John Thorndyke's Cases - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke is a fictional detective in a long series of novels and short stories by British author R. Austin Freeman (1862–1943). Thorndyke was described by his author as a 'medical jurispractitioner': originally a medical doctor, he turned to the bar and became one of the first — in modern parlance — forensic scientists. His solutions were based on his method of collecting all possible data (including dust and pond weed) and making inferences from them before looking at any of the protagonists and motives in the crimes. (Freeman, it is said, conducted all experiments mentioned in the stories himself.) It is this method which gave rise to one of Freeman's most ingenious inventions, the inverted detective story, where the criminal act is described first and the interest lies in Thorndyke's subsequent unravelling of it.

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R. Austin Freeman


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THERE ARE, I SUPPOSE, FEW places even on the East Coast of England more lonely and remote than the village of Little Sundersley and the country that surrounds it. Far from any railway, and some miles distant from any considerable town, it remains an outpost of civilization, in which primitive manners and customs and old-world tradition linger on into an age that has elsewhere forgotten them. In the summer, it is true, a small contingent of visitors, adventurous in spirit, though mostly of sedate and solitary habits, make their appearance to swell its meagre population, and impart to the wide stretches of smooth sand that fringe its shores a fleeting air of life and sober gaiety; but in late September—the season of the year in which I made its acquaintance—its pasture-lands lie desolate, the rugged paths along the cliffs are seldom trodden by human foot, and the sands are a desert waste on which, for days together, no footprint appears save that left by some passing sea-bird.

I had been assured by my medical agent, Mr. Turcival, that I should find the practice of which I was now taking charge “an exceedingly soft billet, and suitable for a studious man;” and certainly he had not misled me, for the patients were, in fact, so few that I was quite concerned for my principal, and rather dull for want of work. Hence, when my friend John Thorndyke, the well-known medico-legal expert, proposed to come down and stay with me for a weekend and perhaps a few days beyond, I hailed the proposal with delight, and welcomed him with open arms.

“You certainly don’t seem to be overworked, Jervis,” he remarked, as we turned out of the gate after tea, on the day of his arrival, for a stroll on the shore. “Is this a new practice, or an old one in a state of senile decay?”

“Why, the fact is,” I answered, “there is virtually no practice. Cooper—my principal—has been here about six years, and as he has private means he has never made any serious effort to build one up; and the other man, Dr. Burrows, being uncommonly keen, and the people very conservative, Cooper has never really got his foot in. However, it doesn’t seem to trouble him.”

“Well, if he is satisfied, I suppose you are,” said Thorndyke, with a smile. “You are getting a seaside holiday, and being paid for it. But I didn’t know you were as near to the sea as this.”

We were entering, as he spoke, an artificial gap-way cut through the low cliff, forming a steep cart-track down to the shore. It was locally known as Sundersley Gap, and was used principally, when used at all, by the farmers’ carts which came down to gather seaweed after a gale.

“What a magnificent stretch of sand!” continued Thorndyke, as we reached the bottom, and stood looking out seaward across the deserted beach. “There is something very majestic and solemn in a great expanse of sandy shore when the tide is out, and I know of nothing which is capable of conveying the impression of solitude so completely. The smooth, unbroken surface not only displays itself untenanted for the moment, but it offers convincing testimony that it has lain thus undisturbed through a considerable lapse of time. Here, for instance, we have clear evidence that for several days only two pairs of feet besides our own have trodden this gap.”

“How do you arrive at the ‘several days’?” I asked.

“In the simplest manner possible,” he replied. “The moon is now in the third quarter, and the tides are consequently neap-tides. You can see quite plainly the two lines of seaweed and jetsam which indicate the high-water marks of the spring-tides and the neap-tides respectively. The strip of comparatively dry sand between them, over which the water has not risen for several days, is, as you see, marked by only two sets of footprints, and those footprints will not be completely obliterated by the sea until the next spring-tide—nearly a week from to-day.”

“Yes, I see now, and the thing appears obvious enough when one has heard the explanation. But it is really rather odd that no one should have passed through this gap for days, and then that four persons should have come here within quite a short interval of one another.”

“What makes you think they have done so?” Thorndyke asked.

“Well,” I replied, “both of these sets of footprints appear to be quite fresh, and to have been made about the same time.”

“Not at the same time, Jervis,” rejoined Thorndyke. “There is certainly an interval of several hours between them, though precisely how many hours we cannot judge, since there has been so little wind lately to disturb them; but the fisherman unquestionably passed here not more than three hours ago, and I should say probably within an hour; whereas the other man—who seems to have come up from a boat to fetch something of considerable weight—returned through the gap certainly not less, and probably more, than four hours ago.”

I gazed at my friend in blank astonishment, for these events befell in the days before I had joined him as his assistant, and his special knowledge and powers of inference were not then fully appreciated by me.

