O one, looking into Silas Hickler’s cheerful round face, beaming with benevolence and wreathed in perpetual smiles, would have imagined him to be a criminal. Yet it is a fact that Silas earned his modest though comfortable income by the gentle art of burglary. A precarious trade, and risky withal, yet not so very hazardous if pursued with judgment and moderation. And Silas was eminently a man of judgment. He invariably worked alone. He kept his own counsel. Nor was he greedy and thriftless, as most criminals are. His “scoops” were few and far between, carefully planned, secretly executed, and the proceeds judiciously invested in “weekly property.”
Such was Silas Hickler. As he strolled round his garden in the dusk of an October evening, he seemed the very type of modest middle-class prosperity. He was dressed in the traveling suit that he wore on his little Continental trips; his bag was packed and stood in readiness on the sitting-room sofa. A parcel of diamonds (purchased honestly, though without impertinent questions, at Southampton) was in the inside pocket of his waistcoat, and another more valuable parcel was stowed in a cavity in the heel of his right boot. In early life Silas had been connected with the diamond industry, and he still did a little rather irregular dealing. In an hour and a half it would be time for him to set out to catch the boat train at the Junction; meanwhile there was nothing to do but stroll round the fading garden and consider how he should invest the proceeds of the impending deal. His housekeeper had gone over to Weiham for the week’s shopping, and would probably not be back until eleven o’clock.
He was alone on the premises, and just a trifle dull.
He was about to turn into the house when his ear caught the sound of footsteps on the unmade road that passed the end of the garden. He paused and listened. There was no other dwelling near, and the road led nowhere, fading away into the wasteland beyond the house. Could this be a visitor? It seemed unlikely, for visitors were few at Silas Hickler’s house. Meanwhile, the footsteps continued to approach, ringing out with increasing loudness on the hard, stony path.
Silas strolled down to the gate, and, leaning on it, looked out with some curiosity. Presently a glow of light showed him the face of a man, apparently lighting his pipe; then a dim figure detached itself from the enveloping gloom, advanced toward him, and halted opposite the garden. The stranger removed a cigarette from his mouth and asked:
“Can you tell me if this road will take me to Badsham Junction?”
“No,” replied Hickler; “but there is a footpath farther on that leads to the station,”
“Footpath!” growled the stranger. “I’ve had enough of footpaths. I came down from town to Catley, intending to walk across to the Junction. I started along the road, and then some fool directed me to a short cut, with the result that I have been blundering about in the dark for the last half hour. My sight isn’t very good, you know,” he added.
“What train do you want to catch?” asked Hickler.
“Seven fifty-eight,” was the reply.
“I am going to catch that train myself,” said Silas, “but I sha’n’t be starting for another hour. The station is only three quarters of a mile from here. If you would like to come in and take a rest, we can walk down together, and then you’ll be sure of not missing your way.”
“It’s very good of you,” said the stranger, peering with spectacled eyes at the dark house, “but I think”
“Might as well wait here as at the station,” said Silas in his genial way, holding the gate open; and the stranger, after a momentary hesitation, entered, and, flinging away his cigarette, followed Silas to the door of the cottage.
The sitting-room was in darkness, but, entering before his guest, Silas applied a match to the lamp that hung from the ceiling. As the flame leaped up, flooding the little interior with light, the two men regarded each other with mutual curiosity.
“Brodski, by Jingo!” was Hickler’s silent commentary as he looked at his guest. “Doesn’t know me, evidently wouldn’t, of course, after all these years and with his bad eyesight. Take a seat, sir,” he added aloud. “Will you join me in a little refreshment to while away the time?”
Brodski murmured an indistinct acceptance, and, as his host turned to open a cupboard, he deposited his hat (a hard gray felt) on a chair in a corner, placed his bag on the edge of the table, resting his umbrella against it, and sat down in a small arm-chair.
“Have a biscuit,” said Hickler, as he placed a whisky bottle on the table, together with a couple of his best star-pattern tumblers and a siphon.
“Thanks, I think I will,” said Brodski. “The railway journey and all this confounded tramping about, you know”
“Yes,” agreed Silas. “Doesn’t do to start with an empty stomach. Hope you don’t mind oat-cakes; I see they’re the only biscuits I have.”
Brodski hastened to assure him that oat-cakes were his special and peculiar fancy; and, in confirmation, having mixed himself a stiff jorum, he fell to upon the biscuits with evident gusto.
Brodski was a diamond merchant of considerable reputation and in a large way of business. He bought stones principally in the rough, and of these he was a most excellent judge. His fancy was for stones of somewhat unusual size and value, and it was well known to be his custom, when he had accumulated a sufficient stock, to carry them himself to Amsterdam and supervise the cutting of the rough stones. Of this Hickler was aware, and he had no doubt that Brodski was now starting on one of his periodical excursions, and that somewhere in the recesses of his rather shabby clothing was concealed a paper packet worth possibly several thousand pounds.
Brodski sat by the table, munching monotonously and talking little. Hickler sat opposite to him, talking nervously and watching his guest with a growing fascination. Precious stones, and especially diamonds, were Hickler’s specialty; and here was a man sitting opposite him with a parcel in his pocket containing stones worth perhaps; Here he pulled himself up short and began to talk rapidly, though without much coherence. For, even as he talked, other words, formed subconsciously, seemed to insinuate themselves into the interstices of the sentences and to carry on a parallel train of thought.
“Gets chilly in the evenings now, doesn’t it?” said Hickler.
“It does indeed,” Brodski agreed, and then resumed his slow munching, breathing audibly through his nose.
“Five thousand at least,” the subconscious train of thought resumed, “probably six or seven, perhaps ten.” Silas fidgeted in his chair and endeavored to concentrate his ideas on some topic of interest. He was growing disagreeably conscious of a new and unfamiliar state of mind.
“Do you take any interest in gardening?” he asked. Next to diamonds and “weekly property,” his besetting weakness was fuchsias.
Brodski chuckled sourly. “Hatton Garden is the nearest approach” He broke off suddenly, and then added: “I am a Londoner, you know.”
The abrupt break in the sentence was not unnoticed by Silas, nor had he any difficulty in interpreting it. A man who carries untold wealth upon his person must needs be wary in his speech.
“Yes,” he answered absently; “it’s hardly a Londoner’s hobby.”
He glanced furtively at his guest across the table, and then looked away quickly, as he felt stirring within him an impulse the nature of which he could not mistake. This must be put an end to.
He had always looked upon crimes against the person as sheer insanity.
