Part 1 – The Tragedy of Birlstone
Chapter 4 – Darkness
At three in the morning the chief Sussex detective, obeying the urgent call from Sergeant Wilson of Birlstone, arrived from headquarters in a light dog-cart behind a breathless trotter. By the five-forty train in the morning he had sent his message to Scotland Yard, and he was at the Birlstone station at twelve o’clock to welcome us. White Mason was a quiet, comfortable-looking person in a loose tweed suit, with a clean-shaved, ruddy face, a stoutish body, and powerful bandy legs adorned with gaiters, looking like a small farmer, a retired gamekeeper, or anything upon earth except a very favourable specimen of the provincial criminal officer.
“A real downright snorter, Mr. MacDonald!” he kept repeating. “We’ll have the pressmen down like flies when they understand it. I’m hoping we will get our work done before they get poking their noses into it and messing up all the trails. There has been nothing like this that I can remember. There are some bits that will come home to you, Mr. Holmes, or I am mistaken. And you also, Dr. Watson; for the medicos will have a word to say before we finish. Your room is at the Westville Arms. There’s no other place; but I hear that it is clean and good. The man will carry your bags. This way, gentlemen, if you please.”
He was a very bustling and genial person, this Sussex detective. In ten minutes we had all found our quarters. In ten more we were seated in the parlour of the inn and being treated to a rapid sketch of those events which have been outlined in the previous chapter. MacDonald made an occasional note; while Holmes sat absorbed, with the expression of surprised and reverent admiration with which the botanist surveys the rare and precious bloom.
“Remarkable!” he said, when the story was unfolded, “most remarkable! I can hardly recall any case where the features have been more peculiar.”
“I thought you would say so, Mr. Holmes,” said White Mason in great delight. “We’re well up with the times in Sussex. I’ve told you now how matters were, up to the time when I took over from Sergeant Wilson between three and four this morning. My word! I made the old mare go! But I need not have been in such a hurry, as it turned out; for there was nothing immediate that I could do. Sergeant Wilson had all the facts. I checked them and considered them and maybe added a few of my own.”
“What were they?” asked Holmes eagerly.
“Well, I first had the hammer examined. There was Dr. Wood there to help me. We found no signs of violence upon it. I was hoping that if Mr. Douglas defended himself with the hammer, he might have left his mark upon the murderer before he dropped it on the mat. But there was no stain.”
“That, of course, proves nothing at all,” remarked Inspector MacDonald. “There has been many a hammer murder and no trace on the hammer.”
“Quite so. It doesn’t prove it wasn’t used. But there might have been stains, and that would have helped us. As a matter of fact there were none. Then I examined the gun. They were buckshot cartridges, and, as Sergeant Wilson pointed out, the triggers were wired together so that, if you pulled on the hinder one, both barrels were discharged. Whoever fixed that up had made up his mind that he was going to take no chances of missing his man. The sawed gun was not more than two foot long—one could carry it easily under one’s coat. There was no complete maker’s name; but the printed letters P-E-N were on the fluting between the barrels, and the rest of the name had been cut off by the saw.”
“A big P with a flourish above it, E and N smaller?” asked Holmes.
“Pennsylvania Small Arms Company—well-known American firm,” said Holmes.
White Mason gazed at my friend as the little village practitioner looks at the Harley Street specialist who by a word can solve the difficulties that perplex him.
“That is very helpful, Mr. Holmes. No doubt you are right. Wonderful! Wonderful! Do you carry the names of all the gun makers in the world in your memory?”
Holmes dismissed the subject with a wave.
“No doubt it is an American shotgun,” White Mason continued. “I seem to have read that a sawed-off shotgun is a weapon used in some parts of America. Apart from the name upon the barrel, the idea had occurred to me. There is some evidence then, that this man who entered the house and killed its master was an American.”
MacDonald shook his head. “Man, you are surely travelling overfast,” said he. “I have heard no evidence yet that any stranger was ever in the house at all.”
“The open window, the blood on the sill, the queer card, the marks of boots in the corner, the gun!”
“Nothing there that could not have been arranged. Mr. Douglas was an American, or had lived long in America. So had Mr. Barker. You don’t need to import an American from outside in order to account for American doings.”
“Ames, the butler—”
“What about him? Is he reliable?”
“Ten years with Sir Charles Chandos—as solid as a rock. He has been with Douglas ever since he took the Manor House five years ago. He has never seen a gun of this sort in the house.”
