be very much interested to hear the result. It will be impossible to keep the affair quiet?”

“I’m afraid so. There will be too many concerned in it.”

“Quite. Well, you must get up some tale about it. What are you going to say?”

“I haven’t thought yet, sir. I’ll dish out something when the time comes.”

When French reached Hellifield on his return journey he found Oxley on the platform.

“You been travelling also, Inspector?” Oxley greeted him. “I’ve just been to Penrith for the day. These connections always make me curse. They’re all arranged to and from Leeds, but people going to or from the north have to kick their heels here for the best part of an hour each way.”

“Can’t please everybody, Mr. Oxley,” French remarked tritely.

“You think not?” Oxley smiled. “Well, how’s the case?”

“Nothing doing for the moment. I was in seeing Dr. Philpot this morning. He seems in a bad way, poor fellow.”

Oxley looked grave.

“It’s a bad case, I fear.” He glanced round and his voice sank. “From what I’ve heard and by putting two and two together I shouldn’t wonder if he’ll only pay two or three shillings in the pound. All gone to the bookies, or nearly all. You know, Inspector, between ourselves, when a man’s in debt all round, as he is, it’s not just the game to go putting his last few pounds on horses.”

“It’s a fact, Mr. Oxley. Of course, one must remember that the gambler plunges in the hope of pulling something off. If he had had some bits of luck he might have put himself square.”

“That’s true, and you can imagine any one taking the risk. If he wins his whole trouble is over, while if he loses he is little the worse. He may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. But you haven’t told me how the case is getting on.”

It was natural enough that Oxley should be interested in his investigations, but French thought he pushed his curiosity a little too far. They met fairly often---sometimes, he thought, not entirely by accident---and every time Oxley made a dead set at him to learn what he was doing and if he had reached any conclusions. French did not like being pumped, and as a result he became closer than ever. On this occasion it taxed even his skill to put the solicitor off without unpleasantly plain speaking, but he managed it at last and the talk drifted into other channels. Oxley was in his usual state of rather boisterous good humour, and before the train stopped at Thirsby he regaled French with the gossip of the district and told a number of the highly flavoured stories in which his soul delighted.

Coincidence ordained that French should meet at the station the one person whose curiosity as to the progress of the investigation was even keener than Oxley’s---Tarkington’s clerk, Bloxham. Bloxham never lost an opportunity of fishing for information, and French had little doubt that their frequent “unexpected” meetings were carefully prearranged. On the present occasion the man joined French with a “Walking to the hotel, Mr. French? I’m just going that way too,” and immediately began to ask leading questions. But French’s feelings were still somewhat ruffled from his encounter with Oxley, and for once Bloxham received as direct and decisive a reply as his heart could wish.

“Sorry, Mr. French,” he stammered, staring at French in considerable surprise. “I’m afraid we outsiders must bother you a lot. I was interested because of the notes, you understand, but of course if the thing is confidential that’s another matter.”

“That’s all right,” French returned, recovering his temper. “Come and have a drink.”

Two days later the exhumation order came, and that same night shortly after twelve o’clock a little party emerged from the local police station, and separating at the door, set off by various routes in the direction of the cemetery. Inspector French walked down the High Street with Dr. Laming, the Home Office representative, Sergeant Kent with Colonel Followes, the local magistrate from whom French had obtained the warrant for Whymper’s arrest, went via Cross Lane, while a sturdy policeman armed with tools disappeared down a parallel street.

The night was dark and cloudy, with a cold south-westerly wind which gave promise of early rain. There was a thin crescent moon, though its light penetrated but slightly through the pall of cloud. The men shivered and turned up their collars as they faced the raw damp air.

The five met within the gates of the cemetery, which were opened to them by the caretaker and relocked behind them. Two gravediggers were in attendance. In the darkness and silence the little company moved off, and led by the caretaker, crossed the ground towards its north-easterly corner.

The place was very secluded. It lay on the side of a gently sloping hill whose curving bulk screened it from the town. It was tastefully laid out and well kept, but to the little party, with their minds full of their gruesome mission, it seemed eerie and sinister. The shrubs and bushes which French had so much admired on his previous visit, now presented shadowy and menacing forms which moved and changed their positions as the men passed on. Presently a beam from an acetylene bicycle lamp flashed out and the caretaker called a halt.

“This is it,” he said in a low voice, pointing to the long narrow mound of a grave.

Silently the two gravediggers advanced, and stretching a tarpaulin on the grass alongside the mound, began to remove the sods. Then they dug, first through dark soil and then through yellow, which they heaped up in a pyramid on the tarpaulin. They worked steadily, but a whole hour had passed before with a dull thud a spade struck something hollow.

“We’re down at last,” the caretaker said, while the diggers redoubled their efforts.

Gradually the top of the coffin became revealed and the men, undermining the walls of their excavation, worked the clay out from round the sides. Presently all was clear.

As the interment had taken place only some two months earlier the coffin was still perfectly sound. Raising it was therefore an easy matter. Ropes were lowered and passed through the handles, and with a steady pull, the sinister casket came away from the clay beneath and in a few seconds was lying on the grass beside the hole. French, holding his electric torch to the brass plate, could read the inscription: “Markham Giles, died 14th September, 1926. Aged 36.”

