Although Crofts is best remembered for his detective Joseph French, who he introduced in his fifth book, the first book,The Cask, remains one of his most important works, hugely popular at the time, and considered by many critics one of the best and most important mystery books of all time. In a story that codified the “police procedural,” the book follows the work of Inspector Burnley, a methodical detective of Scotland Yard, as he investigates the case of a cask that, arriving on the London docks, slips and cracks revealing contents that point to murder.
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Dr. Adam A. C. Mathers,
IN APPRECIATION OF HIS KINDLY
CRITICISM AND HELP.
A STRANGE CONSIGNMENT
INSPECTOR BURNLEY ON THE TRACK
THE WATCHER ON THE WALL
A MIDNIGHT INTERVIEW
FELIX TELLS A STORY
THE ART OF DETECTION
THE CASK AT LAST
THE OPENING OF THE CASK
M. LE CHEF DE LA SÛRETÉ
WHO WROTE THE LETTER?
MM. DUPIERRE ET CIE
AT THE GARE ST. LAZARE
THE OWNER OF THE DRESS
M. BOIRAC MAKES A STATEMENT
THE HOUSE IN THE AVENUE DE L’ALMA
INSPECTOR BURNLEY UP AGAINST IT
A COUNCIL OF WAR
LEFARGE HUNTS ALONE
THE TESTING OF AN ALIBI
SOME DAMNING EVIDENCE
PART III—LONDON AND PARIS
A NEW POINT OF VIEW
FELIX TELLS A SECOND STORY
CLIFFORD GETS TO WORK
MR. GEORGES LA TOUCHE
A CLUE AT LAST
LA TOUCHE’S DILEMMA
THE UNRAVELLING OF THE WEB
A DRAMATIC DÉNOUEMENT
Mr. Avery, managing director of the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, had just arrived at his office. He glanced at his inward letters, ran his eye over his list of engagements for the day, and inspected the return of the movements of his Company’s steamers. Then, after spending a few moments in thought, he called his chief clerk, Wilcox.
“I see the Bullfinch is in this morning from Rouen,” he said. “I take it she’ll have that consignment of wines for Norton and Banks?”
“She has,” replied the chief clerk, “I’ve just rung up the dock office to inquire.”
“I think we ought to have it specially checked from here. You remember all the trouble they gave us about the last lot. Will you send some reliable man down? Whom can you spare?”
“Broughton could go. He has done it before.”
“Well, see to it, will you, and then send in Miss Johnson, and I shall go through the mail.”
The office was the headquarters of the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, colloquially known as the I. and C., and occupied the second floor of a large block of buildings at the western end of Fenchurch Street. The Company was an important concern, and owned a fleet of some thirty steamers ranging from 300 to 1000 tons burden, which traded between London and the smaller Continental ports. Low freights was their specialty, but they did not drive their boats, and no attempt was made to compete with the more expensive routes in the matter of speed. Under these circumstances they did a large trade in all kinds of goods other than perishables.
Mr. Wilcox picked up some papers and stepped over to the desk at which Tom Broughton was working.
“Broughton,” he said, “Mr. Avery wants you to go down at once to the docks and check a consignment of wines for Norton and Banks. It came in last night from Rouen in the Bullfinch. These people gave us a lot of trouble about their last lot, disputing our figures, so you will have to be very careful. Here are the invoices, and don’t take the men’s figures but see each cask yourself.”
“Right, sir,” replied Broughton, a young fellow of three-and-twenty, with a frank, boyish face and an alert manner. Nothing loath to exchange the monotony of the office for the life and bustle of the quays, he put away his books, stowed the invoices carefully in his pocket, took his hat and went quickly down the stairs and out into Fenchurch Street.
It was a brilliant morning in early April. After a spell of cold, showery weather, there was at last a foretaste of summer in the air, and the contrast made it seem good to be alive. The sun shone with that clear freshness seen only after rain. Broughton’s spirits rose as he hurried through the busy streets, and watched the ceaseless flow of traffic pouring along the arteries leading to the shipping.
His goal was St. Katherine’s Docks, where the Bullfinch was berthed, and, passing across Tower Hill and round two sides of the grim old fortress, he pushed on till he reached the basin in which the steamer was lying. She was a long and rather low vessel of some 800 tons burden, with engines amidships, and a single black funnel ornamented with the two green bands that marked the Company’s boats. Recently out from her annual overhaul, she looked trim and clean in her new coat of black paint. Unloading was in progress, and Broughton hurried on board, anxious to be present before any of the consignment of wine was set ashore.
He was just in time, for the hatches of the lower forehold, in which the casks were stowed, had been cleared and were being lifted off as he arrived. As he stood on the bridge deck waiting for the work to be completed he looked around.
Several steamers were lying in the basin. Immediately behind, with her high bluff bows showing over the Bullfinch’s counter, was the Thrush, his Company’s largest vessel, due to sail that afternoon for Corunna and Vigo. In the berth in front lay a Clyde Shipping Company’s boat bound for Belfast and Glasgow and also due out that afternoon, the smoke from her black funnel circling lazily up into the clear sky. Opposite was the Arcturus, belonging to the I. and C.’s rivals, Messrs. Babcock and Millman, and commanded by “Black Mac,” so called to distinguish him from the Captain M’Tavish of differently coloured hair, “Red Mac,” who was master of the same Company’s Sirius. To Broughton these boats represented links with the mysterious, far-off world of romance, and he never saw one put to sea without longing to go with her to Copenhagen, Bordeaux, Lisbon, Spezzia, or to whatever other delightful-sounding place she was bound.
The fore-hatch being open, Broughton climbed down into the hold armed with his notebook, and the unloading of the casks began. They were swung out in lots of four fastened together by rope slings. As each lot was dealt with, the clerk noted the contents in his book, from which he would afterwards check the invoices.
The work progressed rapidly, the men straining and pushing to get the heavy barrels in place for the slings. Gradually the space under and around the hatch was cleared, the casks then having to be rolled forward from the farther parts of the hold.
