IT is not, as a rule, an asset in favour of promotion for an obscure country policeman to succeed where the shining lights of Scotland Yard have failed. But this is precisely what happened in connection with the death of Mr. James Mirriton, of The Orchard House, Westborough. From the very first the Chief Constable had made up his mind that it was a case of suicide, and the people in London saw no reason to quarrel with this view. As a matter of fact, it was Constable George Cowtan who first viewed the body. He had been summoned hastily to the Orchard House by a frightened housekeeper, who aroused him with the information that her master was locked in the bathroom, and that she could get no reply. On Cowtan entering the house and breaking open the bathroom door, he found the unfortunate Mr. Mirriton lying dead on the floor in a pool of blood, which apparently flowed from a severed carotid artery, the wound had evidently been inflicted while the deceased was in the act of shaving, for his chin was covered with lather and a blood-stained razor lay upon the floor. Seeing that the bathroom door had been locked from the inside, there was only one conclusion to which to come. Further investigation confirmed the authorities in their view, Mr. Mirriton committed suicide, and there was an end of the matter so far as the Yard was concerned.
But it so happened that Constable George Cowtan possessed a clear grey eye, and something remarkable in the way of a chin. He had entered the police force with the deliberate intention of becoming a detective. He preferred the life in question to the dull routine of a village general shop, and he had read a vast deal of literature on the subject of crime. There were very few authorities that he had not at his finger-tips. Thus it came about that he took the liberty of calling on his district superintendent and asking for an opportunity for going further into the matter.
"You've got your work to do," the superintendent said.
"Then put me on night duty," Cowtan urged. "If you do that I shall have a few hours a day to myself. I honestly believe, sir, that I can clear this mystery up."
The superintendent nodded sympathetically. If there was any mystery here, and Cowtan could clear it up, then the reflected glory would be his.
"Very well, Cowtan," he said. "But what makes you think that there has been foul play here?"
"Well, sir," Cowtan said, modestly, "I've read a goodish bit of criminology. I know my Galton and Collins by heart. And I've got all the French text-books at home. When I came to think over that business of Mr. Mirriton's, it struck me that I'd read something like it before. And so I had, sir. Of course, some of the details are different, but the main outlines are the same. Now, why should Mr. Mirriton commit suicide? He was a vigorous old gentleman, a good sportsman, and he was getting a handsome income from his business in London. He was in the habit of going to town twice a week by the 8.30 train from here. In winter-time like this, when he was going to town he invariably got his own breakfast, which he cooked by means of a spirit stove, as he did not like to get his housekeeper up so early. On the morning of his death he was going to London as usual, and nobody was up at the time, when he ought to have left the house. Besides the housekeeper, Mr. Mirriton had his niece, Mrs. Glynn, staying with him. This is the young married lady with a husband who is rather delicate, and Mrs. Glynn came down here to borrow sufficient money for a tour on the Continent. This I got from the housekeeper. I also discovered that Mr. Mirriton derived most of his income from his business. At his death the business devolves upon a distant relative of his, a Mr. Patrick Hayes. Mr. Hayes is a bachelor, and spends a good deal of time down here. He is the little lean man who gave evidence at the inquest. He has been in the habit of spending two or three nights a week at The Orchard House—in fact, was more or less one of the family. He should have been here at the time of the tragedy, but he missed his train at Westborough Town, and telephoned that he could not get back that night.
"I hope I'm not wasting your time, sir, but these details are important. You see, sir, Mr. Mirriton was very fond of his niece, and being a somewhat extravagant man, spent his income. As he would have no share in the business to leave, he insured his life many years ago for twenty thousand pounds in favour of Mrs. Glynn. It was one of the old-fashioned policies, and, on the ground that he committed suicide, the insurance company naturally declines to pay."
"This is very interesting, Cowtan," the superintendent muttered.
"Indeed it is sir," Cowtan said, eagerly. "And it should have come out at the inquest. Mr. Mirriton was devoted to his niece and her child, and I am sure he would have never committed an act that would have deprived her of all that money. You may depend upon it, sir, that Mr. Mirriton was murdered."
"Have you got anything else?" the superintendent asked.