“It is clear, Thorndyke,” I said, “that footprints have a very different meaning to you from what they have for me. I don’t see in the least how you have reached any of these conclusions.”

“I suppose not,” was the reply; “but, you see, special knowledge of this kind is the stock-in-trade of the medical jurist, and has to be acquired by special study, though the present example is one of the greatest simplicity. But let us consider it point by point; and first we will take this set of footprints which I have inferred to be a fisherman’s. Note their enormous size. They should be the footprints of a giant. But the length of the stride shows that they were made by a rather short man. Then observe the massiveness of the soles, and the fact that there are no nails in them. Note also the peculiar clumsy tread—the deep toe and heel marks, as if the walker had wooden legs, or fixed ankles and knees. From that character we can safely infer high boots of thick, rigid leather, so that we can diagnose high boots, massive and stiff, with nailless soles, and many sizes too large for the wearer. But the only boot that answers this description is the fisherman’s thigh-boot—made of enormous size to enable him to wear in the winter two or three pairs of thick knitted stockings, one over the other. Now look at the other footprints; there is a double track, you see, one set coming from the sea and one going towards it. As the man (who was bow-legged and turned his toes in) has trodden in his own footprints, it is obvious that he came from the sea, and returned to it. But observe the difference in the two sets of prints; the returning ones are much deeper than the others, and the stride much shorter. Evidently he was carrying something when he returned, and that something was very heavy. Moreover, we can see, by the greater depth of the toe impressions, that he was stooping forward as he walked, and so probably carried the weight on his back. Is that quite clear?”

“Perfectly,” I replied. “But how do you arrive at the interval of time between the visits of the two men?”

“That also is quite simple. The tide is now about halfway out; it is thus about three hours since high water. Now, the fisherman walked just about the neap-tide, high-water mark, sometimes above it and sometimes below. But none of his footprints have been obliterated; therefore he passed after high water—that is, less than three hours ago; and since his footprints are all equally distinct, he could not have passed when the sand was very wet. Therefore he probably passed less than an hour ago. The other man’s footprints, on the other hand, reach only to the neap-tide, high-water mark, where they end abruptly. The sea has washed over the remainder of the tracks and obliterated them. Therefore he passed not less than three hours and not more than four days ago—probably within twenty-four hours.”

As Thorndyke concluded his demonstration the sound of voices was borne to us from above, mingled with the tramping of feet, and immediately afterwards a very singular party appeared at the head of the gap descending towards the shore. First came a short burly fisherman clad in oilskins and sou’-wester, clumping along awkwardly in his great sea-boots, then the local police-sergeant in company with my professional rival Dr. Burrows, while the rear of the procession was brought up by two constables carrying a stretcher. As he reached the bottom of the gap the fisherman, who was evidently acting as guide, turned along the shore, retracing his own tracks, and the procession followed in his wake.

“A surgeon, a stretcher, two constables, and a police-sergeant,” observed Thorndyke. “What does that suggest to your mind, Jervis?”

“A fall from the cliff,” I replied, “or a body washed up on the shore.”

“Probably,” he rejoined; “but we may as well walk in that direction.”

We turned to follow the retreating procession, and as we strode along the smooth surface left by the retiring tide Thorndyke resumed:

“The subject of footprints has always interested me deeply for two reasons. First, the evidence furnished by footprints is constantly being brought forward, and is often of cardinal importance; and, secondly, the whole subject is capable of really systematic and scientific treatment. In the main the data are anatomical, but age, sex, occupation, health, and disease all give their various indications. Clearly, for instance, the footprints of an old man will differ from those of a young man of the same height, and I need not point out to you that those of a person suffering from locomotor ataxia or paralysis agitans would be quite unmistakable.”

“Yes, I see that plainly enough,” I said.

“Here, now,” he continued, “is a case in point.” He halted to point with his stick at a row of footprints that appeared suddenly above high-water mark, and having proceeded a short distance, crossed the line again, and vanished where the waves had washed over them. They were easily distinguished from any of the others by the clear impressions of circular rubber heels.

“Do you see anything remarkable about them?” he asked.

“I notice that they are considerably deeper than our own,” I answered.

“Yes, and the boots are about the same size as ours, whereas the stride is considerably shorter—quite a short stride, in fact. Now there is a pretty constant ratio between the length of the foot and the length of the leg, between the length of leg and the height of the person, and between the stature and the length of stride. A long foot means a long leg, a tall man, and a long stride. But here we have a long foot and a short stride. What do you make of that?” He laid down his stick—a smooth partridge cane, one side of which was marked by small lines into inches and feet—beside the footprints to demonstrate the discrepancy.

“The depth of the footprints shows that he was a much heavier man than either of us,” I suggested; “perhaps he was unusually fat.”