“The gun was made to conceal. That’s why the barrels were sawed. It would fit into any box. How could he swear there was no such gun in the house?”
“Well, anyhow, he had never seen one.”
MacDonald shook his obstinate Scotch head. “I’m not convinced yet that there was ever anyone in the house,” said he. “I’m asking you to conseedar” (his accent became more Aberdonian as he lost himself in his argument) “I’m asking you to conseedar what it involves if you suppose that this gun was ever brought into the house, and that all these strange things were done by a person from outside. Oh, man, it’s just inconceivable! It’s clean against common sense! I put it to you, Mr. Holmes, judging it by what we have heard.”
“Well, state your case, Mr. Mac,” said Holmes in his most judicial style.
“The man is not a burglar, supposing that he ever existed. The ring business and the card point to premeditated murder for some private reason. Very good. Here is a man who slips into a house with the deliberate intention of committing murder. He knows, if he knows anything, that he will have a deeficulty in making his escape, as the house is surrounded with water. What weapon would he choose? You would say the most silent in the world. Then he could hope when the deed was done to slip quickly from the window, to wade the moat, and to get away at his leisure. That’s understandable. But is it understandable that he should go out of his way to bring with him the most noisy weapon he could select, knowing well that it will fetch every human being in the house to the spot as quick as they can run, and that it is all odds that he will be seen before he can get across the moat? Is that credible, Mr. Holmes?”
“Well, you put the case strongly,” my friend replied thoughtfully. “It certainly needs a good deal of justification. May I ask, Mr. White Mason, whether you examined the farther side of the moat at once to see if there were any signs of the man having climbed out from the water?”
“There were no signs, Mr. Holmes. But it is a stone ledge, and one could hardly expect them.”
“No tracks or marks?”
“Ha! Would there be any objection, Mr. White Mason, to our going down to the house at once? There may possibly be some small point which might be suggestive.”
“I was going to propose it, Mr. Holmes; but I thought it well to put you in touch with all the facts before we go. I suppose if anything should strike you—” White Mason looked doubtfully at the amateur.
“I have worked with Mr. Holmes before,” said Inspector MacDonald. “He plays the game.”
“My own idea of the game, at any rate,” said Holmes, with a smile. “I go into a case to help the ends of justice and the work of the police. If I have ever separated myself from the official force, it is because they have first separated themselves from me. I have no wish ever to score at their expense. At the same time, Mr. White Mason, I claim the right to work in my own way and give my results at my own time—complete rather than in stages.”
“I am sure we are honoured by your presence and to show you all we know,” said White Mason cordially. “Come along, Dr. Watson, and when the time comes we’ll all hope for a place in your book.”
We walked down the quaint village street with a row of pollarded elms on each side of it. Just beyond were two ancient stone pillars, weather-stained and lichen-blotched, bearing upon their summits a shapeless something which had once been the rampant lion of Capus of Birlstone. A short walk along the winding drive with such sward and oaks around it as one only sees in rural England, then a sudden turn, and the long, low Jacobean house of dingy, liver-coloured brick lay before us, with an old-fashioned garden of cut yews on each side of it. As we approached it, there was the wooden drawbridge and the beautiful broad moat as still and luminous as quicksilver in the cold, winter sunshine.
Three centuries had flowed past the old Manor House, centuries of births and of homecomings, of country dances and of the meetings of fox hunters. Strange that now in its old age this dark business should have cast its shadow upon the venerable walls! And yet those strange, peaked roofs and quaint, overhung gables were a fitting covering to grim and terrible intrigue. As I looked at the deep-set windows and the long sweep of the dull-coloured, water-lapped front, I felt that no more fitting scene could be set for such a tragedy.
“That’s the window,” said White Mason, “that one on the immediate right of the drawbridge. It’s open just as it was found last night.”
“It looks rather narrow for a man to pass.”
“Well, it wasn’t a fat man, anyhow. We don’t need your deductions, Mr. Holmes, to tell us that. But you or I could squeeze through all right.”
Holmes walked to the edge of the moat and looked across. Then he examined the stone ledge and the grass border beyond it.
“I’ve had a good look, Mr. Holmes,” said White Mason. “There is nothing there, no sign that anyone has landed—but why should he leave any sign?”
“Exactly. Why should he? Is the water always turbid?”
“Generally about this colour. The stream brings down the clay.”
“How deep is it?”
“About two feet at each side and three in the middle.”