"Yes, sir, I have," Cowtan said, quietly. "If you will only give me an opportunity——"
So Cowtan went on his way with the assurance that he had a superior officer behind him. An hour or two later and he was seated in the dining-room of The Orchard House, discussing the matter with Mrs. Glynn. She was dressed in deep mourning, her pretty face was white and careworn.
"I will tell you all I know," she said, eagerly. "This has been a terrible shock to me. I cannot believe that my uncle took his own life. Apart from the loss of the money, I would give anything to remove this stain from my uncle's character. And goodness knows we need the money badly enough. It is absolutely essential that my husband should spend the winter in France. And now we cannot go. Please do not think me unduly selfish."
"I think I can alter things, madam," Cowtan said modestly. "If I can prove my theory then you will get your money. Would you mind answering a few questions? On the night before the tragedy who slept in the house?"
"The housekeeper and myself," Mrs. Glynn explained. "Mr Hayes ought to have been down here, only he missed the connection."
"And came on in the morning, I suppose?"
"No, I think he went back to town. He telephoned rather late in the evening from Westborough Town, explaining the reason why he could not get here. I took the message myself."
"You did? Trunk call, of course?" Cowtan asked.
"Oh, yes. Westborough must be at least ten miles. I remember the exchange telling me that we were on the trunk. But, really, I quite fail to see——"
Cowtan did not argue the point. He jotted down a few heads in his note book, and went away with an intimation that he would call later in the evening with a view to seeing Mr. Hayes, who was expected by the last train. The young detective was feeling fairly pleased with himself as he mounted his bicycle and made his way in the direction of Westborough Town. He had his official permit in his pocket, and there was no difficulty therefore in obtaining an interview with the superintendent of the local telephone exchange. Half an hour later, Cowtan came out of the office carrying a compact leather case in his hand. He rode back to Westborough and pulled up at the roadside where the telephone lines branched across the fields in the direction of The Orchard House. Apparently Mr. Mirriton's telephone had been an expensive luxury, for the wire from the main road to the house extended quite 800 yards. Cowtan took from his pocket a small but powerful pair of binoculars, and, walking along under the wires, examined them carefully inch by inch. By the third post, which was almost hidden in a clump of firs, he paused and scrutinised the copper threads minutely. A tiny pin point gleamed in the setting sun, and Cowtan closed his glasses with a triumphant snap.
It was a little after nine when the young detective called upon Mr. Patrick Hayes. These two had met before during the inquest, so that Cowtan had little to learn as to the outward and visible appearance of the man whom he had come to see. Hayes was small and slight, his left leg dragged painfully, and his hands shook in a manner that suggested some natural infirmity. His eye was clear enough, there was no trace of dissipation on his features, so that it was difficult to assign a reason for that palsied tremor in the long, slim fingers. In his own quiet way, Cowtan made a mental photograph of these characteristics for future reference. There was one little thing he noticed, and this pleased him more than all the rest. He had a tiny scrap of paper in his pocket-book which he intended to produce with deadly effect a little later on. He was wondering how Hayes with that terribly shaky hand, managed to shave himself so effectually. He did not fail to see that Hayes's cheek and chin was as soft and velvety as that of a little child. He looked as if he possessed a strong beard, too, if his coarse black hair and moustache counted for anything.
"I would like to ask you a question, sir, if you don't mind," Cowtan said. "You see, the insurance company are disposed to do something if we can only show a reasonable doubt——"
It seemed to the speaker that Hayes's manner became somewhat less guarded.
"I'll do all I can," he said. "Of course, between ourselves, the jury's verdict was a correct one."
"My chief is certain of it, sir," Cowtan said. "It's a great pity you weren't here the other night, sir."
"A thousand pities," Hayes agreed, heartily. "But I missed the connection at the junction, so that I had to put up at Westborough Town for the night."
"Not a pleasant place to stay in, sir," Cowtan said, genially.
"Oh I found the Railway Hotel passable enough," Hayes replied. "No bathroom or anything of that kind, of course——"
"And no shaving water," Cowtan smiled respectfully. "But when a man hasn't got his razors, it doesn't much matter."