“Yes,” said Thorndyke, “that seems to be the explanation. The carrying of a dead weight shortens the stride, and fat is practically a dead weight. The conclusion is that he was about five feet ten inches high, and excessively fat.” He picked up his cane, and we resumed our walk, keeping an eye on the procession ahead until it had disappeared round a curve in the coast-line, when we mended our pace somewhat. Presently we reached a small headland, and, turning the shoulder of cliff, came full upon the party which had preceded us. The men had halted in a narrow bay, and now stood looking down at a prostrate figure beside which the surgeon was kneeling.

“We were wrong, you see,” observed Thorndyke. “He has not fallen over the cliff, nor has he been washed up by the sea. He is lying above high-water mark, and those footprints that we have been examining appear to be his.”

As we approached, the sergeant turned and held up his hand.

“I’ll ask you not to walk round the body just now, gentlemen,” he said. “There seems to have been foul play here, and I want to be clear about the tracks before anyone crosses them.”

Acknowledging this caution, we advanced to where the constables were standing, and looked down with some curiosity at the dead man. He was a tall, frail-looking man, thin to the point of emaciation, and appeared to be about thirty-five years of age. He lay in an easy posture, with half-closed eyes and a placid expression that contrasted strangely enough with the tragic circumstances of his death.

“It is a clear case of murder,” said Dr. Burrows, dusting the sand from his knees as he stood up. “There is a deep knife-wound above the heart, which must have caused death almost instantaneously.”

“How long should you say he has been dead, Doctor?” asked the sergeant.

“Twelve hours at least,” was the reply. “He is quite cold and stiff.”


+ Position of body.    A, Top of Shepherd’s Path.     B, Overhanging cliff.    C, Footpath along edge of cliff.     D D D, Tracks of Hearn’s shoes.     E, Tracks of the nailed shoes.     F, Shepherd’s Path ascending shelving cliff.

“Twelve hours, eh?” repeated the officer. “That would bring it to about six o’clock this morning.”

“I won’t commit myself to a definite time,” said Dr. Burrows hastily. “I only say not less than twelve hours. It might have been considerably more.”

“Ah!” said the sergeant. “Well, he made a pretty good fight for his life, to all appearances.” He nodded at the sand, which for some feet around the body bore the deeply indented marks of feet, as though a furious struggle had taken place. “It’s a mighty queer affair,” pursued the sergeant, addressing Dr. Burrows. “There seems to have been only one man in it—there is only one set of footprints besides those of the deceased—and we’ve got to find out who he is; and I reckon there won’t be much trouble about that, seeing the kind of trade-marks he has left behind him.”

“No,” agreed the surgeon; “there ought not to be much trouble in identifying those boots. He would seem to be a labourer, judging by the hob-nails.”

“No, sir; not a labourer,” dissented the sergeant. “The foot is too small, for one thing; and then the nails are not regular hob-nails. They’re a good deal smaller; and a labourer’s boots would have the nails all round the edges, and there would be iron tips on the heels, and probably on the toes too. Now these have got no tips, and the nails are arranged in a pattern on the soles and heels. They are probably shooting-boots or sporting shoes of some kind.” He strode to and fro with his notebook in his hand, writing down hasty memoranda, and stooping to scrutinize the impressions in the sand. The surgeon also busied himself in noting down the facts concerning which he would have to give evidence, while Thorndyke regarded in silence and with an air of intense preoccupation the footprints around the body which remained to testify to the circumstances of the crime.

“It is pretty clear, up to a certain point,” the sergeant observed, as he concluded his investigations, “how the affair happened, and it is pretty clear, too, that the murder was premeditated. You see, Doctor, the deceased gentleman, Mr. Hearn, was apparently walking home from Port Marston; we saw his footprints along the shore—those rubber heels make them easy to identify—and he didn’t go down Sundersley Gap. He probably meant to climb up the cliff by that little track that you see there, which the people about here call the Shepherd’s Path. Now the murderer must have known that he was coming, and waited upon the cliff to keep a lookout. When he saw Mr. Hearn enter the bay, he came down the path and attacked him, and, after a tough struggle, succeeded in stabbing him. Then he turned and went back up the path. You can see the double track between the path and the place where the struggle took place, and the footprints going to the path are on top of those coming from it.”

“If you follow the tracks,” said Dr. Burrows, “you ought to be able to see where the murderer went to.”

“I’m afraid not,” replied the sergeant. “There are no marks on the path itself—the rock is too hard, and so is the ground above, I fear. But I’ll go over it carefully all the same.”

The investigations being so far concluded, the body was lifted on to the stretcher, and the cortège, consisting of the bearers, the Doctor, and the fisherman, moved off towards the Gap, while the sergeant, having civilly wished us “Good-evening,” scrambled up the Shepherd’s Path, and vanished above.

“A very smart officer that,” said Thorndyke. “I should like to know what he wrote in his notebook.”

“His account of the circumstances of the murder seemed a very reasonable one,” I said.

