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14: The Secret of the Moor

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Author Topic: 14: The Secret of the Moor  (Read 20 times)
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« on: September 01, 2023, 12:49:51 pm »

THAT night in the lonely shed beside the gaunt, blackened walls of the old house, proved one of the longest French had ever spent. But there was no escape from the vigil. If Averill’s hoard lay beneath the sods a few yards away, the place must be watched. Roper might come for the swag at any time and French could not run the risk of its being snatched at the last moment from his own eager clutches.

He pulled a couple of old boxes to the window, and sitting down, made himself as comfortable as he could. But time dragged leadenly. He watched while the moon crept slowly across the sky, he speculated over the tragic business on which he was engaged and indulged in waking dreams of the time when he should be Chief Inspector French of the C.I.D., but nothing that he could do seemed to shorten the endless hours. He was cold, too, in spite of his heavy coat. He longed to go out and warm himself by a brisk walk, but he dared not risk betraying his presence. In the small hours he ate his sandwiches, and then he had to fight an overwhelming desire for sleep, intensified by the fact that he had been up a good part of the previous night. But his vigilance was unrewarded. There was no sign of a marauder, and as the first faint glow of dawn began to show in the east, he saw that he had had all his trouble for nothing. Altogether he was not sorry when just before eight o’clock Sergeant Kent and the constable put in an appearance, and as he stepped out to meet them he heaved a sigh of heartfelt relief.

“You’re here before us,” Kent greeted him in surprise.

“That’s right, but I was too early. Now, sergeant, I asked you to come out here for rather an unusual purpose: in fact, so that we might dig a hole. Here is a spade and we’ll go and begin at once.”

The sergeant looked as if he wondered whether French hadn’t gone off his head, but he controlled his feelings and with his satellite followed the other’s lead.

“I want you,” went on French when they had reached the site of his discovery, “to see just why I wish to dig this hole at this place,” and he showed him the traces of the yellow clay and the cut sods. “You see, some one has buried something here, and I want to find out what it is.”

Kent in a non-committal silence seized the spade and began digging. The constable then tried his hand, and when he had had enough, French relieved him. So they took it in turns while the hole deepened and the heap of soil beside it grew.

Suddenly the spade encountered something soft and yielding which yet resisted its pressure. Kent, who was using it, stopped digging and began to clear away the surrounding soil, while the others watched, French breathlessly, the constable with the bovine impassiveness which he had exhibited throughout.

“It’s a blanket, this is,” the sergeant announced presently. “Something rolled up in a blanket.”

“Go on,” said French. “Open it up.”

Kent resumed his digging. For some minutes he worked, and then he straightened himself and looked at French wonderingly.

“Lord save us!” he exclaimed in awed tones. “It’s uncommon like a human corpse.”

“Nonsense!” French answered sharply. “It couldn’t be anything of the kind. Get on and open it and then you’ll know.”

The sergeant hesitated, then climbed heavily out of the hole.

“Well, look yourself, sir,” he invited.

French jumped down, and as he gazed on the outline of the blanket covered object, his eyes grew round and something like consternation filled his mind. The sergeant was right! There was no mistaking that shape! This was a grave that they were opening and the blanket was a shroud.

French swore, then controlled himself and turned to the sergeant.

“You’re right, Kent. It’s a body sure enough. Clear away the soil round it while the constable and I get that shed door off its hinges.”

The task of raising the uncoffined and decaying remains on to the improvised stretcher was one which French could never afterwards think of without a qualm of sick loathing, but eventually it was done and the men slowly carried the shrouded horror to the shed. There the door was placed upon a couple of boxes and French, clenching his teeth, turned back the blanket from the face.

In spite of the terrible ravages of time both Kent and the constable immediately recognised the distorted features. The body was that of Markham Giles!

The discovery left French almost speechless. If Markham Giles’ body was here, whose was the third body at Starvel? Was the whole of his case tumbling about his ears? Once again he swore bitterly and once again pulled himself together to deal with the next step.

“This means an inquest,” he said to Kent. “You and I had better get back to Thirsby and notify the coroner and so forth, and this man of yours can stay here and keep watch.”

They walked down to the little town almost in silence, French too full of his new problem to indulge in conversation, and the sergeant not liking to break in upon his companion’s thoughts. On arrival Kent got in touch with the coroner while French rang up Major Valentine.

“No, sir, I don’t know what to make of it,” he admitted in answer to the major’s sharp question. “It certainly does look as if the man I suspected was dead after all. But I would rather not discuss it over the ’phone. Could I see you, sir, if I went down to Leeds?”