A quartet of casks had just been hoisted and Broughton was turning to examine the net lot when he heard a sudden shout of “Look out, there! Look out!” and felt himself seized roughly and pulled backwards. He swung round and was in time to see the four casks turning over out of the sling and falling heavily to the floor of the hold. Fortunately they had only been lifted some four or five feet, but they were heavy things and came down solidly. The two under were damaged slightly and the wine began to ooze out between the staves. The others had had their fall broken and neither seemed the worse. The men had all jumped clear and no one was hurt.
“Upend those casks, boys,” called the foreman, when the damage had been briefly examined, “and let’s save the wine.”
The leaking casks were turned damaged end up and lifted aside for temporary repairs. The third barrel was found to be uninjured, but when they came to the fourth it was seen that it had not entirely escaped.
This fourth cask was different in appearance from the rest, and Broughton had noted it as not belonging to Messrs. Norton and Banks’ consignment. It was more strongly made and better finished, and was stained a light oak colour and varnished. Evidently, also, it did not contain wine, for what had called their attention to its injury was a little heap of sawdust which had escaped from a crack at the end of one of the staves.
“Strange looking cask this. Did you ever see one like it before?” said Broughton to the I. and C. foreman who had pulled him back, a man named Harkness. He was a tall, strongly built man with prominent cheekbones, a square chin and a sandy moustache. Broughton had known him for some time and had a high opinion of his intelligence and ability.
“Never saw nothin’ like it,” returned Harkness. “I tell you, sir, that there cask ’as been made to stand some knocking about.”
“Looks like it. Let’s get it rolled back out of the way and turned up, so as to see the damage.”
Harkness seized the cask and with some difficulty rolled it close to the ship’s side out of the way of the unloading, but when he tried to upend it he found it too heavy to lift.
“There’s something more than sawdust in there,” he said. “It’s the ’eaviest cask ever I struck. I guess it was its weight shifted the other casks in the sling and spilled the lot.”
He called over another man and they turned the cask damaged end up. Broughton stepped over to the charge hand and asked him to check the tally for a few seconds while he examined the injury.
As he was returning across the half-dozen yards to join the foreman, his eye fell on the little heap of sawdust that had fallen out of the crack, and the glitter of some bright object showing through it caught his attention. He stooped and picked it up. His amazement as he looked at it may be imagined, for it was a sovereign!
He glanced quickly round. Only Harkness of all the men present had seen it.
“Turn the ’eap over, sir,” said the foreman, evidently as surprised as the younger man, “see if there are any more.”
Broughton sifted the sawdust through his fingers, and his astonishment was not lessened when he discovered two others hidden in the little pile.
He gazed at the three gold coins lying in his palm. As he did so Harkness gave a smothered exclamation and, stooping rapidly, picked something out from between two of the boards of the hold’s bottom.
“Another, by gum!” cried the foreman in low tones, “and another!” He bent down again and lifted a second object from behind where the cask was standing. “Blest if it ain’t a blooming gold mine we’ve struck.”
Broughton put the five sovereigns in his pocket, as he and Harkness unostentatiously scrutinised the deck. They searched carefully, but found no other coins.
“Did you drop them when I dragged you back?” asked Harkness.
“I? No, I wish I had, but I had no gold about me.”
“Some of the other chaps must ’ave then. Maybe Peters or Wilson. Both jumped just at this place.”
“Well, don’t say anything for a moment. I believe they came out of the cask.”
“Out o’ the cask? Why, sir, ’oo would send sovereigns in a cask?”
“No one, I should have said; but how would they get among the sawdust if they didn’t come out through the crack with it?”
“That’s so,” said Harkness thoughtfully, continuing, “I tell you, Mr. Broughton, you say the word and I’ll open that crack a bit more and we’ll ’ave a look into the cask.”
The clerk recognised that this would be irregular, but his curiosity was keenly aroused and he hesitated.
“I’ll do it without leaving any mark that won’t be put down to the fall,” continued the tempter, and Broughton fell.
“I think we should know,” he replied. “This gold may have been stolen and inquiries should be made.”
The foreman smiled and disappeared, returning with a hammer and cold chisel. The broken piece at the end of the stave was entirely separated from the remainder by the crack, but was held in position by one of the iron rings. This piece Harkness with some difficulty drove upwards, thus widening the crack. As he did so, a little shower of sawdust fell out and the astonishment of the two men was not lessened when with it came a number of sovereigns, which went rolling here and there over the planks.
It happened that at the same moment the attention of the other men was concentrated on a quartet of casks which was being slung up through the hatches, the nervousness caused by the slip not having yet subsided. None of them therefore saw what had taken place, and Broughton and Harkness had picked up the coins before any of them turned round. Six sovereigns had come out, and the clerk added them to the five he already had, while he and his companion unostentatiously searched for others. Not finding any, they turned back to the cask deeply mystified.
“Open that crack a bit more,” said Broughton. “What do you think about it?”
“Blest if I know what to think,” replied the foreman. “We’re on to something mighty queer anyway. ’Old my cap under the crack till I prize out that there bit of wood altogether.”
With some difficulty the loose piece of the stave was hammered up, leaving a hole in the side of the barrel some six inches deep by nearly four wide. Half a capful of sawdust fell out, and the clerk added to it by clearing the broken edge of the wood. Then he placed the cap on the top of the cask and they eagerly felt through the sawdust.
“By Jehoshaphat!” whispered Harkness excitedly, “it’s just full of gold!”
It seemed to be so, indeed, for in it were no fewer than seven sovereigns.
“That’s eighteen in all,” said Broughton, in an awed tone, as he slipped them into his pocket. “If the whole cask’s full of them it must be worth thousands and thousands of pounds.”
They stood gazing at the prosaic looking barrel, outwardly remarkable only in its strong design and good finish, marvelling if beneath that commonplace exterior there was indeed hidden what to them seemed a fortune. Then Harkness crouched down and looked into the cask through the hole he had made. Hardly had he done so when he sprang back with a sudden oath.