Hayes responded pleasantly enough that his natural infirmity prevented him from shaving himself. Cowtan asked a few more questions of a trivial nature, and then rose to go.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, sir," he said. "But before I leave I should like just to have a minute or two in the bathroom, if I may. And if you happen to be down here again this week——"
"Couldn't possibly manage it," Hayes interrupted. "I have neglected the business this last week or so. Now go and amuse yourself—I mean, go up in the bathroom and have a look round if you like."
He gave a gesture of dismissal, and Cowtan respectfully saluted and left the room. The bathroom was a small slip of a place over the kitchen, and had been obviously adapted for the purpose. The window was a casement one of the old-fashioned type, with an iron upright against which the two sashes closed. There was a looking-glass here, a shaving-table, and a fire-place, from all of which it was evident that the unfortunate Mirriton had used the place as a dressing-room. The windows were open now; indeed, it was only fair to assume that Mr. Hayes invariably preferred them that way, seeing that he was a strong advocate for fresh air, and had often boasted that never had he slept or breathed in any room with the window closed. Cowtan stood pondering here for a few minutes until an object caught his attention, and he took it eagerly in his hand.
"Two of them," he muttered. "Now, I wonder if I dare take this, or shall I leave it behind? Perhaps I had better leave it, seeing that I have evidence enough already. Yes, I think I'll risk leaving it."
Once at home in the seclusion of his own room, Cowtan began to fit his facts together. He went over all the ground carefully and thoughtfully, then he produced from his pocket book a scrap of paper which apparently had formed a portion of an envelope. It must have been an exceedingly small envelope, scarcely more than an inch and a quarter by three quarters. It was made of some thin tough paper, which apparently had been smeared with grease or vaseline on the inside. On this fragment, in faint brown letters, a portion of an address was printed. Cowtan made it out thus:
" ... plane Co., Ltd., ....pector, 0125."
"So far so good," Cowtan muttered. "It's only a tiny clue, of course, but unless I'm greatly mistaken, it's going to hang a man before I've finished. The great weakness of the clever criminal very often is that he is too clever. When a man's tracks are practically blind, there is no occasion to make them appear blinder still. And that's where my man has been so foolish. Now, I'll just send this to London, and see what they say about it. And if my suspicions are correct, I shall have no trouble in getting a search warrant both here and in London."
Cowtan sat down and concocted a somewhat cautious letter, the address of which sounded prosaic enough, but at the same time, perhaps, destined to produce a reply which would go far to solve the mystery of The Orchard House. As a matter of fact, the letter was addressed as follows:
"The Monoplane Safety Razor Co. Ltd.,
"Gentlemen,—I am desired by a Superintendent Gregory of Westborough, to call your attention to the enclosed envelope, which has obviously contained a blade for use in connection with one of your safety razors. You will notice that though the fragment is torn it still contains the number of your inspector who passed the parcel from which the blade came, and certified them for use. I understand that your system enables you to trace the retailer or private individual to whom all blades are sold. I quite appreciate the difficulty there will be in the case of a sale over the counter, but I understand these blades are frequently faulty, and that if customers write to you direct you are always willing to supply fresh blades. It may happen that you are in a position to inform us the name of the person to whom the blade originally wrapped in the enclosed envelope was sent.
"If you can accommodate us in this respect you will be rendering the police a distinct service. If you will communicate with me by telephone to the Police-station, Westborough, I shall be obliged.—Yours respectfully,
"George Cowtan, Constable."
It was fine and sunny in the morning as Cowtan made his way in the direction of The Orchard House. He did not call this time, but made his way round to the garden on to which the bathroom looked. For the next two hours he searched with marvellous patience amongst the mass of shrubs and vegetables, within a radius of twenty yards from the house. His search was rewarded at length, for he seemed to be perfectly satisfied with an oblong scrap of rusty iron, which he put away as carefully as if it were made of gold. As he came round to the front of the house again he encountered Mrs. Glynn.
She came eagerly forward with questioning eyes. "Have you done anything?" she asked.
