Chapter 10




A MURDER


Constable Wiseman lived in the bosom of his admiring family in a small cottage on the Bexhill Road. That "my father was a policeman" was the proud boast of two small boys, a boast which entitled them to no small amount of respect, because P. C. Wiseman was not only honored in his own circle but throughout the village in which he dwelt.

He was, in the first place, a town policeman, as distinct from a county policeman, though he wore the badge and uniform of the Sussex constabulary. It was felt that a town policeman had more in common with crime, had a vaster experience, and was in consequence a more helpful adviser than a man whose duties began and ended in the patrolling of country lanes and law-abiding villages where nothing more exciting than an occasional dog fight or a charge of poaching served to fill the hiatus of constabulary life.

Constable Wiseman was looked upon as a shrewd fellow, a man to whom might be brought the delicate problems which occasionally perplexed and confused the bucolic mind. He had settled the vexed question as to whether a policeman could or could not enter a house where a man was beating his wife, and had decided that such a trespass could only be committed if the lady involved should utter piercing cries of "Murder!"

He added significantly that the constable who was called upon must be the constable on duty, and not an ornament of the force who by accident was a resident in their midst.

The problem of the straying chicken and the egg that is laid on alien property, the point of law involved in the question as to when a servant should give notice and the date from which her notice should count--all these matters came within Constable Wiseman's purview, and were solved to the satisfaction of all who brought their little obscurities for solution.

But it was in his own domestic circle that Constable Wiseman--appropriately named, as all agreed--shone with an effulgence that was almost dazzling, and was a source of irritation to the male relatives on his wife's side, one of whom had unfortunately come within the grasp of the law over a matter of a snared rabbit and was in consequence predisposed to anarchy in so far as the abolition of law and order affected the police force.

Constable Wiseman sat at tea one summer evening, and about the spotless white cloth which covered the table was grouped all that Constable Wiseman might legally call his. Tea was a function, and to the younger members of the family meant just tea and bread and butter. To Constable Wiseman it meant luxuries of a varied and costly nature. His taste ranged from rump steak to Yarmouth bloaters, and once he had introduced a foreign delicacy--foreign to the village, which had never known before the reason for their existence--sweetbreads.

The conversation, which was well sustained by Mr. Wiseman, was usually of himself, his wife being content to punctuate his autobiography with such encouraging phrases as, "Dear, dear!" "Well, whatever next!" the children doing no more than ask in a whisper for more food. This they did at regular and frequent intervals, but because of their whispers they were supposed to be unheard.

Constable Wiseman spoke about himself because he knew of nothing more interesting to talk about. His evening conversation usually took the form of a very full résumé of his previous day's experience. He left the impression upon his wife--and glad enough she was to have such an impression--that Eastbourne was a well-conducted town mainly as a result of P. C. Wiseman's ceaseless and tireless efforts.

"I never had a clew yet that I never follered to the bitter end," said the preening constable.

"You remember when Raggett's orchard was robbed--who found the thieves?"

"You did, of course; I'm sure you did," said Mrs. Wiseman, jigging her youngest on her knee, the youngest not having arrived at the age where he recognized the necessity for expressing his desires in whispers.

"Who caught them three-card-trick men after the Lewes races last year?" went on Constable Wiseman passionately. "Who has had more summonses for smoking chimneys than any other man in the force? Some people," he added, as he rose heavily and took down his tunic, which hung on the wall--"some people would ask for promotion; but I'm perfectly satisfied. I'm not one of those ambitious sort. Why, I wouldn't know at all what to do with myself if they made me a sergeant."

"You deserve it, anyway," said Mrs. Wiseman.

"I don't deserve anything I don't want," said Mr. Wiseman loftily. "I've learned a few things, too, but I've never made use of what's come to me officially to get me pushed along. You'll hear something in a day or two," he said mysteriously, "and in high life, too, in a manner of speaking--that is, if you can call old Minute high life, which I very much doubt."