“Look in there, Mr. Broughton!” he cried in a suppressed tone. “Look in there!”
Broughton stooped in turn and peered in. Then he also recoiled, for there, sticking up out of the sawdust, were the fingers of a hand.
“This is terrible,” he whispered, convinced at last they were in the presence of tragedy, and then he could have kicked himself for being such a fool.
“Why, it’s only a statue,” he cried.
“Statue?” replied Harkness sharply. “Statue? That ain’t no statue. That’s part of a dead body, that is. And don’t you make no mistake.”
“It’s too dark to see properly. Get a light, will you, till we make sure.”
When the foreman had procured a hand-lamp Broughton looked in again and speedily saw that his first impression was correct. The fingers were undoubtedly those of a woman’s hand, small, pointed, delicate, and bearing rings which glinted in the light.
“Clear away some more of the sawdust, Harkness,” said the young man as he stood up again. “We must find out all we can now.”
He held the cap as before, and the foreman carefully picked out with the cold chisel the sawdust surrounding the fingers. As its level lowered, the remainder of the hand and the wrist gradually became revealed. The sight of the whole only accentuated the first impression of dainty beauty and elegance.
Broughton emptied the cap on to the top of the cask. Three more sovereigns were found hidden in it, and these he pocketed with the others. Then he turned to re-examine the cask.
It was rather larger than the wine-barrels, being some three feet six high by nearly two feet six in diameter. As already mentioned, it was of unusually strong construction, the sides, as shown by the broken stave, being quite two inches thick. Owing possibly to the difficulty of bending such heavy stuff, it was more cylindrical than barrel shaped, the result being that the ends were unusually large, and this no doubt partly accounted for Harkness’s difficulty in upending it. In place of the usual thin metal bands, heavy iron rings clamped it together.
On one side was a card label, tacked round the edges and addressed in a foreign handwriting: “M. Léon Felix, 141 West Jubb Street, Tottenham Court Road, London, W., via Rouen and long sea,” with the words “Statuary only” printed with a rubber stamp. The label bore also the sender’s name: “Dupierre et Cie., Fabricants de la Sculpture Monumentale, Rue Provence, Rue de la Convention, Grenelle, Paris.” Stencilled in black letters on the woodwork was “Return to” in French, English, and German, and the name of the same firm. Broughton examined the label with care, in the half-unconscious hope of discovering something from the handwriting. In this he was disappointed, but, as he held the hand-lamp close, he saw something else which interested him.
The label was divided into two parts, an ornamental border containing the sender’s advertisement and a central portion for the address. These two were separated by a thick black line. What had caught Broughton’s eye was an unevenness along this line, and closer examination showed that the central portion had been cut out, and a piece of paper pasted on the back of the card to cover the hole. Felix’s address was therefore written on this paper, and not on the original label. The alteration had been neatly done, and was almost unnoticeable. Broughton was puzzled at first, then it occurred to him that the firm must have run out of labels and made an old one do duty a second time.
“A cask containing money and a human hand—probably a body,” he mused. “It’s a queer business and something has got to be done about it.” He stood looking at the cask while he thought out his course of action.
That a serious crime had been committed he felt sure, and that it was his duty to report his discovery immediately he was no less certain. But there was the question of the consignment of wines. He had been sent specially to the docks to check it, and he wondered if he would be right to leave the work undone. He thought so. The matter was serious enough to justify him. And it was not as if the wine would not be checked. The ordinary tallyman was there, and Broughton knew him to be careful and accurate. Besides, he could probably get a clerk from the dock office to help. His mind was made up. He would go straight to Fenchurch Street and report to Mr. Avery, the managing director.
“Harkness,” he said, “I’m going up to the head office to report this. You’d better close up that hole as best you can and then stay here and watch the cask. Don’t let it out of your sight on any pretext until you get instructions from Mr. Avery.”
“Right, Mr. Broughton,” replied the foreman, “I think you’re doing the proper thing.”
They replaced as much of the sawdust as they could, and Harkness fitted the broken piece of stave into the space and drove it home, nailing it fast.
“Well, I’m off,” said Broughton, but as he turned to go a gentleman stepped down into the hold and spoke to him. He was a man of medium height, foreign-looking, with a dark complexion and a black pointed beard, and dressed in a well-cut suit of blue clothes, with white spats and a Homburg hat. He bowed and smiled.
“Pardon me, but you are, I presume, an I. and C. official?” he asked, speaking perfect English, but with a foreign accent.
“I am a clerk in the head office, sir,” replied Broughton.
“Ah, quite so. Perhaps then you can oblige me with some information? I am expecting from Paris by this boat a cask containing a group of statuary from Messrs. Dupierre of that city. Can you tell me if it has arrived? This is my name.” He handed Broughton a card on which was printed: “M. Léon Felix, 141 West Jubb Street, Tottenham Court Road, W.”
Though the clerk saw at a glance the name was the same as that on the label on the cask, he pretended to read it with care while considering his reply. This man clearly was the consignee, and if he were told the cask was there he would doubtless claim immediate possession. Broughton could think of no excuse for refusing him, but he was determined all the same not to let it go. He had just decided to reply that it had not yet come to light, but that they would keep a look-out for it, when another point struck him.
The damaged cask had been moved to the side of the hold next the dock, and it occurred to the clerk that any one standing on the wharf beside the hatch could see it. For all he knew to the contrary, this man Felix might have watched their whole proceedings, including the making of the hole in the cask and the taking out of the sovereigns. If he had recognised his property, as was possible, a couple of steps from where he was standing would enable him to put his finger on the label and so convict Broughton of a falsehood. The clerk decided that in this case honesty would be the best policy.
“Yes, sir,” he answered, “your cask has arrived. By a curious coincidence it is this one beside us. We had just separated it out from the wine-barrels owing to its being differently consigned.”
