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AIDAN DE BRUNE

THE EMPTY MATCH-BOX

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First published in the
Stratford Evening Post, New Zealand. 4, 5 and 7 December 1929

First e-book editions:
Roy Glashan's Library & Project Gutenberg Australia, 2017
Version Date: 2017-11-10
Produced by Terry Walker and Roy Glashan.

The text of this book is in the public domain in Australia.
All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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THIS book is a product of a collaborative effort undertaken by Project Gutenberg Australia, Roy Glashan's Library and the bibliophile Terry Walker to collect, edit and publish the works of Aidan de Brune, a colourful and prolific Australian writer whose opus is well worth saving from oblivion.



"YOU say that you do not believe Geoffrey Hampden died a natural death," observed Martin Frayne. "Any reasons for that statement?"

"Not one," Detective-Sergeant Grimes answered curtly. "They think I'm a fool down at Headquarters—I've got the doctors and the men on the case against me. They swear Hampden died from natural causes."

"And the autopsy?"

"Not taken place yet. Dr. Meadows stated that he believed the Professor died a natural death. I pressed him and he hedged on heart-disease. That's the stock phrase of the profession, when in doubt."

"Any wounds on the body?" The journalist spoke briefly.

"Not a scratch."

"No traces of poison?" Frayne persisted. "Surely you must have some reason for believing Hampden was murdered. You state there was no wound. Surely it is not reasonable—"

"To call me a fool!" Grimess laughed harshly. "Why don't you, Frayne? Turn me out on the cold streets and go to bed, forgetting my call. That'd be reasonable. I'm not!"

"No." The journalist snuggled down in the lounge chair, drawing strongly on his cigarette. "Now, just why did you come to me?"

"Because I'm an ass—No, that's not true." The detective rose from his chair and strode the room unevenly. "Frayne, you're my last hope. I remembered—"

Grimes paused, turning to face his companion. Frayne did not move, or even look at the detective. A slight smile was curving his lips.

"I'm remembering the Stanley Ward case," Grimes continued. "There—"

"In that case I was up against the Police Department." The newspaper man turned to face the detective. "If I remember rightly a certain Detective-Sergeant of high standing was particularly bitter in his attacks on me and—"

"Cut it out, man!" The detective winced. "Anyone makes mistakes. By the time you got to the end of that trail I was willing to admit my error. I'll say it again. You fooled the lot of us. We'd have hung Ward as high as the Town Hall clock—if you hadn't intervened. You did—and if I know our men, there's not one of them sore at you for preventing us making a hideous mistake."

"And because of that you come to me."

"Just that." Grimes nodded.

"You took from us the man we thought guilty, proving him innocent. Now I've come to you to see if you can't prevent us allowing a murderer to go free."

For moments there was silence in the room; half study, half sitting-room. Frayne levered himself up from his chair, throwing the butt of his cigarette in the ash-tray. He stretched out his hand for a fresh "gasper".

"Well?"

"I don't know."

"You think Hampden died from natural causes?" persisted the detective, incredulously.

"I'm open to conviction." A light came in the journalist's eyes. "Let's have facts, and I'll give an opinion; Even if you don't convince me there'll be good copy in your narrative. Sit down. How the blazes do you think I'm going to concentrate while you walk about the room?"

Grimes crossed to the chair on the opposite side of the glowing fire. For some minutes he sat silent, his hands stretched out to the dancing flames. At length he spoke.

"Godfrey Hampden was found in his study dead. He—"

"Is that how you recite your cases?" Frayne interrupted. "Start at the beginning, man. Who found him/"

"Mrs. Hampden."

"When?"

"About half past one in the morning."

"What was the lady doing—wandering about her home at that hour. Been out, or—"

"She had been in bed." Irritation showed in the detective's voice. "If you want all the piffle of recitation I'll start again."

"A good thing, too." Frayne levered himself from his chair, showing a lean, tall figure, surmounted by a thin, hollow-cheeked face from which glowed a pair of keen, bright-blue eyes. "And, don't talk about 'piffle'. Things you people at Headquarters regard as inessentials, are often of consequence. A murder's not planned in ten minutes; often not in ten days."

"All right!" The detective winced at the imputation cast on his beloved department. "Here's the tale, with all rumours and surmises."

He paused a few seconds, then continued: "Geoffrey Hampden was, as you know, one of the cleverest men in Australia. Ostensibly a biologist, he did not confine his activities but has wandered freely publishing books of note on various scientific questions. He—"

"Taken as read," Frayne interrupted with a broad grin. "I read my Who's Who—sometimes."