"I think I've done a good deal, madam," Cowtan said, quietly. "Within a few days you will have no further anxiety on the subject of your future. And you can help me, if you will be so good. I should like to go over the bedrooms, if I may; but I want to go without the knowledge of the housekeeper. She is rather a talkative woman, and I dare not take any risks just now."
"Then you'd better come in at once," Mrs. Glynn urged. "The housekeeper has just gone down to the village, and she is certain to be away for an hour."
But it was far less than an hour that served Cowtan's purpose. There was a smile of quiet triumph on his face as he left the house. Mrs. Glynn was awaiting him.
"You have discovered something?" she asked, eagerly.
"I have discovered a great deal, madam," Cowtan said, quietly. "I am certain now that Mr. Mirriton did not commit suicide. It is only a question of a few days, and I am sure that the insurance company will be perfectly satisfied. I can't tell you any more at present, but by the end of the week everything will be cleared up."
It was fully three days before Cowtan received his telephone message from the manager of the Monoplane Safety Razor Company. They had had no difficulty in tracing the purchaser of the blades in question, because it so happened that he had bought them from the head branch direct.
"It was a new razor," the manager went on. "It was purchased with the customary twelve from Diamond and Co., in Oxford-street. Unfortunately, the blades were faulty, and the gentleman who bought the razor wrote to us direct. He was very angry, and, of course, we were only too pleased to send him twelve fresh blades."
"One moment," Cowtan interrupted. "Let me clearly understand. Am I to take it that one of these changed blades was actually wrapped up in the envelope, a portion of which I sent you?"
"Most emphatically you can," the manager replied. "You see, we kept the letter of the gentleman who complained. We should do so in the ordinary course of business. We never like to offend customers. Especially a customer who has purchased two of our razors within the last year. If you would like to know his name and address, I shall be happy——"
"Not on the telephone," Cowtan interrupted, hastily. "I'll come to London this afternoon and see you. Then perhaps you won't mind making a statement in writing and lending me that letter for a day or two."
The manager was perfectly willing, and, with a feeling of pride in his work, Cowtan rang off. Outside in the corridor he came in contact with his superintendent.
"Running the office, eh," the latter said, jocularly. "What's all that telephoning about? And what are you going to London for?"
"I'm going to London, sir," Cowtan said, crisply, "to get the last piece of evidence which will enable you to arrest the person who murdered Mr. Mirriton. Oh, I've worked it all out, sir. By the time I come back this evening I'm quite certain that I shall be able to convince you that I am right. You will be able to get your warrant and arrest the murderer without any fuss."
The superintendent whistled softly. "I suppose you know what this means for you?" he asked.
"Promotion, I hope, sir," Cowtan said, modestly. "I'm sanguine that they may give me a chance at Scotland Yard. I expect to be back by the seven o'clock train, and I should like to come round, if I may, to your house and discuss the matter afterwards."
"Come and have some supper," the superintendent said, heartily. "I hope this will be a good thing for you; and it won't be a bad thing for me if it comes to that. Well, good luck to you, and may you not be mistaken."
There was nothing wild or excited about Cowtan as he entered the superintendent's sitting-room at eight o'clock the same night. He ate his supper heartily, and took the cigar which his superior officer proffered to him.
"Now, in one word," said the latter, "who is the man?"
"The man who murdered Mr. Mirriton is his cousin, Patrick Hayes," Cowtan explained. "I have the proofs here."
"But the man was away at the time. He telephoned from Westborough Town saying that he had missed his connection. All that came out in the evidence at the inquest."
"I'm glad you mentioned that, sir," Cowtan said, "because that's exactly what Mr. Hayes did not do. You see, I was the first person to see the body. While they were sending for you, I spent my time in looking about. And I dropped upon what occurred to me to be a clue. I had to deduce one or two points. But I was quite justified by results."
"Stop a bit," the superintendent said. "Give me a pointer or two. What did you discover in the bathroom?"