Of course, if he had happened to be that sort of person, here was the opportunity of a life-time. The immense booty, the empty house, the solitary neighborhood, away from the main road and other habitations, the time, the darkness but, of course, there was the body to be thought of; that was always the difficulty. What to do with the body here he caught the shriek of the up express rounding the curve in the line that ran past the waste land at the back of the house. The sound started a new train of thought, and, as he followed it out, his eyes fixed themselves on the unconscious and taciturn Brodski. And ever through his mind walked, like a dreadful procession, the thoughts of what another man a man of blood and violence would do in these circumstances. Detail by detail, the hideous synthesis fitted together the parts of the imagined crime, and arranged them in due sequence until they formed a succession of events, rational, connected, and coherent.
He rose uneasily from his chair, with his eyes still upon bis guest. He could not sit any longer opp^^e that man with his hidden store of precious gems. The impulse that he recognized with fear and wonder was growing more ungovernable from moment to moment. If he stayed it would presently overpower him, and then He shrank with horror from the dreadful thought, but his fingers itched to handle the diamonds.
But he would make one more effort to escape. He would keep out of Brodski’s actual presence until the moment for starting came.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I will go and put on a thicker pair of boots. After all this dry weather we may get a change, and damp feet are very uncomfortable when you are traveling.”
“Yes; dangerous, too,” agreed Brodski.
Silas walked into the adjoining kitchen, where, by the light of the little lamp that was burning there, he had seen his stout country boots placed, cleaned and in readiness, and sat down upon a chair to make the change. He did not, of course, intend to wear the country boots, for the diamonds were concealed in those he had on. But he would make the change and then alter his mind; it would all help to pass the time.
He looked up as he slowly unlaced his boot. From where he sat he could see Brodski sitting by the table with his back toward the kitchen door. Suddenly, yielding to an uncontrollable impulse, Silas stood up and began stealthily to creep along the passage to the sitting-room. Not a sound came from his stockinged feet as they trod the stone floor of the passage. Silently as a cat he stole forward, breathing softly with parted lips, until he stood at the threshold of the room. His face flushed duskily, his eyes, wide and staring, glittered in the lamplight, and the racing blood hummed in his ears.
Brodski struck a match,Silas noted that it was a wooden vesta, lighted his cigarette, blew out the match, and flung it into the fender. Then he replaced the box in his pocket and began to smoke.
Slowly and without a sound, Silas crept forward into the room, step by step, with cat-light stealthiness, until he stood close behind Brodski’s chair so close that he had to turn his head that his breath might not stir the hair upon the other man’s head. So for half a minute he stood motionless, like a symbolical statue of Murder, glaring down with horrible, glittering eyes upon the unconscious diamond merchant. And then, as noiselessly as before, he backed away to the door, turned quickly, and walked back into the kitchen.
He drew a deep breath. It had been a near thing. Brodski’s life had hung upon a thread. For it had been so easy! Indeed, if he had happened, as he stood behind the man’s chair, to have a weapon a hammer, for instance, or even a stone
He glanced around the kitchen, and his eye lighted on a bar that had been left by workmen who had put up a new greenhouse. It was an odd piece cut off from a square wrought-iron stanchion, and was about a foot long and perhaps three quarters of an inch thick. If he had had that in his hand a minute ago!
He picked the bar up, balanced it in his hand, swung it round his head. A formidable weapon, this silent, too. Bah! He had better put the thing down.
But he did not. He stepped over to the door and looked again at Brodski, sitting as before, meditatively smoking, with his back toward the kitchen.
Suddenly a change came over Silas. His face flushed the veins of his neck stood out, and a sullen scowl settled on his face. He drew out his watch, glanced at it earnestly, and replaced it. Then he strode swiftly but silently along the passage into the sitting-room.
A pace away from his victim’s chair, he halted and took deliberate aim. The bar swung aloft, but not without some faint rustle of movement, for Brodski looked round quickly even as the iron whistled through the air. The movement disturbed the murderer’s aim, and the bar glanced off his victim’s head, making only a trifling wound. Brodski sprang up with a tremulous, bleating cry, and clutched his assailant’s arms with the tenacity of mortal terror.
Then began a terrible struggle as the two men, locked in a deadly embrace, swayed to and fro and trampled; backwards and forwards. The chair was overturned, an empty glass swept from the table, and, with Brodski’s spectacles, crushed beneath stamping feet. And thrice that dreadful, pitiful, bleating cry rang out into the night, filling Silas, despite his murderous frenzy, with terror lest some chance wayfarer should hear it. Gathering his great strength for a final effort, he forced his victim backwards on to the table, and, snatching up a corner of the table-cloth, thrust it into his face and crammed it into his mouth as it opened to utter another shriek. And thus they remained for a full two minutes, almost motionless, like some dreadful group of tragic allegory. Then, when the last faint twitchings had died away, Silas relaxed „his grasp and let the limp body slip softly to the floor.
It was over. For good or for evil, the thing was done. Silas stood up, breathing heavily, and, as he wiped the sweat from his face, he looked at the clock. The hands stood at one minute to seven. The whole thing had taken a little over three minutes. He had nearly an hour in which to finish his task. The goods train that entered into his scheme came by at twenty minutes past, and it was only three hundred yards to the line. Still, he must not waste time. He was now quite composed, and disturbed only by the thought that Brodski’s cries might have been heard. If no one had heard them, then it was all plain sailing.
He stooped, and, gently disengaging the table-cloth from the dead man’s teeth, began a careful search of his pockets. He was not long in finding what he sought, and, as he pinched the paper packet and felt the little hard bodies grating on one another inside, his faint regrets for what had happened were swallowed up in self-congratulations.
He now set about his task with businesslike briskness and an attentive eye on the clock. A few large drops of blood had fallen on the table-cloth, and there was a small bloody smear on the carpet by the dead man’s head. Silas fetched from the kitchen some water, a nail-brush, and a dry cloth, and, having washed out the stain from the table-cover, not forgetting the deal table-top underneath cleaned away the smear from the carpet, and rubbed the damp places dry, he slipped a sheet of paper under the head of the corpse to prevent further contamination. Then he set the table-cloth straight, stood the chair upright, laid the broken spectacles on the table, and picked up the cigarette, which had been trodden flat in. the struggle, and flung it under the grate. Then there was the broken glass, which he swept up into a dust-pan. Part of it was the remains of the shattered tumbler, and the rest the fragments of the broken spectacles. He turned it out on a sheet of paper and looked it over carefully, picking out the larger recognizable pieces of the spectacle glasses and putting them aside on a separate slip of paper, together with a sprinkling of the minute fragments. The remainder he shot back into the dust-pan, and, having hurriedly put on his boots, carried it out to the rubbish-heap at the back of the house.