“Very. He noted the plain and essential facts, and drew the natural conclusions from them. But there are some very singular features in this case; so singular that I am disposed to make a few notes for my own information.”

He stooped over the place where the body had lain, and having narrowly examined the sand there and in the place where the dead man’s feet had rested, drew out his notebook and made a memorandum. He next made a rapid sketch-plan of the bay, marking the position of the body and the various impressions in the sand, and then, following the double track leading from and to the Shepherd’s Path, scrutinized the footprints with the deepest attention, making copious notes and sketches in his book.

“We may as well go up by the Shepherd’s Path,” said Thorndyke. “I think we are equal to the climb, and there may be visible traces of the murderer after all. The rock is only a sandstone, and not a very hard one either.”

We approached the foot of the little rugged track which zigzagged up the face of the cliff, and, stooping down among the stiff, dry herbage, examined the surface. Here, at the bottom of the path, where the rock was softened by the weather, there were several distinct impressions on the crumbling surface of the murderer’s nailed boots, though they were somewhat confused by the tracks of the sergeant, whose boots were heavily nailed. But as we ascended the marks became rather less distinct, and at quite a short distance from the foot of the cliff we lost them altogether, though we had no difficulty in following the more recent traces of the sergeant’s passage up the path.

When we reached the top of the cliff we paused to scan the path that ran along its edge, but here, too, although the sergeant’s heavy boots had left quite visible impressions on the ground, there were no signs of any other feet. At a little distance the sagacious officer himself was pursuing his investigations, walking backwards and forwards with his body bent double, and his eyes fixed on the ground.

“Not a trace of him anywhere,” said he, straightening himself up as we approached. “I was afraid there wouldn’t be after all this dry weather. I shall have to try a different tack. This is a small place, and if those boots belong to anyone living here they’ll be sure to be known.”

“The deceased gentleman—Mr. Hearn, I think you called him,” said Thorndyke as we turned towards the village—"is he a native of the locality?”

“Oh no, sir,” replied the officer. “He is almost a stranger. He has only been here about three weeks; but, you know, in a little place like this a man soon gets to be known—and his business, too, for that matter,” he added, with a smile.

“What was his business, then?” asked Thorndyke.

“Pleasure, I believe. He was down here for a holiday, though it’s a good way past the season; but, then, he had a friend living here, and that makes a difference. Mr. Draper up at the Poplars was an old friend of his, I understand. I am going to call on him now.”

We walked on along the footpath that led towards the village, but had only proceeded two or three hundred yards when a loud hail drew our attention to a man running across a field towards us from the direction of the cliff.

“Why, here is Mr. Draper himself,” exclaimed the sergeant, stopping short and waving his hand. “I expect he has heard the news already.”

Thorndyke and I also halted, and with some curiosity watched the approach of this new party to the tragedy. As the stranger drew near we saw that he was a tall, athletic-looking man of about forty, dressed in a Norfolk knickerbocker suit, and having the appearance of an ordinary country gentleman, excepting that he carried in his hand, in place of a walking-stick, the staff of a butterfly-net, the folding ring and bag of which partly projected from his pocket.

“Is it true, Sergeant?” he exclaimed as he came up to us, panting from his exertions. “About Mr. Hearn, I mean. There is a rumour that he has been found dead on the beach.”

“It’s quite true, sir, I am sorry to say; and, what is worse, he has been murdered.”

“My God! you don’t say so!”

He turned towards us a face that must ordinarily have been jovial enough, but was now white and scared and, after a brief pause, he exclaimed:

“Murdered! Good God! Poor old Hearn! How did it happen, Sergeant? and when? and is there any clue to the murderer?”

“We can’t say for certain when it happened,” replied the sergeant, “and as to the question of clues, I was just coming up to call on you.”

“On me!” exclaimed Draper, with a startled glance at the officer. “What for?”

“Well, we should like to know something about Mr. Hearn—who he was, and whether he had any enemies, and so forth; anything, in fact, that would give as a hint where to look for the murderer. And you are the only person in the place who knew him at all intimately.”

Mr Draper’s pallid face turned a shade paler, and he glanced about him with an obviously embarrassed air.

“I’m afraid,” he began in a hesitating manner, “I’m afraid I shan’t be able to help you much. I didn’t know much about his affairs. You see he was—well—only a casual acquaintance—”

“Well,” interrupted the sergeant, “you can tell us who and what he was, and where he lived, and so forth. We’ll find out the rest if you give us the start.”

“I see,” said Draper. “Yes, I expect you will.” His eyes glanced restlessly to and fro, and he added presently: “You must come up to-morrow, and have a talk with me about him, and I’ll see what I can remember.”

“I’d rather come this evening,” said the sergeant firmly.

“Not this evening,” pleaded Draper. “I’m feeling rather—this affair, you know, has upset me. I couldn’t give proper attention—”

His sentence petered out into a hesitating mumble, and the officer looked at him in evident surprise at his nervous, embarrassed manner. His own attitude, however, was perfectly firm, though polite.