“So we can put aside all idea of the man having been drowned in crossing.”
“No, a child could not be drowned in it.”
We walked across the drawbridge, and were admitted by a quaint, gnarled, dried-up person, who was the butler, Ames. The poor old fellow was white and quivering from the shock. The village sergeant, a tall, formal, melancholy man, still held his vigil in the room of Fate. The doctor had departed.
“Anything fresh, Sergeant Wilson?” asked White Mason.
“Then you can go home. You’ve had enough. We can send for you if we want you. The butler had better wait outside. Tell him to warn Mr. Cecil Barker, Mrs. Douglas, and the housekeeper that we may want a word with them presently. Now, gentlemen, perhaps you will allow me to give you the views I have formed first, and then you will be able to arrive at your own.”
He impressed me, this country specialist. He had a solid grip of fact and a cool, clear, common-sense brain, which should take him some way in his profession. Holmes listened to him intently, with no sign of that impatience which the official exponent too often produced.
“Is it suicide, or is it murder—that’s our first question, gentlemen, is it not? If it were suicide, then we have to believe that this man began by taking off his wedding ring and concealing it; that he then came down here in his dressing gown, trampled mud into a corner behind the curtain in order to give the idea someone had waited for him, opened the window, put blood on the—”
“We can surely dismiss that,” said MacDonald.
“So I think. Suicide is out of the question. Then a murder has been done. What we have to determine is, whether it was done by someone outside or inside the house.”
“Well, let’s hear the argument.”
“There are considerable difficulties both ways, and yet one or the other it must be. We will suppose first that some person or persons inside the house did the crime. They got this man down here at a time when everything was still and yet no one was asleep. They then did the deed with the queerest and noisiest weapon in the world so as to tell everyone what had happened—a weapon that was never seen in the house before. That does not seem a very likely start, does it?”
“No, it does not.”
“Well, then, everyone is agreed that after the alarm was given only a minute at the most had passed before the whole household—not Mr. Cecil Barker alone, though he claims to have been the first, but Ames and all of them were on the spot. Do you tell me that in that time the guilty person managed to make footmarks in the corner, open the window, mark the sill with blood, take the wedding ring off the dead man’s finger, and all the rest of it? It’s impossible!”
“You put it very clearly,” said Holmes. “I am inclined to agree with you.”
“Well, then, we are driven back to the theory that it was done by someone from outside. We are still faced with some big difficulties; but anyhow they have ceased to be impossibilities. The man got into the house between four-thirty and six; that is to say, between dusk and the time when the bridge was raised. There had been some visitors, and the door was open; so there was nothing to prevent him. He may have been a common burglar, or he may have had some private grudge against Mr. Douglas. Since Mr. Douglas has spent most of his life in America, and this shotgun seems to be an American weapon, it would seem that the private grudge is the more likely theory. He slipped into this room because it was the first he came to, and he hid behind the curtain. There he remained until past eleven at night. At that time Mr. Douglas entered the room. It was a short interview, if there were any interview at all; for Mrs. Douglas declares that her husband had not left her more than a few minutes when she heard the shot.”
“The candle shows that,” said Holmes.
“Exactly. The candle, which was a new one, is not burned more than half an inch. He must have placed it on the table before he was attacked; otherwise, of course, it would have fallen when he fell. This shows that he was not attacked the instant that he entered the room. When Mr. Barker arrived the candle was lit and the lamp was out.”
“That’s all clear enough.”
“Well, now, we can reconstruct things on those lines. Mr. Douglas enters the room. He puts down the candle. A man appears from behind the curtain. He is armed with this gun. He demands the wedding ring—Heaven only knows why, but so it must have been. Mr. Douglas gave it up. Then either in cold blood or in the course of a struggle—Douglas may have gripped the hammer that was found upon the mat—he shot Douglas in this horrible way. He dropped his gun and also it would seem this queer card—V.V. 341, whatever that may mean—and he made his escape through the window and across the moat at the very moment when Cecil Barker was discovering the crime. How’s that, Mr. Holmes?”
“Very interesting, but just a little unconvincing.”
“Man, it would be absolute nonsense if it wasn’t that anything else is even worse!” cried MacDonald. “Somebody killed the man, and whoever it was I could clearly prove to you that he should have done it some other way. What does he mean by allowing his retreat to be cut off like that? What does he mean by using a shotgun when silence was his one chance of escape? Come, Mr. Holmes, it’s up to you to give us a lead, since you say Mr. White Mason’s theory is unconvincing.”