“No, I’ll go to Thirsby. I’d like to look into the matter on the spot. There will be an inquest, of course?”

“Yes, sir. Sergeant Kent is arranging it with the coroner. We shall want an autopsy also. One of the things I wanted to know is who you think I should have to make it. But you can tell me that when you come.”

Major Valentine replied that he would drive over in his car and would pick up French at the police station at two p.m. on his way out to Starvel.

It was now getting on towards midday, but French decided that he would have time to make an inquiry and get lunch before the Chief Constable’s arrival. He therefore turned into High Street and walked to Pullar’s, the largest shoe shop of the town.

“Mr. Pullar in?” he asked pleasantly. He had met the man in the bar of the Thirsdale Arms and there was a nodding acquaintance between the two.

“I suppose you haven’t heard of our discovery, Mr. Pullar?” French began when he was seated in the proprietor’s office. The whole business was bound to come out at the inquest, so he might as well enlist the other’s goodwill by telling him confidentially something about it.

Mr. Pullar cautiously admitted he hadn’t heard anything unusual.

“This is unusual enough for any one,” French assured him, and he told of the finding of the grave on the moor, though making no mention of his doubts and fears about Roper.

Mr. Pullar was duly impressed and repeatedly begged that his soul might be blessed. When he had absorbed the news French turned to the real object of his call.

“I thought that maybe you could give me a bit of help, Mr. Pullar. You’d perhaps be interested to know how I got on to the thing. Well, it was in this way.” He took from the matchbox the piece of clay he had found on the floor of the shed.

“I picked this up in the shed, and as that sort of clay is covered everywhere here with three feet of dark soil, it followed that some one had dug a hole more than three feet deep.”

Mr. Pullar expressed his admiration of the other’s perspicacity with the same pious wish as before.

“Now you see,” French continued, “this clay was sticking to a shoe. It probably got a bit dry in the shed and dropped or got knocked off. Now, Mr. Pullar, can you tell me what kind of a shoe it was?”

Mr. Pullar shook his head. With every wish to assist, he was doubtful if he could answer the question. He picked up the piece of clay and turned it over gingerly in his fingers.

“Well,” he said presently, pointing to the hollow curve, “that’s been sticking round the outside of a heel, that has. If it had been a toe it would have been squeezed flatter. But that’s the square-edged mark of a heel.” He looked interrogatively at French, who hastened to interject: “Just what I thought, Mr. Pullar. A man’s heel.”

“Yes, a man’s heel I would think: though, mind you, it’s not easy to tell the difference between a man’s and some of these flat heeled shoes women wear now.”

“I thought it was a man’s from the size.”

“No: it might be either a big woman or a small man. Sevens, I should say.” He got up and put his head through the office door. “Here, John! Bring me three pairs of gents’ black Fitwells: a six and a half, a seven and an eight: medium weight.”

When the shoes came Mr. Pullar attempted to fit the circle of clay to the curve of each heel. French was delighted with the thorough and systematic way he set about it. He tried with all three sizes, then roared out for a pair of sixes and a pair of nines.

“It’s no good, Mr. French,” he said when he had tested these also. “Look for yourself. It’s smaller than a nine, but you can’t tell any more than that. It might be a six or a seven or an eight. It isn’t sharp enough to say.”

French looked for himself, but he had to admit the other’s conclusion was correct. The prints presumably had been made by a man with rather small feet, and that was all that could be said.

French was disappointed. He had hoped for something more definite. Roper admittedly had rather small feet, but the same was true of numbers of other men.

He bade Mr. Pullar good day and returned to the hotel for lunch. But he soon learned that the worthy shoe merchant had made the most of his opportunities. Scarcely had he sat down when the reporter of the local paper hurried into the coffee room and excitedly demanded details of the great find. And behind him appeared the hotel proprietor and a number of clients who had been supporting British industries in the bar.

French saw there was nothing for it but capitulation. Good-humouredly he told his story, merely stipulating that after his statement to the reporter he should not be troubled further until he had finished his lunch. This was agreed to, but it is sad to relate that French did not entirely play the game. His repast ended, he slipped out through the yard, and by devious ways reached the police station unnoticed. Major Valentine drove up as he arrived and in a few seconds the two men were whirling out along the Starvel road, while French told his story in detail.

“It’s really an extraordinary development,” the Chief Constable commented. “You assumed that Giles had been murdered in order to obtain his body for the Starvel fraud. If you were correct it followed that his coffin would be empty. You opened his coffin and it was empty. A more complete vindication of your line of reasoning it would be hard to imagine. And now it turns out that the body was not used for the Starvel fraud; therefore the whole of your reasoning falls to the ground. If you had not made a mistake and acted on false premises you would not have discovered the truth. Peculiar, isn’t it?”