It was now time to start. Hastily cutting off a length of string from his string-box, he tied it to the dead man’s bag and umbrella, and slung them from his shoulder. Then he folded the paper of broken glass, and, slipping it and the spectacles into his pocket, picked up the body and threw it over his shoulder. Brodski was a small, spare man, weighing not more than nine stone; not a very formidable burden for a big, athletic man like Silas.
The distance to the line was about three hundred yards. It took him just six minutes to reach the three-bar fence that separated the waste land from the railway. Arrived here, he halted for a moment and once more listened attentively, peering into the darkness on all sides. Not a living creature was to be seen or heard in this desolate spot.
Lifting the corpse over the fence, he stepped down on the loose, chalky soil that bordered the permanent way, and carried it a few yards farther, to a point where the line curved sharply. Here he laid it down, face downwards, with the neck over the near rail. Drawing out his pocket-knife, he cut through the knot that fastened the umbrella to the string and also secured the bag; and, when he had flung the bag and umbrella on the track beside the body, he carefully pocketed the string, excepting the little loop that had fallen to the ground when the knot was cut,
The quick snort and clanking rumble of the approaching goods train was now clearly audible. Silas quickly drew from his pocket the battered spectacles and the packet of broken glass. The former he threw down by the dead man’s head, and then, emptying the packet into his hand, sprinkled the fragments of glass around the spectacles.
He was none too soon. Already the quick, labored puffing of the engine sounded close at hand. Hastily he climbed back over the fence, and strode away across the rough fields, while the train came snorting and clattering toward the curve.
He had nearly reached his back gate when a sound from the line brought him to a sudden halt. It was a prolonged whistle, accompanied by the groan of brakes and the loud clank of colliding trucks. The train had stopped!
For one brief moment Silas stood with bated breath and mouth agape; then he strode forward quickly to the gate, and, letting himself in, silently slid the bolt. He was undeniably alarmed. What could have happened on the line? It was practically certain that the body had been seen, but what was happening now? And would they come to the house? He entered the kitchen, and, walking through to the sitting-room, looked round. Everything seemed in order there. There was the bar, though, lying where he had dropped it in the scuffle. He picked it up and held it under the lamp. There was no blood on it, only one or two hairs. Somewhat absently, he wiped it with the table-cover, and then, running out through the kitchen into the back garden, dropped it over the wall into a bed of nettles. He now felt that it would be well to start for the station. It was not time yet, for it was barely twenty-five minutes past seven; but he did not wish to be found in the house if anybody should come. His soft hat was on the sofa, with his bag, to which his umbrella was strapped. He put on the hat, caught up the bag, and stepped over to the. door; then he came back to turn down the lamp. And it was at this moment, when he stood with his hand raised to the burner, that his eye, traveling by chance into the dim corner of the room, lighted on Brodski’s gray felt hat, reposing on the chair where the dead man had placed it when he entered the house.
Silas stood for a few moments as if petrified, with the chilly sweat of mortal fear standing in beads upon his forehead. Another instant and he would have turned the lamp down and gone on his way, and then He strode over to the chair, snatched up the hat, and looked inside it. Yes, there was the name, “Oscar Brodski,” written plainly on the lining. If he had gone away, leaving it to be discovered, he would have been lost; indeed, even now, if a search-party should come to the house, it was enough to send him to the gallows.
His limbs shook with horror at the thought, but, in spite of his panic, he did not lose his self-possession.
For a few brief moments he stood considering the circumstances with intense concentration. Obviously, the proper thing to do was to burn it. But the fire was out, and there was hardly time to rekindle it. Besides, a hat was not a very inflammable object and might take a long time to burn; and it would never do to leave it imperfectly consumed and perhaps recognizable. No; he would take it with him.
Having arrived at this conclusion, he placed the hat on the floor, and deliberately trod on it again and again until it was as flat as a closed opera-hat. Then he unbuttoned his waistcoat, and, having bestowed the flattened hat inside, rebuttoned his waistcoat and coat.
Then he went out, locked the door, pocketed the key (of which his housekeeper had a duplicate), and set off at a brisk pace for the station.
He arrived in good time, and, having taken his ticket, strolled through on to the platform. The train was not yet signaled, but there seemed to be an unusual stir in the place. The passengers were collected in a group at one end of the platform, and were all looking in one direction down the line; and, even as he walked toward them with a certain tremulous, nauseating curiosity, two men emerged from the darkness, carrying a stretcher covered with a tarpaulin. The passengers parted to let the bearers pass, turning fascinated eyes upon the shape that showed faintly through the rough pall.
The dusk of an October evening was closing in as Thorndyke and I, the sole occupants of a smoking compartment, found ourselves approaching the little station of Ludham; and as the train slowed down we peered out at the knot of country people who were waiting on the platform. Suddenly Thorndyke exclaimed in a tone of surprise: “Why, that is surely Boscovitch!” And almost, at the same moment a brisk, excitable little man darted at the door of our compartment and literally tumbled in.
“I hope I don’t intrude on this learned conclave,” he said, shaking hands genially, and banging his Gladstone with impulsive violence into the rack; “but I saw your faces at the window, and naturally jumped at the chance of such pleasant companionship.”
“You are very flattering,” said Thorndyke “so flattering that you leave us nothing to say. But what, in the name of fortune, are you doing at what’s the name of the place? Ludham?”
“My brother has a little place a mile or so from here, and I have been spending a couple of days with him,” Mr. Boscovitch explained. “I shall change at Badsham Junction and catch the boat train for Amsterdam. But whither are you two bound? I see you have your mysterious little green box up on the hat-rack. Going to unravel some dark and intricate crime?”
“No,” replied Thorndyke. “We are bound for Warmington on a quite prosaic errand.”
“But why the box of magic?” asked Boscovitch, glancing up at the hat-rack.
“I never go away from home without it,” answered Thorndyke. “One never knows what may turn up.”
As Boscovitch still looked up wistfully at the case, Thorndyke good-naturedly lifted it down and unlocked it. As a matter of fact, he was rather proud of his “portable laboratory.”
Boscovitch pored over the case and its contents, fingering the instruments delicately and asking innumerable questions about their uses; indeed, his curiosity was but half appeased when, half an hour later, the train began to slow down.
“By Jove!” he exclaimed, starting up and seizing his bag, “here we are at the Junction already. You change here, too, don’t you?”
“Yes,” replied Thorndyke. “We take the branch train on to Warmington.”
