A PLUME of smoke drifted under the great glass dome of Slagborough Station as the Northern Express came slowly to a standstill. It was getting late now, and station was almost deserted. The blue flare of the big arc lamps picked out the lettering on the posters so that they seemed to dance in an eddy of colour, as seen through the half opaque curtain of fog which for the last two or three nights had lain over England like a pall. It was an unusual time, of year for a visitation of that kind, being nearly the end of March, in the last quarter of the moon, so that the nights had been very dark.
The express crept along the platform like a green-and-gold snake that is full of fire, for the electric lights were turned on, and here and there the blinds had not been lowered. Along the platform, almost alone, came the ticket collector, for this was the first stop since the express had left London, and no further examination of tickets would be made that side of Newcastle. The express in question was not a corridor train, but consisted of three Pullman cars and a number of first-class carriages. As the collector passed along from the engine downwards, he came at length to a compartment the blinds of which were drawn, so that it might have been assumed that the compartment in question was empty. But it was no business of the man on duty to assume anything of the sort, so he opened the door and mechanically uttered his parrot cry. The compartment was empty, except that one passenger was huddled up in a far corner, with his head upon his breast, as if he had lapsed into slumber. He was an elderly man, clean-shaven, and dressed in a suit of black—a business man, obviously, probably a merchant or something of that kind. Three times did the collector repeat the request, then he crossed the carriage and laid his hand on the sleeper's shoulder.
A moment later, white and shaken, he was racing down the platform in the direction of the guard's van. That individual, important in his blue and silver, was only waiting for the signal to start.
"Well, Joe," he said impatiently, "what is it?"
"I dunno," the ticket collector stammered. "But there's a passenger all by 'imself in a first-class carriage dahn there, and 'e's dead. Looks to me as if 'e'd bin murdered. There's blood all over 'is shirt-front an' on the floor. I goes in to ask 'im for 'is ticket, an' there I finds 'im as I'm telling you. Anyway, the pore chap's dead."
"Murdered be hanged!" the startled guard exclaimed. "That's impossible. Why, the train 'asn't stopped since we left London, an' there wasn't no murdered man in the train then, I'll take my oath. Besides which, if anybody'd murdered 'im, 'ow could 'e possibly 'ave left the train?"
"Well, then, 'e's murdered 'isself!" the ticket collector said hoarsely. "You come along an' see."
Now, time and express trains wait for no man, and it was only a few minutes before the compound engine was on its way again. The dead man had been removed, and, pending an inquest, the body had been locked up in one of the waiting-rooms. It was some days before any clue to the identity of the deceased was made public, and then it transpired that he was a certain Jabez Thornton, a comparatively well-known business man, who had an office in London, and who resided practically alone in a small house on the borders of Essex. A few more details came out at the inquest, but not many. To begin with, the dead man Thornton was travelling to Newcastle, as the ticket found in his pocket showed, and there was nothing with him in the way of luggage, not even so much as a hand-bag. He had joined the train in London, of course, and his ticket had been examined and clipped on the platform, previous to the departure of the train, in the ordinary way. There was nothing on the body besides a watch and chain and purse and a pocket-book containing a few letters addressed to Thornton in the ordinary way of business.
At the adjourned inquiry the only witness called was the dead man's housekeeper, Maria Flinn. According to her evidence, her master was an exceedingly reticent man, who never spoke to her except when absolutely necessary. He was in the habit of going to London most days, and invariably returned to his cottage by tea-time. He seemed to care nothing what he ate or drank, he had no friends and no weaknesses, and it was his invariable custom, whatever the weather was like, to go for a walk after tea and return to supper at nine o'clock. Mrs. Flinn never knew whether her master had come back or not. Occasionally he would go off after breakfast, and remain away for two or three days without saying a word to her about it. It was her duty to get the meals just the same, and if they were wasted, it was no business of hers.
On the night of the tragedy Thornton had gone out as usual, and when ten o'clock came and he had not returned, the housekeeper locked up and went to bed as usual. She was not in the least alarmed, because the same thing had happened before. No doubt her master had gone to London by one of the numerous suburban trains, with a view to catching the Northern Express, and presumably, when he did that sort of thing, he picked up his portmanteau, or whatever he took with him, at his office. Certainly he had left the cottage in plenty of time to get up to London and catch the Northern Express, which left the terminus shortly before seven o'clock.
For the present, this was all the public were likely to learn. It was not a particularly interesting case, and made no definite appeal to popular imagination. To begin with, it transpired that Thornton was a money-lender as well as an ordinary business man. He had a dingy office in the City, where he was practically unknown; he only employed one clerk, and that a mere drudge, who really knew nothing about his master's affairs. For some reason or another, he had taken his own life, and there was an end to the mystery so far as the general public was concerned.