"You don't say so!" said Mrs. Wiseman, appropriately amazed.

Her husband nodded his head.

"There's trouble up there," he said. "From certain information I've received, there has been a big row between young Mr. Merrill and the old man, and the C. I. D. people have been down about it. What's more," he said, "I could tell a thing or two. I've seen that boy look at the old man as though he'd like to kill him. You wouldn't believe it, would you, but I know, and it didn't happen so long ago either. He was always snubbing him when young Merrill was down here acting as his secretary, and as good as called him a fool in front of my face when I served him with that summons for having his lights up. You'll hear something one of these days."

Constable Wiseman was an excellent prophet, vague as his prophecy was.

He went out of the cottage to his duty in a complacent frame of mind, which was not unusual, for Constable Wiseman was nothing if not satisfied with his fate. His complacency continued until a little after seven o'clock that evening.

It so happened that Constable Wiseman, no less than every other member of the force on duty that night, had much to think about, much that was at once exciting and absorbing. It had been whispered before the evening parade that Sergeant Smith was to leave the force. There was some talk of his being dismissed, but it was clear that he had been given the opportunity of resigning, for he was still doing duty, which would not have been the case had he been forcibly removed.

Sergeant Smith's mien and attitude had confirmed the rumor. Nobody was surprised, since this dour officer had been in trouble before. Twice had he been before the deputy chief constable for neglect of, and being drunk while on, duty. On the earlier occasions he had had remarkable escapes. Some people talked of influence, but it is more likely that the man's record had helped him, for he was a first-class policeman with a nose for crime, absolutely fearless, and had, moreover, assisted in the capture of one or two very desperate criminals who had made their way to the south-coast town.

His last offense, however, was too grave to overlook. His inspector, going the rounds, had missed him, and after a search he was discovered outside a public house. It is no great crime to be found outside a public house, particularly when an officer has a fairly extensive area to cover, and in this respect he was well within the limits of that area. But it must be explained that the reason the sergeant was outside the public house was because he had challenged a fellow carouser to fight, and at the moment he was discovered he was stripped to the waist and setting about his task with rare workmanlike skill.

He was also drunk.

To have retained his services thereafter would have been little less than a crying scandal. There is no doubt, however, that Sergeant Smith had made a desperate attempt to use the influence behind him, and use it to its fullest extent.

He had had one stormy interview with John Minute, and had planned another. Constable Wiseman, patrolling the London Road, his mind filled with the great news, was suddenly confronted with the object of his thoughts. The sergeant rode up to where the constable was standing in a professional attitude at the corner of two roads, and jumped off with the manner of a man who has an object in view.

"Wiseman," he said--and his voice was such as to suggest that he had been drinking again--"where will you be at ten o'clock to-night?"

Constable Wiseman raised his eyes in thought.

"At ten o'clock, Sergeant, I shall be opposite the gates of the cemetery."

The sergeant looked round left and right.

"I am going to see Mr. Minute on a matter of business," he said, "and you needn't mention the fact."

"I keep myself to myself," began Constable Wiseman. "What I see with one eye goes out of the other, in the manner of speaking--"

The sergeant nodded, stepped on to his bicycle again, turned it about, and went at full speed down the gentle incline toward Weald Lodge. He made no secret of his visit, but rode through the wide gates up the gravel drive to the front of the house, rang the bell, and to the servant who answered demanded peremptorily to see Mr. Minute.

John Minute received him in the library, where the previous interviews had taken place. Minute waited until the servant had gone and the door was closed, and then he said:

"Now, Crawley, there's no sense in coming to me; I can do nothing for you."

The sergeant put his helmet on the table, walked to a sideboard where a tray and decanter stood, and poured himself out a stiff dose of whisky without invitation. John Minute watched him without any great resentment. This was not civilized Eastbourne they were in. They were back in the old free-and-easy days of Gwelo, where men did not expect invitations to drink.