Mr. Felix looked at the young man suspiciously, but he only said: “Thank you. I am a collector of objets d’art, and am anxious to see the statue. I have a cart here and I presume I can get it away at once?”
This was what Broughton had expected, but he thought he saw his way.
“Well, sir,” he responded civilly, “that is outside my job and I fear I cannot help you. But I am sure you can get it now if you will come over to the office on the quay and go through the usual formalities. I am going there now and will be pleased to show you the way.”
“Oh, thank you. Certainly,” agreed the stranger.
As they walked off, a doubt arose in Broughton’s mind that Harkness might misunderstand his replies to Felix, and if the latter returned with a plausible story might let the cask go. He therefore called out:—
“You understand then, Harkness, you are to do nothing till you hear from Mr. Avery,” to which the foreman replied by a wave of the hand.
The problem the young clerk had to solve was threefold. First, he had to go to Fenchurch Street to report the matter to his managing director. Next, he must ensure that the cask was kept in the Company’s possession until that gentleman had decided his course of action, and lastly, he wished to accomplish both of these things without raising the suspicions either of Felix or the clerks in the quay office. It was not an easy matter, and at first Broughton was somewhat at a loss. But as they entered the office a plan occurred to him which he at once decided on. He turned to his companion.
“If you will wait here a moment, sir,” he said, “I’ll find the clerk who deals with your business and send him to you.”
“I thank you.”
He passed through the door in the screen dividing the outer and inner offices and, crossing to the manager’s room, spoke in a low tone to that official.
“Mr. Huston, there’s a man outside named Felix for whom a cask has come from Paris on the Bullfinch and he wants possession now. The cask is there, but Mr. Avery suspects there is something not quite right about it, and he sent me to tell you to please delay delivery until you hear further from him. He said to make any excuse, but under no circumstances to give the thing up. He will ring you up in an hour or so when he has made some further inquiries.”
Mr. Huston looked queerly at the young man, but he only said, “That will be all right,” and the latter took him out and introduced him to Mr. Felix.
Broughton delayed a few moments in the inner office to arrange with one of the clerks to take up his work on the Bullfinch during his absence. As he passed out by the counter at which the manager and Mr. Felix were talking, he heard the latter say in an angry tone:—
“Very well, I will go now and see your Mr. Avery, and I feel sure he will make it up to me for this obstruction and annoyance.”
“It’s up to me to be there first,” thought Broughton, as he hurried out of the dock gates in search of a taxi. None was in sight and he stopped and considered the situation. If Felix had a car waiting he would get to Fenchurch Street while he, Broughton, was looking round. Something else must be done.
Stepping into the Little Tower Hill Post Office, he rang up the head office, getting through to Mr. Avery’s private room. In a few words he explained that he had accidentally come on evidence which pointed to the commission of a serious crime, that a man named Felix appeared to know something about it, and that this man was about to call on Mr. Avery, continuing,—
“Now, sir, if you’ll let me make a suggestion, it is that you don’t see this Mr. Felix immediately he calls, but that you let me into your private office by the landing door, so that I don’t need to pass through the outer office. Then you can hear my story in detail and decide what to do.”
“It all sounds rather vague and mysterious,” replied the distant voice, “can you not tell me what you found?”
“Not from here, sir, if you please. If you’ll trust me this time, I think you’ll be satisfied that I am right when you hear my story.”
“All right. Come along.”
Broughton left the post office and, now when it no longer mattered, found an empty taxi. Jumping in, he drove to Fenchurch Street and, passing up the staircase, knocked at his chief’s private door.
“Well, Broughton,” said Mr. Avery, “sit down there.” Going to the door leading to the outer office he spoke to Wilcox.
“I’ve just had a telephone call and I want to send some other messages. I’ll be engaged for half an hour.” Then he closed the door and slipped the bolt.
“You see I have done as you asked and I shall now hear your story. I trust you haven’t put me to all this inconvenience without a good cause.”
“I think not, sir, and I thank you for the way you have met me. What happened was this,” and Broughton related in detail his visit to the docks, the mishap to the casks, the discovery of the sovereigns and the woman’s hand, the coming of Mr. Felix and the interview in the quay office, ending up by placing the twenty-one sovereigns in a little pile on the chief’s desk.
When he ceased speaking there was silence for several minutes, while Mr. Avery thought over what he had heard. The tale was a strange one, but both from his knowledge of Broughton’s character as well as from the young man’s manner he implicitly believed every word he had heard. He considered the firm’s position in the matter. In one way it did not concern them if a sealed casket, delivered to them for conveyance, contained marble, gold, or road metal, so long as the freight was paid. Their contract was to carry what was handed over to them from one point to another and give it up in the condition they received it. If any one chose to send sovereigns under the guise of statuary, any objection that might be raised concerned the Customs Department, not them.
On the other hand, if evidence pointing to a serious crime came to the firm’s notice, it would be the duty of the firm to acquaint the police. The woman’s hand in the cask might or might not indicate a murder, but the suspicion was too strong to justify them in hiding the matter. He came to a decision.
“Broughton,” he said, “I think you have acted very wisely all through. We will go now to Scotland Yard, and you may repeat your tale to the authorities. After that I think we will be clear of it. Will you go out the way you came in, get a taxi, and wait for me in Fenchurch Street at the end of Mark Lane.”
Mr. Avery locked the private door after the young man, put on his coat and hat, and went into the outer office.
“I am going out for a couple of hours, Wilcox,” he said.
The head clerk approached with a letter in his hand.
“Very good, sir. A gentleman named Mr. Felix called about 11.30 to see you. When I said you were engaged, he would not wait, but asked for a sheet of paper and an envelope to write you a note. This is it.”
The managing director took the note and turned back into his private office to read it. He was puzzled. He had said at 11.15 he would be engaged for half an hour. Therefore, Mr. Felix would only have had fifteen minutes to wait. As he opened the envelope he wondered why that gentleman could not have spared this moderate time, after coming all the way from the docks to see him. And then he was puzzled again, for the envelope was empty!