But Inspector Thomas Fadden, of Scotland Yard, who had the case in hand, was by no means of the same opinion. To begin with, his investigations snowed him no reason whatever why that hard, grasping old man should put an end to his own life. There was nothing about him to indicate any tendency of the kind. He was a man who lived by line and rule, with one object in life, and that the piling up of money. His business as a money-lender appeared to be somewhat extensive, but that branch of the concern had been carried on entirely by the dead man at his cottage, through the medium of the post office. Apparently it had been the one enjoyment of his life.
Obviously this was not the type of man who committed suicide. And if he had stabbed himself in the left breast, as people seemed to imagine, then what had become of the weapon? Thornton had been killed by one clean stroke that must have taken instantaneous effect, and, this being so, it was certain that he would have been in no condition to struggle to his feet and throw the knife out of the window. Moreover, the window was fastened and the blinds down, when the body was found, and there was no evidence whatever of a struggle. Thornton had lain back in the corner of the carriage as peacefully as if he had been asleep. There was nothing whatever in this evidence even to suggest suicide.
But, on the contrary, Thornton was alone in the carriage, the blinds were down, and the door opposite the platform was locked, and, moreover, there was evidence to the effect that the train had not stopped between London and Slagborough. How, then, had the crime been committed? Obviously, not in London. On a crowded platform, with brilliant lights, it would be impossible for anybody to commit an offence like this and escape detection. Fadden was clearly puzzled, but at the same time he clung obstinately to his theory that the man in the corner of the first-class carriage had been murdered. But how—why—when? Fadden would have given a good deal to know.
As yet he had not carried out his intention of going down into Essex to examine the dead man's effects, with the intention of finding some clue there. Instead, he haunted the railway stations, and made the lives of the officials there a burden to them. The best part of a week had elapsed before he stumbled, more or less by accident, on a piece of information which he ought to have had days before. It came through a platform inspector, and dropped from his lips as if it had no value whatever.
"What's that you're saying?" Fadden asked.
"Oh, it's nothing," the official said carelessly. "I was only sayin' to the superintendent here that after to-night there'll be no occasion to stop the Northern Express outside Foxhill Tunnel any longer."
Fadden forced himself to smile.
"Isn't Foxhill in Essex?" he asked. "Isn't it just this side of Withington?"
"Oh, yes, that's right. We've bin makin' some repairs in the tunnel, which have been delayed by all the fog we had last week. You see, we've got a big gang of men working there, and as one of them was seriously injured a little time ago, we had to pull up the trains this side of the tunnel for two or three minutes, and whistle so that those chaps could get out of the way. It often happens in foggy weather."
Fadden said nothing; he was too busy with his own thoughts. Then he turned to the man on the platform and asked a question.
"Look here," he said, "I have got an idea that might help me. Where is the carriage now in which the body of Jabez Thornton was found? If it doesn't happen to be running, I should very much like to have a look at it."
"Oh, of course we know which it is, but I don't suppose it's in the yard at present. Come in here to-morrow evening about tea-time, and I'll have it slipped for you."
"I will," Fadden said emphatically, "I will."
To the ordinary eye the carriage conveyed nothing. Fadden, however, examined it with the greatest care, especially the woodwork on the inside frame of the windows, and, when he had finished, he smiled with the air of a man who feels that he has not been wasting his time. And yet, outwardly, what he had discovered did not appear to amount to much. It was merely that some time, more or less recently, someone had apparently pasted a sheet of paper over the window of the carriage door—a sheet of white paper—which had subsequently been torn away, leaving nothing but just the corners of the paper where they had been pasted. But this discovery kept Inspector Fadden very busy thinking for the next hour or two, during which time he was on his way to Withington, with a view to spending an evening, if necessary, inside Thornton's cottage.
So far, nothing had been disturbed. The police had the key of Thornton's safe—which they had taken possession of directly his identity had been established—and the same key was at that moment in Fadden's pocket. He had not told anybody, and Scotland Yard had been equally reticent, that a large sum of money in notes, which Thornton had drawn on the morning of his death, and had taken with him down to Withington, was missing. So far, no close examination had been made of the mass of papers which were still lying on Thornton's desk. But it was quite another matter now, and it was more than possible that an inspection of those papers would lead Fadden a long way down the road which he had begun to travel since he had heard that for several nights during the past week the Northern Express had been pulled up at the entrance to Foxhill Tunnel. That the authorities had not informed Fadden of this, the latter regarded as a piece of incredible stupidity; but, on the other hand, the average railway official is not exactly a good judge of the value of criminal evidence.