“Peculiar enough, sir. But I wish I could agree with you that I had discovered the truth. It seems to me I am further away from it than ever.”

“No; the correction of an error is always progress. But I’m not denying,” Major Valentine went on with a whimsical smile, “that there is still something left to be cleared up.”

French laughed unhappily.

“I don’t like to think of it,” he said. “But the post-mortem may tell us something. According to my previous theory this man was murdered. Now this discovery raises a certain doubt, though personally I have very little. But in any case we have no proof. Therefore I thought we should want a post-mortem.”

“Undoubtedly. We’ll get Dr. Lingard of Hellifield. This the shed?”

“Yes, sir. The body’s inside.”

A few minutes sufficed to put the chief constable in possession of all the available information and the two men returned to the car.

“You know,” the major declared as he restarted his engine, “if this man was murdered it doesn’t say a great deal for that Dr. Emerson. He gave a certificate of death from natural causes, didn’t he?”

“If you ask my opinion,” French answered gloomily, “he didn’t examine the body at all. I saw him about it. It seems the man had been suffering from heart disease for years. He also had a touch of influenza some days before his death which might have caused heart failure. Dr. Emerson practically admitted he had assumed this had happened. He also admitted that anyhow only a post-mortem could have made sure.”

“Careless and reprehensible, no doubt. But, French, I wonder whether we shouldn’t all have done the same in his circumstances. The idea of foul play in such a case would never enter any one’s head.”

“That’s what he said, sir. Until I told him about the empty coffin he scouted the suggestion. When I mentioned that he didn’t know what to say.”

“He’ll be required at the inquest?”

“Of course, sir. And the other doctor, Philpot. He attended the man during his illness.”

They ran rapidly into the town and pulled up at the police station. Kent, recognising his visitor, hurried obsequiously to meet them.

“Good-evening, Kent,” the major greeted him. “Inspector French has just been telling me of this affair. Have you heard from the coroner?”

“Yes, sir, I saw him about it. To-morrow at eleven he’s fixed for the inquest.”

“Where?”

“At the courthouse. He asked that the remains might be brought in before that.”

“It’s not allowing much time for the post-mortem. Better see the coroner again, Kent, and get him to take evidence of identification and adjourn for a week. I’ll arrange with Dr. Lingard about the post-mortem at once, and will you, French, get in touch with the local doctors. Meanwhile as we’re here let us settle about the evidence.”

Kent led the way to his room and there a discussion took place on the procedure to be adopted at the inquest. A list of the witnesses was drawn up with a note of the testimony which was to be expected from each. Certain facts, it was considered, should be kept in the background, and Kent was instructed to see the coroner and ask him to arrange this also. When the business was complete the major rose.

“Then I shall see you at the adjourned inquest, Kent. French, if you’ll come along I’ll give you a lift as far as your hotel. As a matter of fact I’d like to have a chat with you,” he went on when they had left the police station. “This new development is certainly very puzzling and I’d like to discuss it in detail. Have you a private sitting room?”

“Not all the time. I’ve had one once or twice for an evening when I had work to do, but ordinary times I don’t have it. We can get it all right now though.”

“Well, you arrange it while I see to the car. And order some tea. You’ll join me in a cup, won’t you?”

“Thank you, I should like to.”

In a few minutes a fire of logs was crackling in the rather dismal private sitting room of the Thirsdale Arms. Until tea was over the major chatted of men and things apart from the case, but when the waiter had disappeared with the tray and the two men had settled themselves with cigars before the fire he came to business.

“I admit, French, that I am not only tremendously interested in this case, but also extremely puzzled. From what you say, that’s your position also. Now just to run over two or three points. I take it there is no doubt as to motive?”

“No, sir, we may take it as gospel that Mr. Averill’s thirty thousand pounds were stolen and that that’s the key of the whole affair.”

“You suspected Whymper at first?”

“Yes, at first sight things looked bad for him. I needn’t go over the details: he had some of the stolen money in his possession and had been to the house on the night of the tragedy and so on. But I went into the thing thoroughly and I was satisfied that Roper had made him his dupe. Whymper’s all right, sir. We shall get nothing there.”

“I hear he and Miss Averill are to be married.”

“So I heard, in fact he told me himself. He wanted to propose and then this affair made him hold back. But as soon as I told him I was not going to arrest him he went straight to the lady and told her the circumstances and asked her to marry him. She accepted him and the wedding is to take place soon.”