He stood in thought. Had something occurred to startle Mr. Felix when writing his note, so that in his agitation he omitted to enclose it? Or had he simply made a mistake? Or was there some deep-laid plot? Well, he would see what Scotland Yard thought.
He put the envelope away in his pocket-book and, going down to the street, joined Broughton in the taxi. They rattled along the crowded thoroughfares while Mr. Avery told the clerk about the envelope.
“I say, sir,” said the latter, “but that’s a strange business. When I saw him, Mr. Felix was not at all agitated. He seemed to me a very cool, clear-headed man.”
It happened that about a year previously the shipping company had been the victim of a series of cleverly planned robberies, and, in following up the matter, Mr. Avery had become rather well acquainted with two or three of the Yard Inspectors. One of these in particular he had found a shrewd and capable officer, as well as a kindly and pleasant man to work with. On arrival at the Yard he therefore asked for this man, and was pleased to find he was not engaged.
“Good morning, Mr. Avery,” said the Inspector, as they entered his office, “what good wind blows you our way to-day?”
“Good morning, Inspector. This is Mr. Broughton, one of my clerks, and he has got a rather singular story that I think will interest you to hear.”
Inspector Burnley shook hands, closed the door, and drew up a couple of chairs.
“Sit down, gentlemen,” he said. “I am always interested in a good story.”
“Now, Broughton, repeat your adventures over again to Inspector Burnley.”
Broughton started off and, for the second time, told of his visit to the docks, the damage to the heavily built cask, the finding of the sovereigns and the woman’s hand, and the interview with Mr. Felix. The Inspector listened gravely and took a note or two, but did not speak till the clerk had finished, when he said:—
“Let me congratulate you, Mr. Broughton, on your very clear statement.”
“To which I might add a word,” said Mr. Avery, and he told of the visit of Mr. Felix to the office and handed over the envelope he had left.
“That envelope was written at 11.30,” said the Inspector, “and it is now nearly 12.30. I am afraid this is a serious matter, Mr. Avery. Can you come to the docks at once?”
“Well, don’t let us lose any time.” He threw a London directory down before Broughton. “Just look up this Felix, will you, while I make some arrangements.”
Broughton looked for West Jubb Street, but there was no such near Tottenham Court Road.
“I thought as much,” said Inspector Burnley, who had been telephoning. “Let us proceed.”
As they reached the courtyard a taxi drew up, containing two plain clothes men as well as the driver. Burnley threw open the door, they all got in, and the vehicle slid quickly out into the street.
Burnley turned to Broughton. “Describe the man Felix as minutely as you can.”
“He was a man of about middle height, rather slightly and elegantly built. He was foreign-looking, French, I should say, or even Spanish, with dark eyes and complexion, and black hair. He wore a short, pointed beard. He was dressed in blue clothes of good quality, with a dark-green or brown Homburg hat, and black shoes with light spats. I did not observe his collar and tie specially, but he gave me the impression of being well-dressed in such matters of detail. He wore a ring with some kind of stone on the little finger of his left hand.”
The two plain clothes men had listened attentively to the description, and they and the Inspector conversed in low tones for a few moments, when silence fell on the party.
They stopped opposite the Bullfinch’s berth and Broughton led the way down.
“There she is,” he pointed, “if we go to that gangway we can get down direct to the forehold.”
The two plain-clothes men had also alighted and the five walked in the direction indicated. They crossed the gangway and, approaching the hatchway, looked down into the hold.
“There’s where it is,” began Broughton, pointing down, and then suddenly stopped.
The others stepped forward and looked down. The hold was empty. Harkness and the cask were gone!
The immediate suggestion was, of course, that Harkness had had the cask moved to some other place for safety, and this they set themselves to find out.
“Get hold of the gang that were unloading this hold,” said the Inspector.
Broughton darted off and brought up a stevedore’s foreman, from whom they learned that the forehold had been emptied some ten minutes earlier, the men having waited to complete it and then gone for dinner.
“Where do they get their dinner? Can we get hold of them now?” asked Mr. Avery.
“Some of them, sir, I think. Most of them go out into the city, but some use the night watchman’s room where there is a fire.”
“Let’s go and see,” said the Inspector, and headed by the foreman they walked some hundred yards along the quay to a small brick building set apart from the warehouses, inside and in front of which sat a number of men, some eating from steaming cans, others smoking short pipes.
“Any o’ you boys on the Bullfinch’s lower forehold?” asked the foreman, “if so, boss wants you ’alf a sec.”
Three of the men got up slowly and came forward.
“We want to know, men,” said the managing director, “if you can tell us anything about Harkness and a damaged cask. He was to wait with it till we got down.”
“Well, he’s gone with it,” said one of the men, “lessn’ ’alf an hour ago.”
“Gone with it?”
“Yes. Some toff in blue clothes an’ a black beard came up an’ give ’im a paper, an’ when ’e’d read it ’e calls out an’ sez, sez ’e, ‘ ’Elp me swing out this ’ere cask,’ ’e says. We ’elps ’im, an’ ’e puts it on a ’orse dray—a four-wheeler. An’ then they all goes off, ’im an’ the cove in the blue togs walkin’ together after the dray.”
“Any name on the dray?” asked Mr. Avery.
“There was,” replied the spokesman, “but I’m blessed if I knows what it was. ’Ere Bill, you was talking about that there name. Where was it?”
Another man spoke.
“It was Tottenham Court Road, it was. But I didn’t know the street, and I thought that a strange thing, for I’ve lived off the Tottenham Court Road all my life.”
“Was it East John Street?” asked Inspector Burnley.
“Ay, it was something like that. East or West. West, I think. An’ it was something like John. Not John, but something like it.”
“What colour was the dray?”
“Blue, very fresh and clean.”
“Any one notice the colour of the horse?”
But this was beyond them. The horse was out of their line. Its colour had not been observed.