At any rate, Fadden plunged into his task with fresh zest and interest. At the end of an hour he had thrown most of the papers aside as quite useless for his purpose, and had concentrated his attention on a letter which he had found lying on the blotting-pad. It was quite a clean blotting-pad, with no mark upon it except the figures 18975, jotted down on one corner of the grey pad in pencil, evidently a memorandum of some kind made by Thornton just before his death. In his methodical way Fadden took down the figures in his pocket-book. Then he proceeded to read the letter. It was headed "19, Queen Street, Gray's Inn Road," and, in a neat, feminine hand , ran as follows:—
I enclose you a five-pound note herewith, which, I regret to say, is all I can do for the moment. I know it is only half the amount I should have sent as promised, but I have been disappointed to-day with regard to some money I expected for my last lot of designs, and you shall have the other five pounds on Sunday. I pray you not to be hard upon me, because, if I lose my little home here, my child and myself will be turned out in the street to starve. I know my husband treated you badly; I know that he robbed you of money by giving you a forged cheque, and that you cashed it for him. But he is not entirely bad, and there was a time when he was as good a husband as any woman might wish. He has been very unfortunate lately, and for a long time has been unable to procure an engagement on the music-hall stage. You know how clever a lightning artist he is, and he cannot be out of work for long. He hopes to get an engagement in Newcastle next week, when he has promised to send me some money. As soon as he does, I will forward you the whole of it. I implore you not to be hard upon ine, for the sake of the child.
There was a memorandum scribbled across the letter, just the words "take proceedings to-morrow." Fadden smiled grimly as he read the note.
"A hard man," he murmured, "a cruelly hard man. And that letter speaks for itself. It's a whole human tragedy in a few lines. Now, let me see. Here is a man whom Thornton could have prosecuted at any moment, a man who owed him money, and whose wife was doing her best to pay it off. Inside this letter was a five-pound note, and the letter reached Thornton, according to the postmark, a few minutes before he set out on that journey from which he never returned. I wonder what became of that five-pound note? It isn't in the safe, because there was no money found there at all, so that the fiver in question was probably stolen with the other notes, or possibly all that money was on Thornton at the time he was killed! Here, stop a minute. Now, I wouldn't mind making a small bet that these pencilled figures on the blotting-pad represent the number of that five-pound note. It's just what a careful man in a hurry would do. It's no clue, of course, but one never knows when these things are likely to prove useful. There are no trivial details in our business."
It was an hour later before Fadden turned into Queen Street and asked for Mrs. Gaylord, at No. 19. He found himself presently talking to a little, faded woman with a very white and pathetic face, that must have been pretty and attractive before care and trouble had aged it so terribly. The woman's eyes had a suggestion of fear in them as she stood before Fadden in a neat little sitting-room, waiting for him to speak. There were signs of the grimmest poverty all round him—signs which were more or less contradicted by the somewhat substantial cold meal that stood on the table.
"What can I do for you?" the woman asked fearfully.
"Well, I don't know that you can do anything," Fadden smiled. "At any rate, you've nothing to be afraid of, though I have told you who I am. Now, I am inquiring into the death of a man named Thornton, and it is my business not to leave anything undone. You know the man I am speaking of, of course—in fact, you and your husband owe him money. I know that because I have seen a letter from you to him, enclosing a five-pound note. It may save a good deal of trouble if you tell me where you got that money from."
"From Barker's, of St. Paul's Churchyard," the woman said simply. "I work for them— at least, I do designs for them in colour. On the day I sent that money to Mr. Thornton the firm paid me five pounds in gold, and I got Mr. Gange, the grocer at the corner of the road, to exchange it for a note. You see, I am so poor that every penny is important to me, and that is why I did not send a postal order."
Fadden nodded thoughtfully. So far, he was quite satisfied that the woman was telling the truth—at any rate, it would be an easy matter to verify it—and, of course, he was aware of the fact that that piece of precious paper had reached Thornton previous to his death.
"I don't want to hurt your feelings," Fadden went on, "but I gather from that letter of yours that your husband has obtained money from Thornton by false pretences, and I take it you have been paying it off by instalments."
The woman's sensitive face quivered.
"That's quite true," she said. "I have been paying it off for two years, and cruel hard work it has been, with my husband out of employment most of the time. And that man made me promise to pay double the money. Ah, he was a hard man, was Jabez Thornton!"
"So it seems," Fadden said dryly. "And is your husband out of work now? Has he sent you anything lately? Your supper-table rather suggests that he has."
"Well, he did. He wrote to me from Newcastle, where he is now employed at a music-hall, and he actually forwarded me a five-pound note. It's in the letter there on the mantelpiece at the present moment. In the ordinary way, I should have forwarded it to Mr. Thornton, but, now that he is dead, there is no such great hurry, and whoever comes into his money will never be as cruelly hard as he was."