As we stepped out on the platform, we became aware that something unusual was happening or had happened. All the passengers and most of the porters and supernumeraries were gathered at one end of the station, and all were looking intently into the darkness down the line.
“Anything wrong?” asked Mr. Boscovitch, addressing the station inspector.
“Yes, sir,” the official replied. “A man has been run over by the goods train about a mile down the line. The station-master has gone down with a stretcher to bring him in, and I expect that is his lantern that you see coming this way.”
As we stood watching the dancing light grow momentarily brighter, a man came out of the booking-office and joined the group of onlookers. He attracted my attention, as I afterward remembered, for two reasons: in the first place, his round, jolly face was excessively pale and bore a strained and wild expression; and, in the second, though he stared into the darkness with eager curiosity, he asked no questions.
Suddenly two men came into sight, bearing a stretcher covered with a tarpaulin, through which the shape of a human figure was dimly discernible. A porter followed, carrying a hand-bag and umbrella, and the station-master brought up the rear with his lantern.
As the porter passed, Mr. Boscovitch started forward with sudden excitement.
“Is that his umbrella?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” answered the porter, stopping and holding it out for the speaker’s inspection.
“My God!” ejaculated Boscovitch. Then, turning sharply to Thorndyke, he exclaimed: “That’s Brodski’s umbrella. I could swear to it. You remember Brodski, Dr. Thorndyke?”
Thorndyke nodded, and Boscovitch, turning once more to the porter, said: “I identify that umbrella. It belongs to a gentleman named Brodski. If you look in his hat, you will see his name written in it. He always writes his name in his hat.”
“We haven’t found his hat yet,” said the porter; “but here is the station-master.” He turned to his superior and announced: “This gentleman, sir, has identified the umbrella.”
“Oh,” said the station-master, “you recognize the umbrella, sir, do you? Then perhaps you would step into the lamp-room and see if you tan identify the body.”
Mr. Boscovitch recoiled with a look of alarm. “Is it is he very much injured?” he asked nervously.
“Well, yes,” was the reply. “You see, the engine and six of the trucks went over him before they could stop the train. Took his head clean off, in fact.”
“Shocking! Shocking!” gasped Boscovitch. “I think if you don’t mind I’d rather not. You don’t think it necessary, Doctor, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” replied Thorndyke. “Early identification may be of the first importance.”
“Then I suppose I must,” said Boscovitch; and, with extreme reluctance, he followed the station-master to the lamp-room. In a few minutes he burst out, pale and awe-stricken, and rushed up to Thorndyke.
“It is!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “It’s Brodski. Poor old Brodski! Horrible! Horrible! He was to have met me here and gone on with me to Amsterdam.”
“Had he any merchandise about him?” Thorndyke asked; and, as he spoke, the stranger whom I had previously noticed edged up closer, as if to catch the reply.
“He had some stones, no doubt,” answered Boscovitch. “His clerk will know, of course. By the way, Doctor, could you watch the case for me? Just to be sure it was really an accident or you know what.”
“Very well,” said Thorndyke. “I will satisfy myself that there is nothing more than appears, and let you have a report. Will that do?”
“Thank you,” said Boscovitch. “It’s excessively good of you, Doctor. Ah, there comes the train. I hope it won’t inconvenience you to stay and see to this matter.”
“Not in the least,” replied Thorndyke.
As Thorndyke spoke, the stranger, who had kept close to us with the evident purpose of hearing what was said, bestowed on him a very curious and attentive look.
No sooner had the train left the station than Thorndyke sought out the station-master and informed him of the instructions that he had received from Boscovitch.
“Of course,” he added, in conclusion, “we must not move in the matter until the police arrive. I suppose they have been informed.”
“Yes,” replied the station-master; “I sent a message at once to the chief constable. I think I will slip out and see if he is coming.”
He evidently wished to have a word in private with the police officer before committing himself to any statement.
As the official retreated, Thorndyke and I began to pace the now empty platform.
“Why not put a few discreet questions to the porter who brought in the bag and umbrella?” I suggested.
“An excellent suggestion, Jervis,” answered Thorndyke. “Let us see what he has to tell us.”
We approached the porter, and found him bursting to unburden himself of the tragic story.
“The way the thing happened, sir, was this,” he said, in answer to Thorndyke’s question. “There’s a sharpish bend in the road just at that place, and the train was just rounding the curve when the driver suddenly caught sight of something lying across the rails. As the engine turned, the head-lights shone on it, and then he saw it was a man. He shut off steam at once, blew his whistle, and put the brakes down hard; but, as you know, sir, a goods train takes some stopping; before they could bring her up, the engine and half a dozen trucks had gone over the poor beggar.”
“Could the driver see how the man was lying?” Thorndyke asked.
“Yes, he could see him quite plain, because the head-lights were full on him. He was lying on his face, with his neck over the near rail on the down side. His head was in the four-foot way, and his body by the side of the track. It looked as if he had laid himself out a-purpose.”
“Is there a level crossing thereabouts?” asked Thorndyke.
“No, sir; no crossing, no road, no path, no nothing,” said the porter, ruthlessly sacrificing grammar to emphasis. “He must have come across the fields and climbed over the fence to get on to the permanent way. Deliberate suicide is what it looks like.”
Thorndyke thanked the man for his information, and, as we strolled back toward the lamp-room, discussed the bearing of these new facts.
“Our friend is unquestionably right in one respect,” he said. “This was not an accident. The man might, if he were near-sighted, deaf, or stupid, have climbed over the fence and got knocked down by the train. But his position, lying across the rails, can be explained only by one of two hypotheses: either it was, as the porter says, deliberate suicide, or else the man was already dead or insensible. But here comes the station-master, and an officer with him. Let us hear what they have to say.”
The police inspector agreed to allow us to view the body, and we entered the lamp-room together, the station-master leading the way to turn up the gas.
The stretcher stood on the floor by one wall, its grim burden still hidden by the tarpaulin, and the hand-bag and umbrella lay on a large box, together with the battered frame of a pair of spectacles from which the glasses had fallen out.
“Were these spectacles found by the body?” Thorndyke inquired.
“Yes,” replied the station-master. “They were close to the head, and the glass was scattered about on the ballast.”
Thorndyke made a note in his pocket-book, and then, as the inspector moved the tarpaulin, he glanced down on the corpse. For fully a minute he remained silently stooping over the uncanny object; then he stood up and said quietly to me: “I think we can eliminate two out of the three hypotheses.”