“Well,” said Mr. Avery, as the Inspector signed that was all he wanted, “we are much obliged to you. Here’s something for you.”
Inspector Burnley beckoned to Broughton.
“You might describe this man Harkness.”
“He was a tall chap with a sandy moustache, very high cheek-bones, and a big jaw. He was dressed in brown dungarees and a cloth cap.”
“You hear that,” said the Inspector, turning to the plain-clothes men. “They have half an hour’s start. Try to get on their track. Try north and east first, as it is unlikely they’d go west for fear of meeting us. Report to headquarters.”
The men hurried away.
“Now, a telephone,” continued the Inspector. “Perhaps you’d let me use your quay office one.”
They walked to the office, and Mr. Avery arranged for him to get the private instrument in the manager’s room. He rejoined the others in a few minutes.
“Well,” he said, “that’s all we can do in the meantime. A description of the men and cart will be wired round to all the stations immediately, and every constable in London will be on the look-out for them before very much longer.”
“Very good that,” said the managing director.
The Inspector looked surprised.
“Oh no,” he said, “that’s the merest routine. But now I’m here I would like to make some other inquiries. Perhaps you would tell your people that I’m acting with your approval, as it might make them give their information more willingly.”
Mr. Avery called over Huston, the manager.
“Huston, this is Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard. He is making some inquiries about that cask you already heard of. I’ll be glad if you see that he is given every facility.” He turned to the Inspector. “I suppose there’s nothing further I can do to help you? I should be glad to get back to the City again, if possible.”
“Thank you, Mr. Avery, there’s nothing more. I’ll cruise round here a bit. I’ll let you know how things develop.”
“Right. Good-bye then, in the meantime.”
The Inspector, left to his own devices, called Broughton and, going on board the Bullfinch, had the clerk’s story repeated in great detail, the actual place where each incident happened being pointed out. He made a search for any object that might have been dropped, but without success, visited the wharf and other points from which the work at the cask might have been overlooked, and generally made himself thoroughly familiar with the circumstances. By the time this was done the other men who had been unloading the forehold had returned from dinner, and he interviewed them, questioning each individually. No additional information was received.
The Inspector then returned to the quay office.
“I want you,” he asked Mr. Huston, “to be so good as to show me all the papers you have referring to that cask, waybills, forward notes, everything.”
Mr. Huston disappeared, returning in a few seconds with some papers which he handed to Burnley. The latter examined them and then said:—
“These seem to show that the cask was handed over to the French State Railway at their Rue Cardinet Goods Station, near the Gare St. Lazare, in Paris, by MM. Dupierre et Cie., carriage being paid forward. They ran it by rail to Rouen, where it was loaded on to your Bullfinch.”
“That is so.”
“I suppose you cannot say whether the Paris collection was made by a railway vehicle?”
“No, but I should think not, as otherwise the cartage charges would probably show.”
“I think I am right in saying that these papers are complete and correct in every detail?”
“Oh yes, they are perfectly in order.”
“How do you account for the cask being passed through by the Customs officials without examination?”
“There was nothing suspicious about it. It bore the label of a well-known and reputable firm, and was invoiced as well as stencilled, “Statuary only.” It was a receptacle obviously suitable for transporting such goods, and its weight was also in accordance. Unless in the event of some suspicious circumstance, cases of this kind are seldom opened.”
“Thank you, Mr. Huston, that is all I want at present. Now, can I see the captain of the Bullfinch?”
“Certainly. Come over and I’ll introduce you.”
Captain M’Nabb was a big, rawboned Ulsterman, with a hooked nose and sandy hair. He was engaged in writing up some notes in his cabin.
“Come in, sir, come in,” he said, as Huston made the Inspector known. “What can I do for you?”
Burnley explained his business. He had only a couple of questions to ask.
“How is the trans-shipment done from the railway to your boat at Rouen?”
“The wagons come down on the wharf right alongside. The Rouen stevedores load them, either with the harbour travelling crane or our own winches.”
“Would it be at all possible for a barrel to be tampered with after it was once aboard?”
“How do you mean tampered with? A barrel of wine might be tapped, but that’s all could be done.”
“Could a barrel be changed, or completely emptied and filled with something else?”
“It could not. The thing’s altogether impossible.”
“I’m much obliged to you, captain. Good-day.”
Inspector Burnley was nothing if not thorough. He questioned in turn the winch drivers, the engineers, even the cook, and before six o’clock had interviewed every man that had sailed on the Bullfinch from Rouen. The results were unfortunately entirely negative. No information about the cask was forthcoming. No question had been raised about it. Nothing had happened to call attention to it, or that was in any way out of the common.
Puzzled but not disheartened, Inspector Burnley drove back to Scotland Yard, his mind full of the mysterious happenings, and his pocket-book stored with all kinds of facts about the Bullfinch, her cargo, and crew.
Two messages were waiting for him. The first was from Ralston, the plain-clothes man that he had sent from the docks in a northerly direction. It read:—
“Traced parties as far as north end of Leman Street. Trail lost there.”
The second was from a police station in Upper Head Street:—
“Parties seen turning from Great Eastern Street into Curtain Road about 1.20 p.m.”
“H’m, going north-west, are they?” mused the Inspector taking down a large scale map of the district. “Let’s see. Here’s Leman Street. That is, say, due north from St. Katherine’s Docks, and half a mile or more away. Now, what’s the other one?”—he referred to the wire—“Curtain Road should be somewhere here. Yes, here it is. Just a continuation of the same line, only more west, say, a mile and a half from the docks. So they’re going straight, are they, and using the main streets. H’m. H’m. Now I wonder where they’re heading to. Let’s see.”
The Inspector pondered. “Ah, well,” he murmured at last, “we must wait till to-morrow,” and, sending instructions recalling his two plain-clothes assistants, he went home.
But his day’s work was not done. Hardly had he finished his meal and lit one of the strong, black cigars he favoured, when he was summoned back to Scotland Yard. There waiting for him was Broughton, and with him the tall, heavy-jawed foreman, Harkness.