"We'll hope not," Fadden said. "Now, I am a police officer, and whatever you say to me is in confidence. It may save you a good deal of unpleasantness, and me one or two journeys, if you allow me to see that letter. I am not suggesting that I have any charge against your husband, but, you understand, I like to clear up things as I go along."
The letter was handed over without the slightest hesitation. It was a careless, heartless epistle, written in an unsteady hand that told its own tale, and enclosing a five-pound note, with an intimation that there was plenty more to come, and that the writer had struck some mysterious vein of extraordinary good luck. There were no regrets and no inquiries—in fact, there were not more than a dozen carelessly written lines altogether. Still, Fadden turned it over in his hand thoughtfully before he replaced the note inside. Then, just, as he was doing so, the number in the corner struck him.
Now, Fadden was a man with a good memory, he was trained to observe trifles, and, above all, he understood the necessity of keeping himself well in hand on all occasions; but, hardened as he was, he had to bite his lips to keep back the cry that struggled in the back of his throat. For here, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was a real tangible clue. The numbers on the note exactly coincided with those that Thornton had pencilled on the corner of his blotting-pad. It was one of those coincidences that the police so often meet with, and which have been the means of sending more than one scoundrel to the scaffold. For beyond question the bank-note which Mrs. Gaylord had earned by the sweat of her brow, and had sent on to her hard taskmaster on the day of his death, had found its way back to her husband within a few hours of the tragedy, and in return he had sent it on to the woman who, all unconsciously, was handing him over to justice. Without another word Fadden passed over the letter and walked out of the house.
He knew exactly what to do now. He had the address of Richard Gaylord in Newcastle, and there he proceeded on the following day. Quite as he expected, the man he was in search of was unknown in any of the music-halls on Tyneside. He found him presently at a small public-house, breakfasting in a little sitting-room. The man was bloodshot as to his eyes, and unshaven, and obviously had not yet recovered from what he himself would term "a thick night." He looked up uneasily as Fadden entered the room.
"What's your business here?" he muttered.
"My name is Fadden, and I am an inspector from Scotland Yard," the detective said crisply. "I have a warrant for your arrest for the murder of Jabez Thornton at Withington, in Essex, on the night of Tuesday last week. You can make any statement you like, but it will be used in evidence against you. When I have handed you over to the police here, I am going round to Wharf Street to arrest your accomplice, Venner."
The man sitting at the table fell forward with a cry. He collapsed into his chair, a pitiful picture of fear and terror. There was no sign of a light left in him.
"It's all up," he groaned, " and I thought we had worked it so cleverly, too! That devil has had me under his thumb for years. And Venner was in his grip as well. We paid him for what we did twice over already. But how did you know that Venner was in it with me?"
Fadden smiled mysteriously. As a matter of fact, he was going to arrest the man called Venner purely on suspicion. He knew that these men were never to be found far apart, and that they had been under the eye of the police for years.
"Oh, all right," Gaylord said sullenly. "You needn't say, unless you like, but how did you find it out?"
"It wasn't as difficult as it looked," Fadden said. "Now, you knew all about Mr. Thornton's habits—you knew that he was fond of walking about in the dark along the country lanes, and that one of his favourite strolls was over Foxhill. You probably waited for foggy weather, and hung about near the tunnel, so that you could waylay your victim in a lonely spot and murder him. I suppose your idea was to get hold of his keys and rob his safe when he was out of the way. But you were saved that trouble, because Mr. Thornton had a large sum of money in his pocket when you killed him. But it really was a brilliant idea to take advantage of the foggy weather, and your knowledge that just then the Northern Express was stopped outside the tunnel. Now, one of you hung about and committed the murder, whilst the other one went to London and took a first-class ticket to Newcastle. Whoever that was secured a carriage to himself by a judicious half-crown to a railway porter. Then over the carriage window on the proper side was pasted a piece of tissue-paper with holes made in it for identification purposes. When the train pulled up in the fog, it was an easy matter for the man in the first-class carriage to get out, knowing that his accomplice was waiting for him, and manage to get the dead man's body into the compartment. The clipped railway ticket was placed in his pocket, and the door carefully closed. It really was a fine idea, and, but for an accident, the truth might never have come out. But, unfortunately, on the day of Mr. Thornton's death, he received from your wife a five-pound note on account of your debt, and this the recipient recorded. That five-pound note was in his pocket with the other notes when he was killed. The big block of notes you and your comrade have not dared to get rid of yet, but you sent that fatal fiver to your wife, and then I knew beyond question that you had a hand in that crime. You can correct me if I am wrong, but I don't think I am. And now, if you have anything to say—"
"It's all up!" Gaylord muttered hoarsely. "I did it, right enough, and I don't know that I regret it, either."