Meanwhile the sturdy policeman had come forward with a screwdriver and was beginning to withdraw the screws holding down the lid. Every one but the case-hardened Home Office official felt a thrill of excitement pass over him as the fateful moment approached. Only Dr. Laming and French had before taken part in an exhumation, and the feelings of the others were stirred by the gruesome nature of the operations and thoughts of the ghastly sight which they expected would soon meet their eyes. With French it was different. He was moved because his reputation was at stake. So much depended for him on what that raised lid would reveal. If he had put all concerned to the trouble and expense of an unnecessary exhumation, it would count against him. He found it hard to stand still and to preserve a suitable attitude of aloofness while the constable slowly operated the screwdriver.

At last the screws were removed and the lid was carefully raised and lifted clear. And then the eyes which had been bulging with anticipated horror, bulged still more with incredulous amazement. There was no sign of Markham Giles’ body or any other! Instead, the coffin was half-full of dark, peaty earth; and when this earth was sifted nothing was found embedded in it.

The sight produced varying emotions in the onlookers. The uninitiated broke into exclamations of wonder: French felt such a wave of satisfaction sweep through him that he could have shouted in his delight: Dr. Laming contented himself with a quick glance and a murmur of “One for you, French. Congratulations.” All felt that they had assisted in a unique experiment, the result of which had triumphantly vindicated the authorities.

This, then, was the end of the mystery. The conclusion which French had reached by analysis and deduction had been tested and had proved true, and that proof established at one and the same time the whole of the steps of his line of reasoning. Roper was guilty of one of the most diabolical plots ever conceived in the mind of a criminal. He had allowed nothing to stand in his way. He had sacrificed the lives of no fewer than three people in order that he might with the greater security steal his employer’s money. Every part of his devilish scheme was made clear, except one---his present whereabouts. French determined that he would immediately begin to trace him and that nothing would induce him to stop until he had succeeded.

It was not long before the news of the discovery leaked out. When French came down to breakfast next morning he found three reporters waiting for him, and he had hardly begun to speak to them when a fourth arrived.

“That’s all right, gentlemen,” he said pleasantly. “I am from Scotland Yard after all, and I’ll tell you as much as I can. I only wish I knew more! As to what may or may not lie behind it I cannot hazard a guess; we are about to go into that. But the fact is that we received secret information---I can’t give away the source---you may say an anonymous letter if you like---but information was forthcoming which led us to believe that the poor gentleman, Mr. Giles, had become the victim of a gang of criminals. The story was to the effect that he had been murdered by chloroform or poison, and that after he had been coffined, the gang returned and removed the body, disposing of it in some other way. That was all, but it obviously suggested that the gang in question was that of the burglars who, as you are aware, have been active in these parts for many months, and that they had emptied the coffin in order to find a temporary safe deposit for their booty. That, at all events, was a possible explanation. On going into the matter I thought it was worth while testing the story by exhuming the coffin, and sure enough, the body was gone. But the other suggestion about the burglars’ swag wasn’t so happy. When we opened the coffin we found it half-full of earth: about the weight of the deceased. Needless to say we searched it thoroughly, but there was nothing else in it. So, whatever the motive of the crime, it was not to find a safe hiding place for valuables.”

The reporters were voluble in their interest and in the joy they evidently felt in the scoop vouchsafed them.

“Some story that, Inspector,” they cried. “Tell us more and we’ll give you a good write up.”

But French smilingly shook his head.

“Sorry it’s all I’m at liberty to give away,” he declared. “Come now, gentlemen, I haven’t done so badly for you. Plenty of men in my position wouldn’t have told you anything.”

“But do you not think,” said one, the least vociferous of the four, “that your theory may have been right after all? Is it not possible that the stuff was hidden in the coffin as you suggested, but was dug up and removed by the gang before you made your exhumation?”

“I thought of that,” French declared brazenly, “and you may be right, though there were no signs of it. However, that is one of the things to be gone into.”

When French had breakfasted he went to see the undertaker who had conducted Giles’ funeral, and there he received some information which still more firmly established the theory he had evolved.

“The whole arrangements,” explained Mr. Simkins, the proprietor, in the course of the conversation, “were carried out to Mr. Roper’s orders. Mr. Roper said that Mr. Giles had had an idea he mightn’t get over the attack, and he had handed him the money for his funeral, asking him to see to it as he had no relative to do it. There were twelve pounds over when the ground was bought, and Mr. Roper handed the money to me and told me to do the best I could with it. He said he thought the best plan would be to get the body coffined that afternoon---it was a Wednesday---and have the funeral on the Friday. He said the doctor thought the coffining should be done as soon as possible, and while the day of the interment didn’t really matter, Friday would suit as well as any. That was the reason he gave for the arrangement, for you know, sir, in inexpensive funerals at such a distance, we generally do the coffining just before the funeral and so make the one journey do. But that was the way it was done.”

“I understand,” French continued. “Mr. Giles died on the Tuesday, the coffining was done on the Wednesday, and the funeral took place on the Friday. That right?”

“That’s right, sir.”

It seemed to French that the undertaker’s statement demonstrated the sole remaining steps of Roper’s plan so completely that every detail of that hideous night now stood revealed in all its ghastliness. He had not only murdered Markham Giles, but he had arranged that the body should lie coffined in the lonely house on the night of the major tragedy. On that night he and probably Mrs. Roper must have opened the coffin, taken out the remains, replaced them with the proper weight of earth, and once more screwed down the lid. A small handcart such as French had noticed in the unburnt outhouse at Starvel would serve to convey the remains to the Hollow, where they were to be used in such a terrible way to bolster up the deception.

Truly, it was a well-thought-out scheme! And how nearly had it succeeded! But its success would be short-lived. With set teeth and frowning brow French vowed to himself that he would not rest until he had the monster who had done this deed safely under lock and key.
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