The inspector looked at him quickly, and was about to ask a question, when his attention was diverted by the traveling-case which Thorndyke had laid on a shelf and now opened to abstract a couple of pairs of dissecting-forceps. With one pair of forceps he turned back the lip, and, having scrutinized its inner surface, closely examined the teeth.
“May I trouble you for your lens, Jervis?” he said; and, as I handed him my doublet ready opened, the inspector brought the lantern close to the dead face and leaned forward eagerly. In his usual systematic fashion, Thorndyke slowly passed the lens along the whole range of sharp, uneven teeth, and then, bringing it back to the center, examined with more minuteness the upper incisors. At length, very delicately, he picked out with his forceps some minute object from between two of the upper front teeth and held it in the focus of the lens. Anticipating his next move, I took a labeled miscroscope-slide from the case and handed it to him, together with a dissecting-needle, and, as he transferred the object to the slide and spread it out with the needle, I set up the little microscope on the shelf.
“A drop of Farrant and a cover-glass, please, Jervis,” said Thorndyke.
I handed him the bottle, and, when he had let a drop of the mounting-fluid fall gently on the object and put on the cover-slip, he placed the slide on the stage of the microscope and examined it attentively.
Happening to glance at the inspector, I observed on his countenance a faint grin, which he politely strove to suppress when he caught my eye.
“I was thinking, sir,” he said apologetically, “that it’s a bit off the track to be finding out what he had for dinner. He didn’t die of unwholesome feeding,”
Thorndyke looked up with a smile. “It doesn’t do, inspector, to assume that anything is off the track in an inquiry of this kind. These crumbs, for instance, that are scattered over the dead man’s waistcoat. Can we learn nothing from them?”
“I don’t see what you can learn,” was the dogged rejoinder.
Thorndyke picked off the crumbs, one by one, with his forceps, and, having deposited them on a slide, inspected them, first with the lens and then through the microscope.
“I learn,” said he, “that shortly before his death the deceased partook of some kind of whole-meal biscuits, apparently composed of oatmeal.”
“I call that nothing,” said the inspector. “The question that we have got to settle is, not what refreshment had the deceased been taking, but what was the cause of his death. Did he commit suicide? Was he killed by accident? Or was there any foul play?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Thorndyke. “The questions that remain to be settled are, who killed the deceased, and with what motive. The others are already answered, as far as I am concerned.”
The inspector stared in sheer amazement, not unmixed with incredulity.
“You haven’t been long coming to a conclusion, sir,” he said.
“No; it was a pretty obvious case of murder,” said Thorndyke. “As to the motive, the deceased was a diamond merchant, and is believed to have had a quantity of stones about his person. I should suggest that you search his body.”
The inspector gave vent to an exclamation of disgust. “I see,” he said. “It was a guess on your part. As to searching the body, why, that is what I principally came for.”
He ostentatiously turned his back on us and proceeded systematically to turn out the dead man’s pockets, laying the articles, as he removed them, on the box, by the side of the hand-bag and umbrella.
Thorndyke looked over the body generally, paying special attention to the soles of the boots; and then, while the officer continued his search, he looked over the articles that had already been laid on the box. The purse and pocket-book he, of course, left for the inspector to open; but the reading-glasses, pocket-knife, card-case, and other small pocket articles were subjected to a searching scrutiny.
“What might you have expected to find in his tobacco-pouch?” the officer asked, laying down a bunch of keys from the dead man’s pocket.
“Tobacco,” Thorndyke replied; “but I did not expect to find fine-cut Latakia. I don’t remember ever having seen pure Latakia smoked in cigarettes.”
“You do take an interest in things, sir,” said the inspector, with a side glance at the stolid station-master.
“I do,” Thorndyke agreed; “and I note that there are no diamonds among this collection.”
“No; and we don’t know that he had any about him. But there’s a gold watch and chain, a diamond scarf-pin, and a purse containing” (he opened it and tipped out its contents into his hand) “twelve pounds in gold. That doesn’t look much like robbery, does it? What do you say to the murder theory now?”
“My opinion is unchanged,” said Thorndyke, “and I should like to examine the spot where the body was found.”
When Thorndyke had repacked his case, and had, at his own request, been furnished with a lantern, we set off down the permanent way, Thorndyke carrying the light and I the indispensable green case.
“I am a little in the dark about this affair,” I said, when we had allowed the two officials to draw ahead out of ear-shot; “you came to a conclusion remarkably quickly. What was it that so immediately determined the opinion of murder as against suicide?”
“It was a small matter, but very conclusive,” replied Thorndyke. “You noticed a small scalp wound above the left temple? It was a glancing wound, and might easily have been made by the engine. But the wound had bled, and it had bled for an appreciable time. There were two streams of blood from it, and in both the blood was firmly clotted and partially dried. But the man had been decapitated, and this wound, if inflicted by the engine, must have been made after the decapitation, since it was on the side most distant from the engine as it approached. Now, a decapitated head does not bleed. Therefore, this wound was inflicted before the decapitation.”
“But not only had the wound bled the blood had trickled down in two streams at right angles to each other. First, in the order of time as shown by the appearance of the stream, it had trickled down the side of the face and dropped on the collar. The second stream ran from the wound to the back of the head. Now, you know, Jervis, there are no exceptions to the law of gravity. If the blood ran down the face toward the chin, the face must have been upright at the time; and if the blood trickled from the front to the back of the head, the head must have been horizontal and face upwards. But the man, when he was seen by the engine-driver, was lying face downwards. The only possible inference is that when the wound was inflicted the man was in the upright position, standing or sitting, and that subsequently, and while he was still alive, he lay on his back for a sufficiently long time for the blood to have trickled to the back of his head. But, tell me, what did you notice about the face?”
“I thought there was a strong suggestion of asphyxia.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Thorndyke. “It was the face of a suffocated man. You must have noticed, too, that the tongue was very distinctly swollen, and that on the inside of the upper lip were deep indentations made by the teeth, as well as one or two slight wounds obviously caused by heavy pressure on the mouth. And now, observe how completely these facts and inferences agree with those from the scalp wound. If we knew that the deceased had received a blow on the head, had struggled with his assailant, and been finally borne down and suffocated, we should look for precisely those signs which we have found.”
“By the way, what was it that you found wedged between the teeth? I did not get a chance to look through the microscope.”
“Ah!” said Thorndyke. “There we not only get confirmation, but we carry our inferences a stage further. The object was a little tuft of some textile fabric. The bulk of it consisted of wool fibers dyed crimson, but there were also cotton fibers dyed blue, and a few that looked like jute dyed yellow. It might have been part of a woman’s dress, though the presence of the jute is much more suggestive of a curtain or rug of inferior quality.”