The Inspector pulled forward two chairs.
“Sit down, gentlemen,” he said, when the clerk had introduced his companion, “and let me hear your story.”
“You’ll be surprised to see me so soon again, Mr. Burnley,” answered Broughton, “but, after leaving you, I went back to the office to see if there were any instructions for me, and found our friend here had just turned up. He was asking for the chief, Mr. Avery, but he had gone home. Then he told me his adventures, and as I felt sure Mr. Avery would have sent him to you, I thought my best plan was to bring him along without delay.”
“And right you were, Mr. Broughton. Now, Mr. Harkness, I would be obliged if you would tell me what happened to you.”
The foreman settled himself comfortably in his chair.
“Well, sir,” he began, “I think you’re listening to the biggest fool between this and St. Paul’s. I ’ave been done this afternoon, fairly diddled, an’ not once only, but two separate times. ’Owever, I’d better tell you from the beginning.
“When Mr. Broughton an’ Felix left, I stayed an’ kept an eye on the cask. I got some bits of ’oop iron by way o’ mending it, so that none o’ the boys would wonder why I was ’anging around. I waited the best part of an hour, an’ then Felix came back.
“ ‘Mr. ’Arkness, I believe?’ ’e said.
“ ‘That’s my name, sir,’ I answered.
“ ‘I ’ave a letter for you from Mr. Avery. P’raps you would kindly read it now,’ ’e said.
“It was a note from the ’ead office, signed by Mr. Avery, an’ it said that ’e ’ad seen Mr. Broughton an’ that it was all right about the cask, an’ for me to give it up to Felix at once. It said too that we ’ad to deliver the cask at the address that was on it, an’ for me to go there along with it and Felix, an’ to report if it was safely delivered.
“ ‘That’s all right, sir,’ said I, an’ I called to some o’ the boys, an’ we got the cask swung ashore an’ on to a four-wheeled dray Felix ’ad waiting. ’E ’ad two men with it, a big, strong fellow with red ’air an’ a smaller dark chap that drove. We turned east at the dock gates, an’ then went up Leman Street an’ on into a part o’ the city I didn’t know.
“When we ’ad gone a mile or more, the red-’aired man said ’e could do with a drink. Felix wanted ’im to carry on at first, but ’e gave in after a bit an’ we stopped in front o’ a bar. The small man’s name was Watty, an’ Felix asked ’im could ’e leave the ’orse, but Watty, said ‘No,’ an’ then Felix told ’im to mind it while the rest of us went in, an’ ’e would come out soon an’ look after it, so’s Watty could go in ’an get ’is drink. So Felix an’ I an’ Ginger went in, an’ Felix ordered four bottles o’ beer an’ paid for them. Felix drank ’is off, an’ then ’e told us to wait till ’e would send Watty in for ’is, an’ went out. As soon as ’e ’ad gone Ginger leant over an’ whispered to me, ‘Say, mate, wot’s ’is game with the blooming cask? I lay you five to one ’e ’as something crooked on.’
“ ‘Why,’ said I, ‘I don’t know about that.’ You see, sir, I ’ad thought the same myself, but then Mr. Avery wouldn’t ’ave written wot it was all right if it wasn’t.
“ ‘Well, see ’ere,’ said Ginger, ‘maybe if you an’ I was to keep our eyes skinned, it might put a few quid in our pockets.’
“ ‘ ’Ow’s that?’ said I.
“ ‘ ’Ow’s it yourself?’ said ’e. ‘If ’e ’as some game on wi’ the cask ’e’ll not be wanting for to let any outsiders in. If you an’ me was to offer for to let them in for ’im, ’e’d maybe think we was worth something.’
“Well, gentlemen, I thought over that, an’ first I wondered if this chap knew there was a body in the cask, an’ I was going to see if I couldn’t find out without giving myself away. Then I thought maybe ’e was on the same lay, an’ was pumping me. So I thought I would pass it off a while, an’ I said:—
“ ‘Would Watty come in?’ ”
“Ginger said ‘No,’ that three was too many for a job o’ that kind, an’ we talked on a while. Then I ’appened to look at Watty’s beer standing there, an’ I wondered ’e ’hadn’t been in for it.
“ ‘That beer won’t keep,’ I said. ‘If that blighter wants it ’e’d better come an’ get it.’
“Ginger sat up when ’e ’eard that.
“ ‘Wots wrong with ’im?’ ’e said. ‘I’ll drop out an’ see.’
“I don’t know why, gentlemen, but I got a kind o’ notion there was something in the air, an’ I followed ’im out. The dray was gone. We looked up an’ down the street, but there wasn’t a sign of it nor Felix nor Watty.
“ ‘Blow me, if they ’aven’t given us the slip,’ shouted Ginger. ‘Get a move on. You go that way an’ I’ll go this, an’ one of us is bound to see them at the corner.’
“I guessed I was on to the game then. These three were wrong ’uns, an’ they were out to get rid o’ the body, an’ they didn’t want me around to see the grave. All that about the drinks was a plan to get me away from the dray, an’ Ginger’s talk was only to keep me quiet till the others got clear. Well, two o’ them ’ad got quit o’ me right enough, but I was blessed if the third would.
“ ‘No, you don’t, ol’ pal,’ I said. ‘I guess you an’ me’ll stay together.’ I took ’is arm an’ ’urried ’im on the way ’e ’ad wanted to go ’imself. But when we got to the corner there wasn’t sign o’ the dray. They ’ad given us the slip about proper.
“Ginger cursed an’ raved, an’ wanted to know ’oo was going to pay ’im for ’is day. I tried to get out of ’im ’oo ’e was an’ ’oo ’ad ’ired ’im, but ’e wasn’t giving anything away. I kept close beside ’im, for I knew ’e’d ’ave to go ’ome some time, an’ I thought if I saw where ’e lived it would be easy to find out where ’e worked, an’ so likely get ’old o’ Felix. ’E tried different times to juke away from me, an’ ’e got real mad when ’e found ’e couldn’t.