“I don’t like pressing you, sir,” said he, “but time is precious—we’ll have to go single file here; this pond is a public nuisance. They ought to bank it up at this end. After you, sir.”

The pond to which the sergeant alluded had evidently extended at one time right across the path, but now, thanks to the dry weather, a narrow isthmus of half-dried mud traversed the morass, and along this Mr. Draper proceeded to pick his way. The sergeant was about to follow, when suddenly he stopped short with his eyes riveted upon the muddy track. A single glance showed me the cause of his surprise, for on the stiff, putty-like surface, standing out with the sharp distinctness of a wax mould, were the fresh footprints of the man who had just passed, each footprint displaying on its sole the impression of stud-nails arranged in a diamond-shaped pattern, and on its heel a group of similar nails arranged in a cross.

The sergeant hesitated for only a moment, in which he turned a quick startled glance upon us; then he followed, walking gingerly along the edge of the path as if to avoid treading in his predecessor’s footprints. Instinctively we did the same, following closely, and anxiously awaiting the next development of the tragedy. For a minute or two we all proceeded in silence, the sergeant being evidently at a loss how to act, and Mr. Draper busy with his own thoughts. At length the former spoke.

“You think, Mr. Draper, you would rather that I looked in on you to-morrow about this affair?”

“Much rather, if you wouldn’t mind,” was the eager reply.

“Then, in that case,” said the sergeant, looking at his watch, “as I’ve got a good deal to see to this evening, I’ll leave you here, and make my way to the station.”

With a farewell flourish of his hand he climbed over a stile, and when, a few moments later, I caught a glimpse of him through an opening in the hedge, he was running across the meadow like a hare.

The departure of the police-officer was apparently a great relief to Mr. Draper, who at once fell back and began to talk with us.

“You are Dr. Jervis, I think,” said he. “I saw you coming out of Dr. Cooper’s house yesterday. We know everything that is happening in the village, you see.” He laughed nervously, and added: “But I don’t know your friend.”

I introduced Thorndyke, at the mention of whose name our new acquaintance knitted his brows, and glanced inquisitively at my friend.

“Thorndyke,” he repeated; “the name seems familiar to me. Are you in the Law, sir?”

Thorndyke admitted the impeachment, and our companion, having again bestowed on him a look full of curiosity, continued: “This horrible affair will interest you, no doubt, from a professional point of view. You were present when my poor friend’s body was found, I think?”

“No,” replied Thorndyke; “we came up afterwards, when they were removing it.”

Our companion then proceeded to question us about the murder, but received from Thorndyke only the most general and ambiguous replies. Nor was there time to go into the matter at length, for the footpath presently emerged on to the road close to Mr. Draper’s house.

“You will excuse my not asking you in to-night,” said he, “but you will understand that I am not in much form for visitors just now.”

We assured him that we fully understood, and, having wished him “Good-evening,” pursued our way towards the village.

“The sergeant is off to get a warrant, I suppose,” I observed.

“Yes; and mighty anxious lest his man should be off before he can execute it. But he is fishing in deeper waters than he thinks, Jervis. This is a very singular and complicated case; one of the strangest, in fact, that I have ever met. I shall follow its development with deep interest.”

“The sergeant seems pretty cocksure, all the same,” I said.

“He is not to blame for that,” replied Thorndyke. “He is acting on the obvious appearances, which is the proper thing to do in the first place. Perhaps his notebook contains more than I think it does. But we shall see.”

When we entered the village I stopped to settle some business with the chemist, who acted as Dr. Cooper’s dispenser, suggesting to Thorndyke that he should walk on to the house; but when I emerged from the shop some ten minutes later he was waiting outside, with a smallish brown-paper parcel under each arm. Of one of these parcels I insisted on relieving him, in spite of his protests, but when he at length handed it to me its weight completely took me by surprise.

“I should have let them send this home on a barrow,” I remarked.

“So I should have done,” he replied, “only I did not wish to draw attention to my purchase, or give my address.”

Accepting this hint I refrained from making any inquiries as to the nature of the contents (although I must confess to considerable curiosity on the subject), and on arriving home I assisted him to deposit the two mysterious parcels in his room.

When I came downstairs a disagreeable surprise awaited me. Hitherto the long evenings had been spent by me in solitary and undisturbed enjoyment of Dr. Cooper’s excellent library, but to-night a perverse fate decreed that I must wander abroad, because, forsooth, a preposterous farmer, who resided in a hamlet five miles distant, had chosen the evening of my guest’s arrival to dislocate his bucolic elbow. I half hoped that Thorndyke would offer to accompany me, but he made no such suggestion, and in fact seemed by no means afflicted at the prospect of my absence.

“I have plenty to occupy me while you are away,” he said cheerfully; and with this assurance to comfort me I mounted my bicycle and rode off somewhat sulkily along the dark road.