"Good!" The detective had recovered his normal poise. "No doubt Who's Who has also informed you that he lives at 'Clovelly,' West South Head Road; that he is married—happily; that he has a family of two children—both grown-up. Perhaps, also there were notes of his clubs and honours."

"Correct," the journalist laughed. "I can also inform you that Hampden's son is a married man with three children, making your scientist a triple grandfather. That the other child is a daughter with ambitions towards political career—for which she did not receive a parental blessing. The preliminaries being settled perhaps you will get down to facts."

"I was called to Professor Hampden's house at one-thirty a.m. yesterday—"

"Having been roused out of the Inspector's armchair at the local station house," interposed Frayne. "You rubbed your eyes and looked at your watch. wondering why you were there and not at home in your comfortable bed. For the sake of mike, man—"

"Oh, well, if I must." Grimes shrugged his shoulders. "Mrs. Hampden informed me that after dinner Professor Hampden told her that he had certain work to finish that would take about a couple of hours. Mrs. Hampden protested, for the Professor was not in the best of health. However he Had his way, promising that he would be in bed before eleven o'clock. Mrs. Hampden went to her sitting room and read until nearly ten o'clock. Feeling tired she Want to bed and immediately fell asleep."

"Good!" The journalist purred his contentment. "You're doing fine, Grimes. Keep it up."

"Go to Hades!" Grimes smiled in good humour. "I've said Mrs. Hampden almost immediately fell asleep. Something roused her about midnight. She switched on the light and glanced across to the Professor's bed. It was unoccupied."

"Professor Hampden was not in the room."

"He was not. Mrs. Hampden lay for some time, debating what to do; for the Professor was irritable and disliked being 'mothered.' At length she decided that she would go down to the study door and listen. If as she suspected her husband had fallen asleep at his work, she would make some noise, sufficient to arouse him. She knew that when he was awakened he would glance at the clock, and finding it past midnight would immediately go upstairs."

"She followed out her scheme?"

"Yes. She could hear no sounds from within the study and made a noise, but without result. At length, frightened, she hammered on the study door—without arousing the Professor."

"Then she became alarmed?"

"Yes."

"It had taken the good lady one hour and fifteen minutes to reach a stage of alarm."

Grimes stared at the journalist in amazement.

"I never thought of that," he exclaimed.

"No." There was irony in Frayne's voice. "I presume Mrs. Hampden then went to the telephone and communicated with the local police station. The Sergeant at the desk aroused you and, after getting the sleep out of your eyes you went to her assistance."

"A wonderful deduction." Grimes grinned. "As you infer, I went to 'Clovelly' and found Mrs. Hampden much agitated. At her request I hammered at the study door but obtained no reply. I tried the lock and found the door fastened. Then, after receiving permission from Mrs. Hampden I burst in the door to find Professor Hampden lying on the hearth rug dead."

"So much for the preliminaries." Frayne nodded approval. "Now the facts. You entered by the door. Where the windows open or closed?"

"Both windows were closed and locked."

"I presume there Is a desk in the room. How was it situated— in relation to the Professor's body?"

"He might have risen from the desk chair and fallen immediately on the hearth rug. The desk is close to the fireplace."

"And the papers on the desk—were they in disorder? I mean than would be occasioned by a man getting up from his desk in the middle of his work."

"No."

"Any signs of a struggle?"

"None."

"Anything unusual on the desk?"

"Nothing that I remember."

The detective hesitated. "Except—it wasn't on the desk though, it was on the rug, almost under his hand, and it wasn't of importance anyway."

"What was it?" The journalist's voice tensed with excitement. "Speak up, man, can't you?"

Grimes Looked Surprised. "It was only an empty match-box. We all have 'em. Run out of matches, I suppose and got up to find a new box, just as—"

"Did he smoke?"

"Don't know."

"Pipe or cigar on the desk? Any cigarettes? An ash-tray?" The journalist swung to face his guest. "Lor', man! If you can only remember!"

"No-o." The detective hesitated. "I don't believe I saw any smoking stuff about. I'd have noticed an ashtray, I'm certain, or—"

"Gas or electricity?"

"Electric lights." The police officer spoke more certainly. "Centre lamp and table lamp—both on. The telephone stood in the corner, on table by the fireplace. Say, Frayne—what's the matter?"

The man had strode to the door, Without answering, he left the room, returning wearing his overcoat, his hat in his hand.

"What's the matter?" He spoke in his usual drawling tones. "Only that we are going to West South Head Road, now."


A MASK had settled over Frayne's face as he followed Detective Grimes into "Clovelly". Almost immobile he had listened to Grimes's description of the room where the Professor had been discovered. In silence, he followed to the death chamber in which the scientist lay.