Smith--or Crawley, to give him his real name--tossed down half a tumbler of neat whisky and turned, wiping his heavy mustache with the back of his hand.

"So you can't do anything, can't you?" he mimicked. "Well, I'm going to show you that you can, and that you will!"

He put up his hand to check the words on John Minute's lips.

"There's no sense in your putting that rough stuff over me about your being able to send me to jail, because you wouldn't do it. It doesn't suit your book, John Minute, to go into the court and testify against me. Too many things would come out in the witness box, and you well know it--besides, Rhodesia is a long way off!"

"I know a place which isn't so far distant," said the other, looking up from his chair--"a place called Felixstowe, for example. There's another place called Cromer. I've been in consultation with a gentleman you may have heard of, a Mr. Saul Arthur Mann."

"Saul Arthur Mann," repeated the other slowly. "I've never heard of him."

"You would not, but he has heard of you," said John Minute calmly. "The fact is, Crawley, there's a big bad record against you, between your serious crimes in Rhodesia and your blackmail of to-day. I've a few facts about you which will interest you. I know the date you came to this country, which I didn't know before, and I know how you earned your living until you found me. I know of some shares in a non-existent Rhodesian mine which you sold to a feeble-minded gentleman at Cromer, and to a lady, equally feeble-minded, at Felixstowe. I've not only got the shares you sold, with your signature as a director, but I have letters and receipts signed by you. It has cost me a lot of money to get them, but it was well worth it."

Crawley's face was livid. He took a step toward the other, but recoiled, for at the first hint of danger John Minute had pulled the revolver he invariably carried.

"Keep just where you are, Crawley!" he said. "You are close enough now to be unpleasant."

"So you've got my record, have you?" said the other, with an oath. "Tucked away with your marriage lines, I'll bet, and the certificate of birth of the kids you left to starve with their mother."

"Get out of here!" said Minute, with dangerous quiet. "Get away while you're safe!"

There was something in his eye which cowed the half-drunken man who, turning with a laugh, picked up his helmet and walked from the room.

The hour was seven-thirty-five by Constable Wiseman's watch; for, slowly patrolling back, he saw the sergeant come flying out of the gateway on his bicycle and turn down toward the town. Constable Wiseman subsequently explained that he looked at his watch because he had a regular point at which he should meet Sergeant Smith at seven-forty-five and he was wondering whether his superior would return.

The chronology of the next three hours has been so often given in various accounts of the events which marked that evening that I may be excused if I give them in detail.

A car, white with dust, turned into the stable yard of the Star Hotel, Maidstone. The driver, in a dust coat and a chauffeur's cap, descended and handed over the car to a garage keeper with instructions to clean it up and have it filled ready for him the following morning. He gave explicit instructions as to the number of tins of petrol he required to carry always and tipped the garage keeper handsomely in advance.

He was described as a young man with a slight black mustache, and he was wearing his motor goggles when he went into the office of the hotel and ordered a bed and a sitting room. Therefore his face was not seen. When his dinner was served, it was remarked by the waiter that his goggles were still on his face. He gave instructions that the whole of the dinner was to be served at once and put upon the sideboard, and that he did not wish to be disturbed until he rang the bell.

When the bell rang the waiter came to find the room empty. But from the adjoining room he received orders to have breakfast by seven o'clock the following morning.

At seven o'clock the driver of the car paid his bill, his big motor goggles still upon his face, again tipped the garage keeper handsomely, and drove his car from the yard. He turned to the right and appeared to be taking the London Road, but later in the day, as has been established, the car was seen on its way to Paddock Wood, and was later observed at Tonbridge. The driver pulled up at a little tea house half a mile from the town, ordered sandwiches and tea, which were brought to him, and which he consumed in the car.