"Well, sir, I discovered that Mr. Mirriton had not cut his throat with the razor that was found close by the body. I didn't say anything of this at the inquest, because if I had I should certainly have scared my man away. Now, Mr. Mirriton was an old-fashioned type of English gentleman—the sort of man that hates change. If you look at the razors in this case you will see that they are of a very antiquated type. The razor he was supposed to be shaving with had blood smeared all along the edge. If it had been used to sever the artery, the blood would have been sprinkled over it. I had that razor in my hand, and I made a startling discovery at once. The blade had been smeared with vaseline. The edge was so dull that it would not even cut a bit of paper. The other razor in the case was in fine fettle. I contend that one of the razors went wrong, and that Mr. Mirriton had smeared it with vaseline, intending to take it to London some of these early days and get it properly set. Therefore, I felt sure that he could not have cut his throat with that weapon, and, as the other razor was folded in the case, some other means of destroying life had been adopted. Now, having established my theory of the murder, I had to decide whether the guilty party had entered the bathroom from inside the house or from without. The bathroom window was some sixteen or seventeen feet from the ground, and as I could find no marks of a ladder, I decided that the murderer was in the house at the time Mr. Mirriton entered the bathroom."
"Go on, Cowtan," the superintendent said, encouragingly.
"Thank you, sir. It couldn't be the housekeeper or Mrs. Glynn. And I found something else in the bathroom which I will mention presently. You will see just now how my second discovery turned my attention towards Mr. Patrick Hayes. I put a few adroit questions to Mrs. Glynn and elicited the fact that Mr. Hayes ought to have been here on the night of the murder, but that he unfortunately missed his connection at Westborough Town, and telephoned from there that he could not get back. This struck me as being rather a clever alibi in its way."
"If the exchange people were in collusion."
"There was no occasion even for that. I don't suppose that you've noticed that the telephone wires extend eight hundred yards from the road across the fields to The Orchard House. It would be an easy matter for Hayes to come here and cut the wires, and thus obtain contact with the house by means of what telephone linesmen call a "tapper." As a matter of fact, Hayes did this. He spoke in an assumed voice as if he were a trunk operator, and then, in his natural tone, told Mrs. Glynn that he could not get back. The repairing of the wire was an easy matter, and that is exactly how he established his alibi. I can show you to-morrow, if you like, exactly where the wire was cut and a fresh piece connected up with the insulator. More than this, I have it from the exchange at Westborough Town that there was no trunk call from there to The Orchard House on the day in question. Hayes informed me that he spent that night at the Station Hotel, though, as a matter of fact, they had not a single guest in the house."
"That doesn't prove much," the superintendent said—"I mean, it doesn't actively connect Hayes with the crime."
"I'm coming to that, sir," Cowtan went on. "This is what I found in the bathroom."
He took from his pocket-book a scrap of paper, in which the blade of the safety razor had been enclosed, and proceeded to unfold that side of the story.
"That's interesting," the superintendent murmured.
"I thought it would be," Cowtan said. "I picked up that bit of paper in the bathroom grate, and I found the blade that came out of it in the garden. Hayes was cunning enough to tell me he did not shave himself, but in his bedroom I found a Monoplane Safety Razor with the blade in use. There were ten blades in the case, and this one I now produce from my pocket makes a dozen. I can produce evidence to prove that those actual twelve blades were purchased from the Monoplane people, and his letter to them ordering the same I have on me now. I have not the slightest doubt that Hayes came back to The Orchard House very late on the night of the murder and let himself in with his latch-key. A little later—and that prying housekeeper will tell us how deeply in debt he is. But that's a digression, sir. I don't profess to say exactly how the murder was committed, but probably Hayes followed his employer into the bathroom and attacked him from behind. A blow might have rendered him partially insensible, and while he was on the floor the deed was done. I expect, if we knew the truth, Hayes had a fresh blade for his razor in his hand—indeed, he must have done so, or I should not have found the envelope in the grate. All he had to do was to draw the blade across the throat of his victim, and the thing was done. After that he locked the bathroom door, and dropped lightly through the window to the ground. And that's about all I've got to tell you. It is for you to say, sir, whether I've given you enough to justify you in applying for a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Patrick Hayes."
The superintendent pitched his cigar into the fireplace. "Excellent, Cowtan, excellent!" he cried. "I'll just go across to the nearest magistrate and swear an information. You shall go with me to London to-morrow, and help me to effect the arrest. And it won't be my fault if they don't hear a good deal about this at Scotland Yard."