My visit occupied in all a trifle under two hours, and when I reached home, ravenously hungry and heated by my ride, half-past nine had struck, and the village had begun to settle down for the night.

“Sergeant Payne is a-waiting in the surgery, sir,” the housemaid announced as I entered the hall.

“Confound Sergeant Payne!” I exclaimed. “Is Dr. Thorndyke with him?”

“No, sir,” replied the grinning damsel. “Dr. Thorndyke is hout.”

“Hout!” I repeated (my surprise leading to unintentional mimicry).

“Yes, sir. He went hout soon after you, sir, on his bicycle. He had a basket strapped on to it—leastways a hamper—and he borrowed a basin and a kitchen-spoon from the cook.”

I stared at the girl in astonishment. The ways of John Thorndyke were, indeed, beyond all understanding.

“Well, let me have some dinner or supper at once,” I said, “and I will see what the sergeant wants.”

The officer rose as I entered the surgery, and, laying his helmet on the table, approached me with an air of secrecy and importance.

“Well, sir,” said he, “the fat’s in the fire. I’ve arrested Mr. Draper, and I’ve got him locked up in the court-house. But I wish it had been someone else.”

“So does he, I expect,” I remarked.

“You see, sir,” continued the sergeant, “we all like Mr. Draper. He’s been among us a matter of seven years, and he’s like one of ourselves. However, what I’ve come about is this; it seems the gentleman who was with you this evening is Dr. Thorndyke, the great expert. Now Mr. Draper seems to have heard about him, as most of us have, and he is very anxious for him to take up the defence. Do you think he would consent?”

“I expect so,” I answered, remembering Thorndyke’s keen interest in the case; “but I will ask him when he comes in.”

“Thank you, sir,” said the sergeant. “And perhaps you wouldn’t mind stepping round to the court-house presently yourself. He looks uncommon queer, does Mr. Draper, and no wonder, so I’d like you to take a look at him, and if you could bring Dr. Thorndyke with you, he’d like it, and so should I, for, I assure you, sir, that although a conviction would mean a step up the ladder for me, I’d be glad enough to find that I’d made a mistake.”

I was just showing my visitor out when a bicycle swept in through the open gate, and Thorndyke dismounted at the door, revealing a square hamper—evidently abstracted from the surgery—strapped on to a carrier at the back. I conveyed the sergeant’s request to him at once, and asked if he was willing to take up the case.

“As to taking up the defence,” he replied, “I will consider the matter; but in any case I will come up and see the prisoner.”

With this the sergeant departed, and Thorndyke, having unstrapped the hamper with as much care as if it contained a collection of priceless porcelain, bore it tenderly up to his bedroom; whence he appeared, after a considerable interval, smilingly apologetic for the delay.

“I thought you were dressing for dinner,” I grumbled as he took his seat at the table.

“No,” he replied. “I have been considering this murder. Really it is a most singular case, and promises to be uncommonly complicated, too.”

“Then I assume that you will undertake the defence?”

“I shall if Draper gives a reasonably straightforward account of himself.”

It appeared that this condition was likely to be fulfilled, for when we arrived at the court-house (where the prisoner was accommodated in a spare office, under rather free-and-easy conditions considering the nature of the charge) we found Mr. Draper in an eminently communicative frame of mind.

“I want you, Dr. Thorndyke, to undertake my defence in this terrible affair, because I feel confident that you will be able to clear me. And I promise you that there shall be no reservation or concealment on my part of anything that you ought to know.”

“Very well,” said Thorndyke. “By the way, I see you have changed your shoes.”

“Yes, the sergeant took possession of those I was wearing. He said something about comparing them with some footprints, but there can’t be any footprints like those shoes here in Sundersley. The nails are fixed in the soles in quite a peculiar pattern. I had them made in Edinburgh.”

“Have you more than one pair?”

“No. I have no other nailed boots.”

“That is important,” said Thorndyke. “And now I judge that you have something to tell us that bears on this crime. Am I right?”

“Yes. There is something that I am afraid it is necessary for you to know, although it is very painful to me to revive memories of my past that I had hoped were buried for ever. But perhaps, after all, it may not be necessary for these confidences to be revealed to anyone but yourself.”

“I hope not,” said Thorndyke; “and if it is not necessary you may rely upon me not to allow any of your secrets to leak out. But you are wise to tell me everything that may in any way bear upon the case.”

At this juncture, seeing that confidential matters were about to be discussed, I rose and prepared to withdraw; but Draper waved me back into my chair.

“You need not go away, Dr. Jervis,” he said. “It is through you that I have the benefit of Dr. Thorndyke’s help, and I know that you doctors can be trusted to keep your own counsel and your clients’ secrets. And now for some confessions of mine. In the first place, it is my painful duty to tell you that I am a discharged convict—an ‘old lag,’ as the cant phrase has it.”