Late in the afternoon the car was seen at Uckfield, and the theory generally held was that the driver was killing time. At the wayside cottage at which he stopped for tea--it was one of those little places that invite cyclists by an ill-printed board to tarry a while and refresh themselves--he had some conversation with the tenant of the cottage, a widow. She seems to have been the usual loquacious, friendly soul who tells one without reserve her business, her troubles, and a fair sprinkling of the news of the day in the shortest possible time.

"I haven't seen a paper," said Rex Holland politely. "It is a very curious thing that I never thought about newspapers."

"I can get you one," said the woman eagerly. "You ought to read about that case."

"The dead chauffeur?" asked Rex Holland interestedly, for that had been the item of general news which was foremost in the woman's conversation.

"Yes, sir; he was murdered in Ashdown Forest. Many's the time I've driven over there."

"How do you know it was a murder?"

She knew for many reasons. Her brother-in-law was gamekeeper to Lord Ferring, and a colleague of his had been the man who had discovered the body, and it had appeared, as the good lady explained, that this same chauffeur was a man for whom the police had been searching in connection with a bank robbery about which much had appeared in the newspapers of the day previous.

"How very interesting!" said Mr. Holland, and took the paper from her hand.

He read the description line by line. He learned that the police were in possession of important clews, and that they were on the track of the man who had been seen in the company of the chauffeur. Moreover, said a most indiscreet newspaper writer, the police had a photograph showing the chauffeur standing by the side of his car, and reproductions of this photograph, showing the type of machine, were being circulated.

"How very interesting!" said Mr. Rex Holland again, being perfectly content in his mind, for his search of the body had revealed copies of this identical picture, and the car in which he was seated was not the car which had been photographed. From this point, a mile and a half beyond Uckfield, all trace of the car and its occupant was lost.

The writer has been very careful to note the exact times and to confirm those about which there was any doubt. At nine-twenty on the night when Constable Wiseman had patrolled the road before Weald Lodge and had seen Sergeant Smith flying down the road on his bicycle, and on the night of that day when Mr. Rex Holland had been seen at Uckfield, there arrived by the London train, which is due at Eastbourne at nine-twenty, Frank Merrill. The train, as a matter of fact, was three minutes late, and Frank, who had been in the latter part of the train, was one of the last of the passengers to arrive at the barrier.

When he reached the barrier, he discovered that he had no railway ticket, a very ordinary and vexatious experience which travelers before now have endured. He searched in every pocket, including the pocket of the light ulster he wore, but without success. He was vexed, but he laughed because he had a strong sense of humor.

"I could pay for my ticket," he smiled, "but I be hanged if I will! Inspector, you search that overcoat."

The amused inspector complied while Frank again went through all his pockets. At his request he accompanied the inspector to the latter's office, and there deposited on the table the contents of his pockets, his money, letters, and pocketbook.

"You're used to searching people," he said. "See if you can find it. I'll swear I've got it about me somewhere."

The obliging inspector felt, probed, but without success, till suddenly, with a roar of laughter, Frank cried:

"What a stupid ass I am! I've got it in my hat!"

He took off his hat, and there in the lining was a first-class ticket from London to Eastbourne.

It is necessary to lay particular stress upon this incident, which had an important bearing upon subsequent events. He called a taxicab, drove to Weald Lodge, and dismissed the driver in the road. He arrived at Weald Lodge, by the testimony of the driver and by that of Constable Wiseman, whom the car had passed, at about nine-forty.

Mr. John Minute at this time was alone; his suspicious nature would not allow the presence of servants in the house during the interview which he was to have with his nephew. He regarded servants as spies and eavesdroppers, and perhaps there was an excuse for his uncharitable view.

At nine-fifty, ten minutes after Frank had entered the gates of Weald Lodge, a car with gleaming headlights came quickly from the opposite direction and pulled up outside the gates. P. C. Wiseman, who at this moment was less than fifty yards from the gate, saw a man descend and pass quickly into the grounds of the house.

At nine-fifty-two or nine-fifty-three the constable, walking slowly toward the house, came abreast of the wall, and, looking up, saw a light flash for a moment in one of the upper windows. He had hardly seen this when he heard two shots fired in rapid succession, and a cry.