Before Grimes had finished his recital the journalist led back to the study.

For a moment he stood before the big desk at which the Professor had worked. It was flat-topped, and amid the litter of papers stood neither an tray nor tobacco container. Then the Professor had not been a smoker. Grimes's theory that the dead man had run out of matches while working had no foundation. There was no taper nor sealing wax on the desk. Why then the empty box?

His meditations were interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Hampden. Frayne started slightly, as the detective made the usual introductions. Why had he not thought of that before?

Mrs. Hampden was the professor's second wife. The journalist remembered reading that the scientist had married, some ten months before, an Adelaide lady—a widow.

He glanced at her curiously. About twenty-eight to thirty years of age, fair and good looking. What had induced this woman to link her life with a man of sixty-five, dependent on his salary from the University.

A mental picture of the household rose before Frayne's eyes. The professor, old and engrossed in his work; a young and pretty woman bound to him by the most intimate of ties, a girl of twenty eight, nearly the age of her mother-in-law, playing at politics and possibly neglecting what little home duties fell to her lot. A "Happy Family". A wide smile broke the firm line of his lips.

Mrs. Hampden sat down on the lounge at the farther end of the room, looking from Frayne to the detective in acute irritation. In a few words Grimes explained the journalist's presence.

"But I thought my—the Professor—died from heart failure?" exclaimed Hampden.

The detective entered upon an involved explanation. Frayne watched the pair keenly noticed that the widow's eyes continually wandered from the hearth rug to the mantelpiece, and wondered.

Suddenly he realised that there lay the empty match-box.

Why was the young widow watching the match-box? The journalist was puzzled. He sauntered across the room and picked it up. There was nothing strange about it. The slide-drawer was half-open. He noticed that one of the corners was dented.

Suddenly he looked across at Mrs. Hampden. Her eyes were fixed on him—no, on the match-box he held. He turned and replaced it on the shelf. Why was the woman anxious? Could there be a connection between that common article and the professor's death

From the mantelpiece Frayne turned to the big desk, his brows puckered in thought. He turned over the litter of papers.

Grimes had been wrong. The desk had been searched. Frayne came to the sheet of paper on which the Professor had worked. The last sentence was incomplete—ending in a splattering blot. On the paper lay a fountain-pen, the nib badly bent.

For some seconds the journalist scanned the damaged nib. He took a small, powerful magnifying glass from his pocket. Under it the nib showed covered with black ink, amid which were flecks of red.

Frayne lifted the sheet of paper and held It against the light. There was no puncture in it. Then, the blot had not been made by the point of the nib. Possibly the blot had been made when the Professor dropped his pen, before rising from his seat.

But what did the specks, of red amid the black ink indicate. How had the nib been damaged? Neither question could be answered by the pen-being dropped on the manuscript. Then the damage to the nib and the specks of red had occurred after Hampden's death.

Frayne turned suddenly—to find Mrs. Hampden watching him. Furtively. Almost he thought he read fear in her eyes. What did the woman know? A sudden elation came over him. He knew now that he was on the right track—if only he could read the riddle!

With quick decision he went to the door. In the room where the Professor lay, he hesitated. He had come there on a sudden impulse, not knowing what he sought yet believing that near the dead man lay the key to the mystery.

For long minutes he looked down on the still form. At length he threw hack the sheet and commenced to search the body. He was unsuccessful until, his search almost completed, he lifted the left hand.

On the ball of the index finger was a small puncture, covered with ink.

He dropped the lifeless fingers and stepped back. He remembered asking Grimes if the body held any wound—and the detective's negative reply.

Again he lifted the hand—now examining the puncture under his powerful glass. It bad not bled, although moderately deep. That was strange. For moments he meditated, tapping the rim of his glass against his teeth. The magnifying glass slipped from his fingers and rolled under the bed.

Frayne stooped to recover it. When he straightened he held a screw of white paper. It was a letter.

A whistle of astonishment came to his lips as he read the agitatedly scrawled lines. He had guessed right when he first met Mrs. Hampden. The aged Professor had married a young woman—with the inevitable consequences.

There was no hint of triumph in his manner when he re-entered the study. He strolled across to where Mrs. Hampden and the detective sat.

Grimes looked up, questioningly.

"Well."

"May I, Mrs. Hampden?" Frayne offered his case. Almost mechanically the widow accepted, a cigarette.

"A light, Mrs. Hampden. Only common house matches." He laughed slightly. "Like the empty box Sergeant Grimes found—er—on the hearth rug."

Again the frightened look came in the woman's eyes. She glanced unwittingly to where the match-box rested on the mantelshelf.