“We walked about for more than three hours till it was near five o’clock, an’ then we ’ad some more beer, an’ when we came out o’ the bar we stood at the corner o’ two streets an’ thought wot we’d do next. An’ then suddenly Ginger lurched up against me, an’ I drove fair into an old woman that was passing, an’ nearly knocked ’er over. I caught ’er to keep ’er from falling—I couldn’t do no less—but when I looked round, I’m blessed if Ginger wasn’t gone. I ran down one street first, an’ then down the other, an’ then I went back into the bar, but never a sight of ’im did I get. I cursed myself for every kind of a fool, an’ then I thought I’d better go back an’ tell Mr. Avery anyway. So I went to Fenchurch Street, an’ Mr. Broughton brought me along ’ere.”
There was silence when the foreman ceased speaking, while Inspector Burnley, in his painstaking way, considered the statement he had heard, as well as that made by Broughton earlier in the day. He reviewed the chain of events in detail, endeavouring to separate out the undoubted facts from what might be only the narrator’s opinions. If the two men were to be believed, and Burnley had no reason for doubting either, the facts about the discovery and removal of the cask were clear, with one exception. There seemed to be no adequate proof that the cask really did contain a corpse.
“Mr. Broughton tells me he thought there was a body in the cask. Do you agree with that, Mr. Harkness?”
“Yes, sir, there’s no doubt of it. We both saw a woman’s hand.”
“But might it not have been a statue? The cask was labelled ‘Statuary,’ I understand.”
“No, sir, it wasn’t no statue. Mr. Broughton thought that at first, but when ’e looked at it again ’e gave in I was right. It was a body, sure enough.”
Further questions showed that both men were convinced the hand was real, though neither could advance any grounds for their belief other than that he ‘knew from the look of it.’ The Inspector was not satisfied that their opinion was correct, though he thought it probable. He also noted the possibility of the cask containing a hand only or perhaps an arm, and it passed through his mind that such a thing might be backed by a medical student as a somewhat gruesome practical joke. Then he turned to Harkness again.
“Have you the letter Felix gave you on the Bullfinch?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the foreman, handing it over.
It was written in what looked like a junior clerk’s handwriting on a small-sized sheet of business letter paper. It bore the I. and C.’s ordinary printed heading, and read:—
“5th April, 1912.
on s.s. Bullfinch,
St. Katherine’s Docks.
“Re Mr. Broughton’s conversation with you about cask for Mr. Felix.
“I have seen Mr. Broughton and Mr. Felix on this matter, and am satisfied the cask is for Mr. Felix and should be delivered immediately.
“On receipt of this letter please hand it over to Mr. Felix without further delay.
“As the Company is liable for its delivery at the address it bears, please accompany it as the representative of the Company, and report to me of its safe arrival in due course.
“For the I. and C. S. N. Co., Ltd.,
“per X. X.,
The initials shown “X” were undecipherable and were apparently written by a person in authority, though curiously the word ‘Avery’ in the same hand was quite clear.
“It’s written on your Company’s paper anyway,” said the Inspector to Broughton. “I suppose that heading is yours and not a fake?”
“It’s ours right enough,” returned the clerk, “but I’m certain the letter’s a forgery for all that.”
“I should imagine so, but just how do you know?”
“For several reasons, sir. Firstly, we do not use that quality of paper for writing our own servants; we have a cheaper form of memorandum for that. Secondly, all our stuff is typewritten; and thirdly, that is not the signature of any of our clerks.”
“Pretty conclusive. It is evident that the forger did not know either your managing director’s or your clerks’ initials. His knowledge was confined to the name Avery, and from your statement we can conceive Felix having just that amount of information.”
“But how on earth did he get our paper?”
“Oh, well, that’s not so difficult. Didn’t your head clerk give it to him?”
“By Jove! sir, I see it now. He got a sheet of paper and an envelope to write to Mr. Avery. He left the envelope and vanished with the sheet.”
“Of course. It occurred to me when Mr. Avery told me of the empty envelope. I guessed what he was going to do, and therefore I hurried to the docks in the hope of being before him. And now about that label on the cask. You might describe it again as fully as you can.”
“It was a card about six inches long by four high, fastened on by tacks all round the edge. Along the top was Dupierre’s name and advertisement, and in the bottom right-hand corner was a space about three inches by two for the address. There was a thick, black line round this space, and the card had been cut along this line so as to remove the enclosed portion and leave a hole three inches by two. The hole had been filled by pasting a sheet of paper or card behind the label. Felix’s address was therefore written on this paper, and not on the original card.”
“A curious arrangement. How do you explain it?”
“I thought perhaps Dupierre’s people had temporarily run out of labels and were making an old one do again.”
Burnley replied absently, as he turned the matter over in his mind. The clerk’s suggestion was of course possible, in fact, if the cask really contained a statue, it was the likely one. On the other hand, if it held a body, he imagined the reason was further to seek. In this case he thought it improbable that the cask had come from Dupierre’s at all and, if not, what had happened? A possible explanation occurred to him. Suppose some unknown person had received a statue from Dupierre’s in the cask and, before returning the latter, had committed a murder. Suppose he wanted to get rid of the body by sending it somewhere in the cask. What would he do with the label? Why, what had been done. He would wish to retain Dupierre’s printed matter in order to facilitate the passage of the cask through the Customs, but he would have to change the written address. The Inspector could think of no better way of doing this than by the alteration that had been made. He turned again to his visitors. “Well gentlemen, I’m greatly obliged to you for your prompt call and information, and if you will give me your addresses, I think that is all we can do to-night.”
Inspector Burnley again made his way home. But it was not his lucky night. About half-past nine he was again sent for from the Yard. Some one wanted to speak to him urgently on the telephone.
At the same time that Inspector Burnley was interviewing Broughton and Harkness in his office, another series of events centring round the cask was in progress in a different part of London.
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