Only for a moment did P. C. Wiseman hesitate. He jumped the low wall, pushed through the shrubs, and made for the side of the house from whence a flood of light fell from the open French windows of the library. He blundered into the room a pace or two, and then stopped, for the sight was one which might well arrest even as unimaginative a man as a county constable.

John Minute lay on the floor on his back, and it did not need a doctor to tell that he was dead. By his side, and almost within reach of his hand, was a revolver of a very heavy army pattern. Mechanically the constable picked up the revolver and turned his stern face to the other occupant of the room.

"This is a bad business, Mr. Merrill," he found his breath to say.

Frank Merrill had been leaning over his uncle as the constable entered, but now stood erect, pale, but perfectly self-possessed.

"I heard the shot and I came in," he said.

"Stay where you are," said the constable, and, stepping quickly out on to the lawn, he blew his whistle long and shrilly, then returned to the room.

"This is a bad business, Mr. Merrill," he repeated.

"It is a very bad business," said the other in a low voice.

"Is this revolver yours?"

Frank shook his head.

"I've never seen it before," he said with emphasis.

The constable thought as quickly as it was humanly possible for him to think. He had no doubt in his mind that this unhappy youth had fired the shots which had ended the life of the man on the floor.

"Stay here," he said again, and again went out to blow his whistle. He walked this time on the lawn by the side of the drive toward the road. He had not taken half a dozen steps when he saw a dark figure of a man creeping stealthily along before him in the shade of the shrubs. In a second the constable was on him, had grasped him and swung him round, flashing his lantern into his prisoner's face. Instantly he released his hold.

"I beg your pardon, Sergeant," he stammered.

"What's the matter?" scowled the other. "What's wrong with you, Constable?"

Sergeant Smith's face was drawn and haggard. The policeman looked at him with open-mouthed astonishment.

"I didn't know it was you," he said.

"What's wrong?" asked the other again, and his voice was cracked and unnatural.

"There's been a murder--old Minute--shot!"

Sergeant Smith staggered back a pace.

"Good God!" he said. "Minute murdered? Then he did it! The young devil did it!"

"Come and have a look," invited Wiseman, recovering his balance. "I've got his nephew."

"No, no! I don't want to see John Minute dead! You go back. I'll bring another constable and a doctor."

He stumbled blindly along the drive into the road, and Constable Wiseman went back to the house. Frank was where he had left him, save that he had seated himself and was gazing steadfastly upon the dead man. He looked up as the policeman entered.

"What have you done?" he asked.

"The sergeant's gone for a doctor and another constable," said Wiseman gravely.

"I'm afraid they will be too late," said Frank. "He is--What's that?"

There was a distant hammering and a faint voice calling for help.

"What's that?" whispered Frank again.

The constable strode through the open doorway to the foot of the stairs and listened. The sound came from the upper story. He ran upstairs, mounting two at a time, and presently located the noise. It came from an end room, and somebody was hammering on the panels. The door was locked, but the key had been left in the lock, and this Constable Wiseman turned, flooding the dark interior with light.

"Come out!" he said, and Jasper Cole staggered out, dazed and shaking.

"Somebody hit me on the head with a sandbag," he said thickly. "I heard the shot. What has happened?"

"Mr. Minute has been killed," said the policeman.

"Killed!" He fell back against the wall, his face working. "Killed!" he repeated. "Not killed!"

The constable nodded. He had found the electric switch and the passageway was illuminated.

Presently the young man mastered his emotion.

"Where is he?" he asked, and Wiseman led the way downstairs.

Jasper Cole walked into the room without a glance at Frank and bent over the dead man. For a long time he looked at him earnestly, then he turned to Frank.

"You did this!" he said. "I heard your voice and the shots! I heard you threaten him!"

Frank said nothing. He merely stared at the other, and in his eyes was a look of infinite scorn.




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