“And its importance?”
“Is that, if it is not part of an article of clothing, then it must have come from an article of furniture; and furniture suggests a habitation,”
“That doesn’t seem very conclusive” I objected.
“It is not; but it is a valuable corroboration.”
“Of the suggestion offered by the soles of the dead man’s boots. I examined them most minutely, and could find no trace of sand, gravel, or earth, in spite of the fact that he must have crossed fields and rough land to reach the place where he was found. What I did find was fine tobacco ash, a charred mark as if a cigar or cigarette had been trodden on, several crumbs of biscuit, and, on a projecting brad, some colored fibers, apparently from a carpet. The manifest suggestion is that the man was killed in a house with a carpeted floor and carried thence to the railway.”
“If your inferences are correct,” I said, “the problem is practically solved. There must be abundant traces inside the house. The only question is, which house is it?”
“Quite so,” replied Thorndyke. “That is the question, and a very difficult question it is.”
Here our conversation was interrupted by our arrival at the spot where the body had been found. The station-master had halted, and he and the inspector were now examining the near rail by the light of their lanterns.
“There’s remarkably little blood about,” said the former. “I’ve seen a good many accidents of this kind, and there has always been a lot of blood, both on the engine and on the road. It’s very curious.”
Thorndyke glanced at the rail with but slight attention; that question had ceased to interest him. But the light of his lantern flashed on the ground at the side of the track—a loose, gravelly soil, mixed with fragments of chalk and thence to the soles of the inspector’s boots, which were displayed as he knelt by the rail.
“You observe, Jervis?” he said in a low voice, and I nodded.
The inspector’s boot-soles were covered with adherent particles of gravel, and conspicuously marked by the chalk on which he had trodden.
“You haven’t found the hat, I suppose?” Thorndyke asked, stooping to pick up a short piece of string that lay on the ground at the side of the track.
“No,” replied the inspector; “but it can’t be far off. You seem to have found another clue, sir,” he added, with a grin, glancing at the piece of string.
“Who knows?” said Thorndyke. “A short end of hempen twine with a green strand in it. It may tell us something later.” And, taking from his pocket a small tin box containing, among other things, a number of seed-envelops, he slipped the string into one of the latter, and scribbled a note in pencil on the outside. The inspector watched his proceedings with an indulgent smile, and then returned to his examination of the track, in which Thorndyke now joined.
“I suppose the poor chap was near-sighted,” the officer remarked, indicating the remains of the shattered spectacles; “that might account for his having strayed on to the line.”
“Possibly,” said Thorndyke. He had already noticed the fragments scattered over a sleeper and the adjacent ballast, and now once more produced his collecting-box.
“Will you hand me a pair of forceps, Jervis?” he said; “and perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking a pair yourself and helping me to gather up these fragments. Pick up every particle you can find, Jervis. It may be most important.”
“I don’t quite see how,” I said, groping in search of the tiny splinters of glass.
“Don’t you?” returned Thorndyke. “Well, look at these fragments. Some of them are a fair size, but many of these on the sleeper are mere grains. And consider their number. Obviously, the condition of the glass does not agree with the circumstances in which we find it. These are thick, concave spectacle lenses, broken into a great number of minute fragments. Now, how were they broken? Not merely by falling, evidently. Such a lens, when it is dropped, breaks into a small number of large pieces. Nor were they broken by the wheel passing over them, for they would then have been reduced to fine powder, and that powder would have been visible on the rail, which it is not. The spectacle-frames, you may remember, presented the same incongruity: they were battered and damaged more than they would have been by falling, but not nearly so much as they would have been if the wheel had passed over them.”
“What do you suggest, then?” I asked.
“The appearances suggest that the spectacles had been trodden on. But, if the body was carried here, the probability is that the spectacles were carried here too, and that they were then already broken; for it is more likely that they were trodden on during the struggle than that the murderer trod on them after bringing them here. Hence the importance of picking up every fragment.”
“But why?” I inquired rather foolishly, I must admit.
“Because if, when we have picked up every fragment that we can find, there still remains missing a larger portion of the lenses than we could reasonably expect, that would tend to support our hypothesis, and we might find the missing remainder elsewhere.”
While we were conducting our search, the two officials were circling around with their lanterns in quest of the missing hat; and, when we had at length picked up the last fragment, we could see their lanterns moving, like will-o’-the-wisps, some distance down the line.
“We may as well see what we have got before our friends come back,” said Thorndyke, glancing at the twinkling lights. “Lay the case down on the grass by the fence; it will serve for a table.”
I did so, and Thorndyke, taking a letter from his pocket, opened it and spread it out flat on the case. Then he tipped the contents of the seed-envelop out on the paper, and, carefully spreading out the pieces of glass, looked at them for some moments in silence. And, as he looked, there stole over his face a very curious expression. With sudden eagerness he began picking out the larger fragments and laying them on two visiting-cards which he had taken from his card-case. Rapidly and with wonderful deftness he fitted the pieces together, and, as the reconstituted lenses began gradually to take shape on the cards, I looked on with growing excitement, for something in my colleague’s manner told me that we were on the verge of a discovery.
At length the two ovals of glass lay on their respective cards, complete save for one or two small gaps; and the little heap that remained consisted of fragments so minute as to render further reconstruction impossible. Then Thorndyke leaned back and laughed softly.
“This is certainly an unlooked-for result,” said he.
“What is?” I asked.
“Don’t you see, my dear fellow? There’s too much glass. We have almost completely built up the broken lenses, and the fragments that are left over are considerably more than are required to fill up the gaps.”
He lifted the paper and the two cards carefully on to the ground, and, opening the case, took out the little microscope.
“Ha!” he exclaimed presently. “The plot thickens. There is too much glass, and yet too little; that is to say, there are only one or two fragments here that belong to the spectacles. The remainder consists of a soft, uneven molded glass, easily distinguished from the clear, hard optical glass. These foreign fragments are all curved, as if they had formed part of a cylinder, and are, I should say, portions of a wine-glass or tumbler.”
He moved the slide once or twice, and then continued:
“We are in luck, Jervis. Here is a fragment with two little diverging lines etched on it, evidently the points of an eight-rayed star; and here is another with three points the ends of three rays. This enables us to reconstruct the vessel perfectly. It was a dear, thin glass, probably a tumbler, decorated with scattered stars. Have a look at the specimen.”
I had just applied my eye to the microscope when the station-master and the inspector came up. Our appearance, seated on the ground with the microscope between us, was too much for the police officer’s gravity, and he laughed long and joyously.