Holmes had sat intently observant during this long discussion, missing no word that was said, with his keen eyes darting to right and to left, and his forehead wrinkled with speculation.
“I should like a few more facts before I get so far as a theory, Mr. Mac,” said he, kneeling down beside the body. “Dear me! these injuries are really appalling. Can we have the butler in for a moment?… Ames, I understand that you have often seen this very unusual mark—a branded triangle inside a circle—upon Mr. Douglas’s forearm?”
“You never heard any speculation as to what it meant?”
“It must have caused great pain when it was inflicted. It is undoubtedly a burn. Now, I observe, Ames, that there is a small piece of plaster at the angle of Mr. Douglas’s jaw. Did you observe that in life?”
“Yes, sir, he cut himself in shaving yesterday morning.”
“Did you ever know him to cut himself in shaving before?”
“Not for a very long time, sir.”
“Suggestive!” said Holmes. “It may, of course, be a mere coincidence, or it may point to some nervousness which would indicate that he had reason to apprehend danger. Had you noticed anything unusual in his conduct, yesterday, Ames?”
“It struck me that he was a little restless and excited, sir.”
“Ha! The attack may not have been entirely unexpected. We do seem to make a little progress, do we not? Perhaps you would rather do the questioning, Mr. Mac?”
“No, Mr. Holmes, it’s in better hands than mine.”
“Well, then, we will pass to this card—V.V. 341. It is rough cardboard. Have you any of the sort in the house?”
“I don’t think so.”
Holmes walked across to the desk and dabbed a little ink from each bottle on to the blotting paper. “It was not printed in this room,” he said; “this is black ink and the other purplish. It was done by a thick pen, and these are fine. No, it was done elsewhere, I should say. Can you make anything of the inscription, Ames?”
“No, sir, nothing.”
“What do you think, Mr. Mac?”
“It gives me the impression of a secret society of some sort; the same with his badge upon the forearm.”
“That’s my idea, too,” said White Mason.
“Well, we can adopt it as a working hypothesis and then see how far our difficulties disappear. An agent from such a society makes his way into the house, waits for Mr. Douglas, blows his head nearly off with this weapon, and escapes by wading the moat, after leaving a card beside the dead man, which will, when mentioned in the papers, tell other members of the society that vengeance has been done. That all hangs together. But why this gun, of all weapons?”
“And why the missing ring?”
“And why no arrest? It’s past two now. I take it for granted that since dawn every constable within forty miles has been looking out for a wet stranger?”
“That is so, Mr. Holmes.”
“Well, unless he has a burrow close by or a change of clothes ready, they can hardly miss him. And yet they HAVE missed him up to now!” Holmes had gone to the window and was examining with his lens the blood mark on the sill. “It is clearly the tread of a shoe. It is remarkably broad; a splay-foot, one would say. Curious, because, so far as one can trace any footmark in this mud-stained corner, one would say it was a more shapely sole. However, they are certainly very indistinct. What’s this under the side table?”
“Mr. Douglas’s dumb-bells,” said Ames.
“Dumb-bell—there’s only one. Where’s the other?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Holmes. There may have been only one. I have not noticed them for months.”
“One dumb-bell—” Holmes said seriously; but his remarks were interrupted by a sharp knock at the door.
A tall, sunburned, capable-looking, clean-shaved man looked in at us. I had no difficulty in guessing that it was the Cecil Barker of whom I had heard. His masterful eyes travelled quickly with a questioning glance from face to face.
“Sorry to interrupt your consultation,” said he, “but you should hear the latest news.”
“No such luck. But they’ve found his bicycle. The fellow left his bicycle behind him. Come and have a look. It is within a hundred yards of the hall door.”
We found three or four grooms and idlers standing in the drive inspecting a bicycle which had been drawn out from a clump of evergreens in which it had been concealed. It was a well used Rudge-Whitworth, splashed as from a considerable journey. There was a saddlebag with spanner and oilcan, but no clue as to the owner.
“It would be a grand help to the police,” said the inspector, “if these things were numbered and registered. But we must be thankful for what we’ve got. If we can’t find where he went to, at least we are likely to get where he came from. But what in the name of all that is wonderful made the fellow leave it behind? And how in the world has he got away without it? We don’t seem to get a gleam of light in the case, Mr. Holmes.”
“Don’t we?” my friend answered thoughtfully. “I wonder!”