“I know his father in Leeds and I’m glad to hear that he’s definitely out of trouble. Then you suspected Philpot?”

“I suspected Philpot because of his connection with Roper, though there was nothing directly connecting him with the Starvel crime. But I soon saw that I was on the wrong track there too. He accounted for everything that seemed suspicious, and what was more, any points of his statement which in the nature of the case could be corroborated, were corroborated by other witnesses. Besides, he was ill at the time: there was the evidence of his housekeeper and others as well as Dr. Emerson’s testimony that he was unable to leave his bed. And there was his failure. If he had just obtained £30,000 he wouldn’t have allowed the bailiff in.”

“Might not that have been a trick to put people off the scent?”

“No, sir, I don’t think so. If he had been guilty he wouldn’t have shown sudden evidence of wealth, but he wouldn’t have gone bankrupt either---just for fear it might be taken as a trick. Of course, sir, I’m aware that none of this is absolutely conclusive. There was absence of evidence of guilt, but not proof of innocence, and, of course, illness can be faked and so on. But the thing that really cleared Philpot in my mind was the conduct of Roper. It’s impossible to consider this case without considering Roper’s conduct.”

“I know, and I really agree with you. Still let us exhaust the possibilities. You thought of other people, I suppose?”

“I thought of every one else in the place almost. Oxley, Tarkington, Emerson and several others; even Kent I considered. But there wasn’t a shred of evidence against any of them. The only other real alternative to Roper is the burglars---the gang who have been operating for some months past. But here again Roper’s conduct comes in. If Roper wasn’t guilty he wouldn’t have acted as he did.”

The chief constable smoked in silence for some moments.

“I think all you say is very sound. Now just run over the case against Roper and I shall try to pick holes.”

“First, sir, there was the man’s character; vindictive, unscrupulous, a blackmailer, and as well as that a skilful forger. Admittedly this description came from Philpot, but all that could be known to outsiders was confirmed by the sergeant and many others at Kintilloch. Roper was the only person we know of, other than the burglar gang, who had the character and the ability to commit the crime.”

“Not convincing, but go on.”

“Not convincing alone, no doubt; but it does not stand alone. Secondly, there was the getting of Miss Averill out of the way; thirdly, there was the Whymper episode and fourthly, the matter of Giles’s funeral.”

“That’s all right except that when we find Giles’s body was not burned the whole case falls to the ground.”

French threw the stub of his cigar into the fire.

“Don’t you believe it, sir. None of what I have been saying falls to the ground. Though I admit the motive of this Giles business is not clear, the facts remain and their significance remains. I don’t now follow all Roper’s scheme, but I still believe he is our man.”

Major Valentine nodded decisively.

“So do I, French, and we shall get him all right. Then you’ve no theory of where the third body came from?”

“I believe Roper enticed some other poor devil to the house and murdered him also. I think, sir, we’ll have to try again to find out if any one disappeared about that time.”

“I’ll see to it, but I’m not hopeful of doing better than before.”

Major Valentine showed signs of breaking up the conference, but French raised his hand.

“A moment, sir, if you please. I was thinking that this inquest gives us a chance that perhaps we should take advantage of. No more of those notes have come through. What, sir, would you say was the reason for that?”

“Well, if we’re right about Roper being alive, I suppose because he’s afraid.”

“That’s what I think. And this business will make him still more afraid. Now I wonder if we couldn’t set his mind at ease for him.”

“I don’t quite follow.”

“Why, this way. Suppose that I was very frank in my evidence---very frank and open and comprehensive. Suppose that I should tell about the notes; about their numbers having been taken, and about the one turning up in London, and robbery being thereby suspected and my being sent down to investigate. Suppose I explained that I had succeeded in tracing that note and had found that it had been given by Mr. Averill himself to a friend, and that the whole transaction was perfectly in order. But suppose I conveyed that only the numbers of the last batch of notes---say, twenty twenties---were known. Wouldn’t that do the trick?”

“You mean that if the numbers of only twenty notes were known, Roper would feel safe in changing the others?”

“Quite so. Furthermore, if nothing was said about the ashes being newspaper he would think that the suspicion of robbery had been dispelled by the discovery that the note passed in London was all right.”

“It’s worth trying. If he rises to it you’ll get him.”

“Right, sir. Then I’ll advise the coroner beforehand. Or perhaps you would do so?”

“I’ll do it. Well, I must be getting home. I’m glad to have had this talk and I hope your scheme will meet with success.”

Next morning the inquest opened and formal evidence of identification of the remains of the late Markham Giles was taken. The proceedings were then adjourned for seven days to enable the police to prosecute inquiries.

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