He coloured a dusky red as he made this statement, and glanced furtively at Thorndyke to observe its effect. But he might as well have looked at a wooden figure-head or a stone mask as at my friend’s immovable visage; and when his communication had been acknowledged by a slight nod, he proceeded:

“The history of my wrong-doing is the history of hundreds of others. I was a clerk in a bank, and getting on as well as I could expect in that not very progressive avocation, when I had the misfortune to make four very undesirable acquaintances. They were all young men, though rather older than myself, and were close friends, forming a sort of little community or club. They were not what is usually described as ‘fast.’ They were quite sober and decently-behaved young follows, but they were very decidedly addicted to gambling in a small way, and they soon infected me. Before long I was the keenest gambler of them all. Cards, billiards, pool, and various forms of betting began to be the chief pleasures of my life, and not only was the bulk of my scanty salary often consumed in the inevitable losses, but presently I found myself considerably in debt, without any visible means of discharging my liabilities. It is true that my four friends were my chief—in fact, almost my only—creditors, but still, the debts existed, and had to be paid.

“Now these four friends of mine—named respectively Leach, Pitford, Hearn, and Jezzard—were uncommonly clever men, though the full extent of their cleverness was not appreciated by me until too late. And I, too, was clever in my way, and a most undesirable way it was, for I possessed the fatal gift of imitating handwriting and signatures with the most remarkable accuracy. So perfect were my copies that the writers themselves were frequently unable to distinguish their own signatures from my imitations, and many a time was my skill invoked by some of my companions to play off practical jokes upon the others. But these jests were strictly confined to our own little set, for my four friends were most careful and anxious that my dangerous accomplishment should not become known to outsiders.

“And now follows the consequence which you have no doubt foreseen. My debts, though small, were accumulating, and I saw no prospect of being able to pay them. Then, one night, Jezzard made a proposition. We had been playing bridge at his rooms, and once more my ill luck had caused me to increase my debt. I scribbled out an IOU, and pushed it across the table to Jezzard, who picked it up with a very wry face, and pocketed it.

“‘Look here, Ted,’ he said presently, ‘this paper is all very well, but, you know, I can’t pay my debts with it. My creditors demand hard cash.’

“‘I’m very sorry,’ I replied, ‘but I can’t help it.’

“‘Yes, you can,’ said he, ‘and I’ll tell you how.’ He then propounded a scheme which I at first rejected with indignation, but which, when the others backed him up, I at last allowed myself to be talked into, and actually put into execution. I contrived, by taking advantage of the carelessness of some of my superiors at the bank, to get possession of some blank cheque forms, which I filled up with small amounts—not more than two or three pounds—and signed with careful imitations of the signatures of some of our clients. Jezzard got some stamps made for stamping on the account numbers, and when this had been done I handed over to him the whole collection of forged cheques in settlement of my debts to all of my four companions.

“The cheques were duly presented—by whom I do not know; and although, to my dismay, the modest sums for which I had drawn them had been skilfully altered into quite considerable amounts, they were all paid without demur excepting one. That one, which had been altered from three pounds to thirty-nine, was drawn upon an account which was already slightly overdrawn. The cashier became suspicious; the cheque was impounded, and the client communicated with. Then, of course, the mine exploded. Not only was this particular forgery detected, but inquiries were set afoot which soon brought to light the others. Presently circumstances, which I need not describe, threw some suspicion on me. I at once lost my nerve, and finally made a full confession.

“The inevitable prosecution followed. It was not conducted vindictively. Still, I had actually committed the forgeries, and though I endeavoured to cast a part of the blame on to the shoulders of my treacherous confederates, I did not succeed. Jezzard, it is true, was arrested, but was discharged for lack of evidence, and, consequently, the whole burden of the forgery fell upon me. The jury, of course, convicted me, and I was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude.

“During the time that I was in prison an uncle of mine died in Canada, and by the provisions of his will I inherited the whole of his very considerable property, so that when the time arrived for my release, I came out of prison, not only free, but comparatively rich. I at once dropped my own name, and, assuming that of Alfred Draper, began to look about for some quiet spot in which I might spend the rest of my days in peace, and with little chance of my identity being discovered. Such a place I found in Sundersley, and here I have lived for the last seven years, liked and respected, I think, by my neighbours, who have little suspected that they were harbouring in their midst a convicted felon.

“All this time I had neither seen nor heard anything of my four confederates, and I hoped and believed that they had passed completely out of my life. But they had not. Only a month ago I met them once more, to my sorrow, and from the day of that meeting all the peace and security of my quiet existence at Sundersley have vanished. Like evil spirits they have stolen into my life, changing my happiness into bitter misery, filling my days with dark forebodings and my nights with terror.”

Here Mr. Draper paused, and seemed to sink into a gloomy reverie.

“Under what circumstances did you meet these men?” Thorndyke asked.