"By-the-bye, Grimes," the journalist spoke carelessly. "When did you put that match-box on the mantelpiece?"

"I—" The detective hesitated. "I thought I left it on the hearth rug. Say, Frayne, you're making a to-do about that match- box."

"It's interesting!" The newspaper man picked up the box, turning it carelessly on his hand. "You left it on the hearth rug? And the key?"

"What key."

"The key to the door. You remember the door was locked when Mrs. Hampden came to find the Professor."

"Had to force it." The detective acknowledged. "Still—"

"The door was locked when you brought me here." The journalist interrupted. "I suppose you repaired the lock before you left the house?"

"Of course. Wasn't difficult. I had only loosened the screws and—"

"And the key?"

"I put it in my pocket."

"You found it—where?—when you first entered the room."

"On the floor."

"By the desk? You repaired the lock, shot the bolt and pocketed the key?" The newspaper man was insistent.

"Of course."

"Then no one could enter the room while you were absent."

The detective did not answer; he was staring at the journalist. "You told me the Professor was unwounded. When you removed him to where he now lies," Frayne continued. "Then you locked this door and left the house."

"Yes."

The newspaper man smiled. He turned to the woman.

"You smoke a good deal, Mrs. Hampden."

"Sometimes." The widow showed astonishment.

"And usually use house matches? Boxes like this one, Mrs. Hampden?"

Frayne indicated the empty match-box.

The woman nodded, a startled look dawning in her fine eyes.

"Good! Now, may I trouble you for the second key to this door!"

"What do you mean?"

Grimes sprang to his feet "Frayne, do you know you are accusing—"

"The second key!" The journalist spoke imperatively. "Mrs. Hampden, where is it?"

"In my room." The woman covered her face with her hands.

"Jove!" The detective faced Mrs. Hampden, accusingly. "Then you—"

"A moment, Grimes," Frayne interposed. "You found the key by the desk some seven or eight feet from the door. Had it dropped from the lock, it could not have fallen there. It is obvious Professor Hampden locked the door and carried the key to his desk. Later, it was swept on to the floor."

"That does not explain Mrs. Hampden having a key," stated Grimes.

"Does it not? It was obvious that someone entered this room after you locked it."

"How?"

"Mrs. Hampden missed her husband from his bed. She came down and found this door fastened. An hour later Mrs. Hampden telephoned the Police that she could note get into the room, yet she had a second key."

Sudden suspicion clouded the detective's face. He swung around on the woman.

"Wait, Grimes!" Frayne laid a hand on the detective's arm. "We have another aspect of the case to consider."

"Well?"

"You told me there was no wound on the professor."

"There is not!"

"The professor jabbed his fountain-pen into the ball of his left index finger. Rather a nasty wound."

"But—"

"Bye the bye." The journalist continued. "Did the professor have anything in his hand when you found him?" Grimes answered. "I wanted to force it open but the doctors dissuaded me. If I thought that—"

"I thought so." The newspaperman interrupted. He produced from his breast pocket a crumpled paper.

"With this letter our case is complete."

"I should say it was!" A light of triumph blazed in the detective's eyes as he scanned the writing. "Here's the motive! Lucy Hampden, I arrest you for the murder of your—"

"Wait!" Frayne interposed. He glanced from the detective to the woman weeping on the couch.

"Mrs. Hampden, will you tell the story of last night—or shall I?"

"That's not fair, Frayne." The detective's sense of fair play overcame his curiosity. "I have to warn you, Mrs. Hampden, that any statement you make may be used against you."

"Or in your favour." the journalist spoke significantly. "Perhaps I had better tell the tale. There may be points Mrs. Hampden may miss."

"What more do you want than this?" Grimes tapped the letter. Here's the motive complete—

"A two-edged weapon," interjected Frayne. "Listen, you will remember I commented on the big interval of time between Mrs. Hampden going to the study door and telephoning the police."

"Yes?"

"I suggest Mrs. Hampden did not go to her room immediately after dinner. She followed her husband here, continuing the dispute that had arisen at the dinner table. Am I correct, Mrs. Hampden?"

The woman nodded.

"Dispute? Grimes interjected. Where so you get the dispute?

"Frayne laughed.

"I tell a tale as badly as you, Grimes. Let me commence again. Professor Hampden married a young and beautiful woman. Then, as many elderly bridegrooms do, returned to his work, leaving his bridge to amuse herself. By the way Mrs. Hampden you will correct me if I am in error."

The widow made a sign of assent.