“You must excuse me, gentlemen,” he said apologetically, “but really, you know, to an old hand like myself it does look a little well, you understand. I dare say a microscope is a very interesting and amusing thing, but it doesn’t get us much forrader in a case like this, does it?”
“Perhaps not,” replied Thorndyke. “By the way, where did you find the hat, after all?”
“We haven’t found it,” the inspector replied a little sheepishly.
“Then we must help you to continue the search,” said Thorndyke. “If you will wait a few moments we will come with you.”
He poured a few drops of xylol balsam on the cards to fix the reconstituted lenses to their supports, and then, packing them and the microscope in the case, announced that he was ready to start.
“Is there any village or hamlet near?” he asked the station-master.
“None nearer than Corfield. That is about half a mile from here.”
“And where is the nearest road?”
“There is a half-made road that runs past a house about three hundred yards from here. It belonged to a building estate that was never built. There is a footpath from it to the station.”
“Are there any other houses near?”
“No; that is the only house for half a mile round, and there is no other road near here.”
“Then the probability is that Brodski approached the railway from that direction, since he was found on that side of the permanent way.”
The inspector agreeing with this view, we all set off slowly toward the house, piloted by the station-master, and searching the ground as we went.
Slackening his pace somewhat, Thorndyke allowed the two officials to draw ahead, and, when they were out of ear-shot, he remarked in a low tone:
“This house which we are approaching appears to be the only habitation within half a mile. If that is so, the probability is overwhelming that it is the house in which the murder was committed. But that probability will not entitle us to enter and search unless we can find some evidence connecting it with the crime, or, at any rate, with the dead man.”
He halted to glance at the house over the low garden wall, and, when he had softly tried the gate and found it bolted, we passed round to the front of the house, where we found our two acquaintances looking rather vaguely up the unmade road.
“There’s a light in the house,” said the inspector, “but there’s no one at home. I have knocked a dozen times and got no answer.”
Thorndyke made no reply, but, entering the garden, walked up the path, and, having knocked gently at the door, stooped and listened attentively at the key-hole.
“I tell you, there’s no one in the house,” said the inspector irritably; and, as Thorndyke continued to listen, he walked away muttering angrily. As soon as he was gone, Thorndyke flashed his lantern over the door, the threshold, the path, and the small flower-beds; and, from one of the latter, I presently saw him stoop and pick something up.
“Here is a highly instructive object, Jervis,” he said, coming to the gate and displaying a cigarette, of which only half an inch had been smoked.
“How instructive?” I asked. “What do you learn from it?”
“Many things,” he replied. “It has been lit and thrown away unsmoked; that indicates a sudden change of purpose. It was thrown away at the entrance to the house, almost certainly by someone entering it. That person was probably a stranger, or he would have taken it in with him. But he had not expected to enter the house, or he would not have lit it. These are the general suggestions; now as to the particular ones. The paper of the cigarette is of the kind known as the ‘Zigzag’ brand; the very conspicuous water-mark is quite easy to see. Now, Brodski’s cigarette-book was a ‘Zigzag’ book so called from the way in which the papers pull out. But let us see what the tobacco is like.”
With a pin from his coat he hooked out from the unburned end a wisp of dark, dirty-brown tobacco, which he held out for my inspection.
“Fine-cut Latakia,” I pronounced without hesitation.
“Very well,” said Thorndyke. “Here is a cigarette made of an unusual tobacco, similar to that in Brodski’s pouch, and wrapped in an unusual paper similar to those in Brodski’s cigarette-book. With due regard to the fourth rule of the syllogism, I suggest that this cigarette was made by Oscar Brodski. But, nevertheless, we will look for a corroborative detail.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“You may have noticed that Brodski’s match-box contained round wooden vestas which are also rather unusual. As he must have lighted the cigarette within a few steps of the gate, we ought to be able to find the match with which he lighted it.”
We walked very slowly up the road, searching the ground with the lantern, and we had hardly gone a dozen paces when I espied a match lying on the rough path. It was a round wooden vesta.
Thorndyke examined it with interest, and having deposited it, with the cigarette, in his collecting-box, turned to retrace his steps.
“There is now, Jervis,” said he, “no reasonable doubt that Brodski was murdered in that house. We have succeeded in connecting that house with the crime, and now we have got to force an entrance and join up the other clues.”
We walked quickly back to the rear of the premises, where we found the inspector conversing disconsolately with the station-master.
“I think, sir,” said the former, “we had better go back; in fact, I don’t see what we came here for, but Here! I say, sir, you mustn’t do that!” For Thorndyke, without a word of warning, had sprung up lightly and thrown one of his long legs over the wall.
“I can’t allow you to enter private premises, sir,” continued the inspector. But Thorndyke quietly dropped down on the inside, and turned to face the officer over the wall.
“Now, listen to me, Inspector,” said he. “I have good reasons for believing that the dead man, Brodski, has been in this house; in fact, I am prepared to swear an information to that effect. But time is precious; we must follow the scent while it is hot. And I am not proposing to break into the house offhand. I merely wish to examine the dust-bin.”
“The dust-bin!” gasped the inspector. “Well, you really are a most extraordinary gentleman! What do you expect to find in the dust-bin?”
“I am looking for a broken tumbler or a wine-glass. It is a thin glass vessel decorated with a pattern of small eight-pointed stars. It may be inside the house, or it may be outside. If it is outside it is probably in the dust-bin.”
“We can soon see what is in the dust-bin,” said the inspector, “though what in creation a broken tumbler has to do with the case is more than I can understand. However, here goes.”
He sprang upon the wall, and, as he dropped down into the garden, the station-master and I followed. But we were hardly half way up the path when we heard the voice of the inspector calling excitedly.
“Here you are, sir, this way,” he sang out; and, as we hurried forward, we suddenly came on him standing over a small rubbish-heap and looking the picture of astonishment. The glare of the lanterns showed us the scattered fragments of a thin glass star-pattern tumbler.
“I can’t imagine how you guessed it was here, sir,” said the inspector, with a new-born respect in his tone, “nor what you’re going to do with it, now you have found it.”
“It is merely another link in the chain of evidence,” said Thorndyke. “I must explain the connection later. Meanwhile we had better have a look inside the house. I expect to find there a cigarette which has been trodden on, some whole-meal biscuits, possibly a wooden vesta, and perhaps even the missing hat.”
At the mention of the hat the inspector stepped eagerly to the back door, but, finding it bolted, he tried the window. This also was securely fastened, and, on Thorndyke’s advice, we went round to the front door.