“Ah!” exclaimed Draper, arousing with sudden excitement, “the circumstances were very singular and suspicious. I had gone over to Eastwich for the day to do some shopping. About eleven o’clock in the forenoon I was making some purchases in a shop when I noticed two men looking in the window, or rather pretending to do so, whilst they conversed earnestly. They were smartly dressed, in a horsy fashion, and looked like well-to-do farmers, as they might very naturally have been since it was market-day. But it seemed to me that their faces were familiar to me. I looked at them more attentively, and then it suddenly dawned upon me, most unpleasantly, that they resembled Leach and Jezzard. And yet they were not quite like. The resemblance was there, but the differences were greater than the lapse of time would account for. Moreover, the man who resembled Jezzard had a rather large mole on the left cheek just under the eye, while the other man had an eyeglass stuck in one eye, and wore a waxed moustache, whereas Leach had always been clean-shaven, and had never used an eyeglass.

“As I was speculating upon the resemblance they looked up, and caught my intent and inquisitive eye, whereupon they moved away from the window; and when, having completed my purchases, I came out into the street, they were nowhere to be seen.

“That evening, as I was walking by the river outside the town before returning to the station, I overtook a yacht which was being towed down-stream. Three men were walking ahead on the bank with a long tow-line, and one man stood in the cockpit steering. As I approached, and was reading the name Otter on the stern, the man at the helm looked round, and with a start of surprise I recognized my old acquaintance Hearn. The recognition, however, was not mutual, for I had grown a beard in the interval, and I passed on without appearing to notice him; but when I overtook the other three men, and recognized, as I had feared, the other three members of the gang, I must have looked rather hard at Jezzard, for he suddenly halted, and exclaimed: ‘Why, it’s our old friend Ted! Our long-lost and lamented brother!’ He held out his hand with effusive cordiality, and began to make inquiries as to my welfare; but I cut him short with the remark that I was not proposing to renew the acquaintance, and, turning off on to a footpath that led away from the river, strode off without looking back.

“Naturally this meeting exercised my mind a good deal, and when I thought of the two men whom I had seen in the town, I could hardly believe that their likeness to my quondam friends was a mere coincidence. And yet when I had met Leach and Jezzard by the river, I had found them little altered, and had particularly noticed that Jezzard had no mole on his face, and that Leach was clean-shaven as of old.

“But a day or two later all my doubts were resolved by a paragraph in the local paper. It appeared that on the day of my visit to Eastwich a number of forged cheques had been cashed at the three banks. They had been presented by three well-dressed, horsy-looking men who looked like well-to-do farmers. One of them had a mole on the left cheek, another was distinguished by a waxed moustache and a single eyeglass, while the description of the third I did not recognize. None of the cheques had been drawn for large amounts, though the total sum obtained by the forgers was nearly four hundred pounds; but the most interesting point was that the cheque-forms had been manufactured by photographic process, and the water-mark skilfully, though not quite perfectly, imitated. Evidently the swindlers were clever and careful men, and willing to take a good deal of trouble for the sake of security, and the result of their precautions was that the police could make no guess as to their identity.

“The very next day, happening to walk over to Port Marston, I came upon the Otter lying moored alongside the quay in the harbour. As soon as I recognized the yacht, I turned quickly and walked away, but a minute later I ran into Leach and Jezzard, who were returning to their craft. Jezzard greeted me with an air of surprise. ‘What! Still hanging about here, Ted?’ he exclaimed. ‘That is not discreet of you, dear boy. I should earnestly advise you to clear out.’

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

“‘Tut, tut!’ said he. ‘We read the papers like other people, and we know now what business took you to Eastwich. But it’s foolish of you to hang about the neighbourhood where you might be spotted at any moment.’

“The implied accusation took me aback so completely that I stood staring at him in speechless astonishment, and at that unlucky moment a tradesman, from whom I had ordered some house-linen, passed along the quay. Seeing me, he stopped and touched his hat.

“‘Beg pardon, Mr. Draper,’ said he, ‘but I shall be sending my cart up to Sundersley to-morrow morning if that will do for you.’

“I said that it would, and as the man turned away, Jezzard’s face broke out into a cunning smile.

“So you are Mr. Draper, of Sundersley, now, are you?’ said he. ‘Well, I hope you won’t be too proud to come and look in on your old friends. We shall be staying here for some time.’

“That same night Hearn made his appearance at my house. He had come as an emissary from the gang, to ask me to do some work for them—to execute some forgeries, in fact. Of course I refused, and pretty bluntly, too, whereupon Hearn began to throw out vague hints as to what might happen if I made enemies of the gang, and to utter veiled, but quite intelligible, threats. You will say that I was an idiot not to send him packing, and threaten to hand over the whole gang to the police; but I was never a man of strong nerve, and I don’t mind admitting that I was mortally afraid of that cunning devil, Jezzard.