"Among her friends Mrs. Hampden numbered a Mr Ralph Cummings. He is I believe a very young man—"

"He is only twenty—I am twenty-nine." Mrs. Hampden murmured.

"Quite so." The journalist's keen eyes lit with a flicker of amusement. "I shall not be wrong if I believe that Mr Cummings believed he had fallen deeply in love with Mrs. Hampden? Yes. And that he did not hesitate to express his feelings on paper."

"Here's the proof!" The detective again tapped the letter.

"How many of these letters were there, Mrs. Hampden?" queried Frayne.

"Three."

"And the third impassioned screed fell by accident into Professor Hampden's hands—and he is a violently jealous man."

"I told him he must not write—that he was acting foolishly. Mrs. Hampden commenced to cry again.

"Let me continue." Frayne continued after a pause. "This letter arrived by the late afternoon post and became mixed with the professor's mail. He opened it unwittingly. Mrs. Hampden did not return home until just before dinner. During that meal the storm broke."

"He accused me of—of awful things. He said he would divorce me."

"The letter was indiscrete to a degree. The dispute continued through the meal, Mrs. Hampden trying to convince her husband of her innocence. Suddenly the professor jumped up from the table and went to his study. Mrs. Hampden made to follow, but he slammed the door in her face and locked it, removing the key and putting it on the corner of his desk."

"But how did the murderer get in?" exclaimed the detective.

"Am I right so far?"

Mrs. Hampden nodded assent. A Light of hope shone in her eyes.

"Then Mr Hampden went to her room and remained there for some time. At length she decided to again seek a reconciliation with her husband, and went to the study. He would not answer to her knock, or call.

"Mrs. Hampden returned to her room. She remembered that there was a second key to the study door. She found it and unlocked the door. The Professor was still jealously angry. For some time she tried to reason with him—and during that time she smoked at least four cigarettes—"

"Pure guessing!" Grimes interjected.

"The butts are in the fireplace. The actual number does not matter, except to indicate the length of time she stayed here. She lit her last cigarette with the last match in this box, then threw the box into the grate. It hit a corner of the fireplace and fell on the hearth-rug."

"So that's your match-box clue!" laughed Grimes.

"Sufficient to show me that Mrs. Hampden had been here smoking; for Professor Hampden did not indulge in that vice."

"I will now conclude my theory," continued the journalist. "Mrs. Hampden claimed her letter. Impatient and fearful, she snatched it from the desk where it lay and ran to the door. Hampden, after a struggle, succeeded in regaining possession of the letter, crunching it into a ball in his hand. In the struggle with Mrs. Hampden he tripped and fell heavily."

"But how was he murdered?" asked the detective. "There was no wound on him, when, I found him."

"There is how—the puncture on his left index finger."

"Mrs. Hampden watched her husband for some moments, then went to him. She found he was dead—that he had died from excitement and shock, reacting on a weak heart. In sudden fear she fled from the room, locking the door behind her.

"In her room, when more composed, she realised that she could not leave her husband in that condition. She rang up the police, determining to conceal the dispute, and its cause. I believe any reconstruction as correct, Mrs. Hampden."

"Yes."

"And that in the excitement you forgot retrieve the letter immediately?

"It was not until after you, Grimes and the doctors had left that Mrs. Hampden remembered the letter. She determined to regain it for, without explanation, it was exceedingly compromising. She returned to the study and searched. It was then she picked up the empty match-box and placed it on the mantel.

"Not finding the letter, she remembered the Professor had clutched it in his hand just prior to his fall—and death.

"Fearful and dreading, she went to the death-chamber to find that rigor mortis had set in—that she could not loosen his fingers. She searched for something to force the ball of paper out of his clasp. Finally, she returned to the study and fetched the Professor's pen. In her agitation she jabbed the nib into his left index finger. At last she retrieved the letter and thrust it into bosom of her dress.

"Unfortunately, Mrs. Hampden forgot that modern woman's clothes fit very loosely. The ball of paper slipped down to the floor and, accidentally she kicked it under the bed. I found it there when I dropped my magnifying glass!"

"Mere conjecture!" The detective snorted. "You say that wound on his finger was made after death. It might have been made during his life; the means whereby the poison was injected into his system."

"In that case the autopsy will show traces of poison." Frayne answered equably. "I'm staking my reputation against that. Again—"

"Well?"

"The wound did not bleed. A dead body will not bleed—and that puncture would have caused a live man to lose an appreciable quantity of blood. That was my first real clue. The second—"

"Go on, man!" The detective almost shouted. "The second—"

"The empty match-box. It showed Mrs. Hampden was in this room when she averred she was not. The rest I guessed—but you'll find I guessed right!"


THE END


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