“This door is locked too,” said the inspector. “I’m afraid we shall have to break in. It’s a nuisance, though.”
“Have a look at the window,” suggested Thorndyke.
The officer did so, struggling vainly to undo the patent catch with his pocket-knife.
“It’s no go,” he said, coming back to the door.
“We shall have to” He broke off with an astonished stare, for the door, stood open, and Thorndyke was putting something in his pocket.
“Your friend doesn’t waste much time even in picking a lock,” he remarked to me, as we followed Thorndyke into the house; but his reflections were soon merged in a new surprise. Thorndyke had preceded us into a small sitting-room dimly lighted by a hanging lamp turned down low. As we entered he turned up the light and glanced about the room. A whisky bottle was on the table, with a siphon, a tumbler, and a biscuit-box. Pointing to the latter, Thorndyke said to the inspector: “See what is in that box.” “SHE STOOD FOR A MOMENT IN MUTE ASTONISHMENT” The inspector raised the lid and peeped in, the station-master peered over his shoulder, and then both stared at Thorndyke.
“How in the name of goodness did you know that there were whole-meal biscuits in the house, sir?” exclaimed the station-master.
“You’d be disappointed if I told you,” replied Thorndyke. “But look at this.” He pointed to the hearth, where lay a flattened, half-smoked cigarette and a round wooden vesta. The inspector and the station-master gazed at these objects in silent wonder.
“You have the dead man’s property with you, I believe?” said Thorndyke. “Let us have a look at his tobacco- pouch.”
As the officer produced and opened the pouch, Thorndyke picked up the flattened cigarette and neatly cut it open with his sharp pocket-knife. “Now,” said he, “what kind of tobacco is in the pouch?”
The inspector took out a pinch, looked at it, and smelt it distastefully. “It’s one of those stinking tobaccos,” he said, “that they put in mixtures Latakia, I think.”
“And what is this?” asked Thorndyke, pointing to the open cigarette.
“Same stuff, undoubtedly,” replied the inspector.
“And now let us see his cigarette-papers,” said Thorndyke.
The little book was produced from the officer’s pocket, and a sample paper abstracted. Thorndyke laid the half-burnt paper beside it, and the inspector, having examined the two, held them up to the light. “There isn’t much chance of mistaking that ‘Zigzag’ water-mark,” he said. “This cigarette was made by the deceased; there can’t be the shadow of a doubt.”
“One more point,” said Thorndyke, laying the burnt wooden vesta on the table. “You have his match-box?”
The inspector brought forth the little silver casket, opened it, and compared the wooden vestas that it contained with the burnt end. Then he shut the door with a snap.
“You’ve proved it up to the hilt,” said he. “If we could only find the hat we should have a complete case.”
“As to the hat,” said Thorndyke, “although its discovery in this room would add a certain ornamental finish to the investigation, it would hardly help us. There is no doubt that Brodski was murdered, and that he was murdered in this room. Then, the state of the body and the circumstances in which it was found enable us to fix the time of the murder within narrow limits that a few inquiries will further narrow. You have only to find out who was in this house at that time in order to give the murderer a name; and, remember, it is in the highest degree probable that he will either have stolen diamonds about his person or have recently disposed of them.”
“There is one little point that we may as well settle,” he added, “Give me a slide with a drop of Farrant on it, Jervis.”
I prepared the slide, while Thorndyke, with a pair of forceps, picked out a tiny wisp from the table-cloth.
“I fancy we have seen this fabric before,” he remarked, as he laid the little pinch of fluff in the mounting-fluid and slipped the slide on to the stage of the microscope.
“Yes,” he continued, looking into the eye-piece; “here are our old acquaintances, the red wool fibers, the blue cotton, and the yellow jute.”
“Have you any idea how the deceased met his death?” the inspector asked.
“Yes,” replied Thorndyke. “I take it that the murderer enticed him into this room and gave him some refreshment. The murderer sat in the chair in which you are sitting; Brodski sat in that small arm-chair. Then I imagine the murderer attacked him with some blunt and heavy weapon, which you will probably find later, failed to kill him at the first stroke, struggled with him, and finally suffocated him with this table-cloth. By the way, there is just one more point. You recognize this piece of string?” He took from his collecting-box the little end of twine that had been picked up by the line. The inspector nodded, “If you look behind you, you will see where it came from.”
The officer turned sharply, and his eye lighted on a string-box on the mantelpiece. He lifted it down, and Thorndyke drew out from it a length of white twine with one green strand, which he compared with the piece in his hand. “The green strand in it makes the identification fairly certain,” he said. “Of course, the string was used to secure the umbrella and hand-bag. He could not have carried them in his hand, encumbered as he was with the corpse.”
At this moment our conclave was interrupted by hurried footsteps on the garden path, and, as we turned with one accord, an elderly woman burst into the room.
She stood for a moment in mute astonishment, and then, looking from one to another, demanded: “Who are you? And what are you doing here?”
The inspector rose. “I am a police officer, madam,” said he. “If you will excuse me asking, who are you?”
“I am Mr. Hickler’s housekeeper,” she replied.
“And Mr. Hickler are you expecting him home shortly?”
“No, I am not,” was the curt reply. “Mr. Hickler is away from home just now. He left this evening by the boat train.”
“For Amsterdam?” asked Thorndyke.
“I believe so,” the housekeeper answered.
“I thought he might, perhaps, be a diamond broker or merchant,” said Thorndyke. “A good many of them travel by that train,”
“So he is,” said the woman; “at least, he has something to do with diamonds.”
“Ah! Well, we must be going, Jervis,” said Thorndyke; “we have finished here, and we have to find a hotel or inn. Can I have a word with you, Inspector?”
The officer, now entirely humble and reverent, followed us out into the garden to receive Thorndyke’s parting advice.
“You had better take possession of the house at once and get rid of the housekeeper. Nothing must be removed. The station-master or I will let them know at the police station, so that they can send an officer to relieve you.”
With a friendly “good night,” we went on our way; and here our connection with the case came to an end.
Hickler was, it is true, arrested as he stepped ashore from the steamer, and a packet of diamonds, subsequently identified as the property of Oscar Brodski, was found upon his person. But he was never brought to trial; for, on the return voyage, he contrived to elude his guards for an instant as the ship was approaching the English coast, and it was not until three days later when a handcuffed body was cast upon the lonely shore at Orford Ness, that the authorities knew the fate of Silas Hickler.
As to the mysterious hat, it was picked up at daybreak in an astonishingly battered state on the permanent way, within a hundred yards of the spot on which the body was found.
Written by R. Austin Freeman