The D’Arblay Mystery - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The D’Arblay Mystery ebook

R. Austin Freeman



In this novel, Dr. Thorndyke builds a card house of wild speculations to solve a perplexing murder case, astonishing all observers, including the police. The victim is Julius D ’Arblay, an artist highly skilled at the rare French art of making wax-work figures and portrait masks. D’Arblay has a beautiful daughter, which leads to a romance with a young Dr. Grey who discovers the father’s body and brings the case to Dr. Thorndyke’s attention. Before the end of the story, the young doctor and his love will each have survived two murder attempts by an increasingly frantic killer. There are lots of great scenes: stalking scenes, vicious attacks on Dr. Gray and Marion with various weapons, a sinister scene in a dense yellow London fog, a humorous exhumation of a dead man of dubious identity, and very funny vignettes with a tippler of an old doctor advising Gray on how to handle troublesome patients. Thorndyke’s lovable lab assistant Polton has a starring role in this novel.

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Liczba stron: 406

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THERE are certain days in our lives which, as we recall them, seem to detach themselves from the general sequence as forming the starting-point of a new epoch. Doubtless, if we examined them critically, we should find them to be but links in a connected chain. But in a retrospective glance their continuity with the past is unperceived, and we see them in relation to the events which followed them rather than to those which went before.

Such a day is that on which I look back through a vista of some twenty years; for on that day I was, suddenly and without warning, plunged into the very heart of a drama so strange and incredible that in the recital of its events I am conscious of a certain diffidence and hesitation.

The picture that rises before me as I write is very clear and vivid. I see myself, a youngster of twenty-five, the owner of a brand-new medical diploma, wending my way gaily down Wood Lane, Highgate, at about eight o’clock on a sunny morning in early autumn. I was taking a day’s holiday, the last I was likely to enjoy for some time, for on the morrow I was to enter on the duties of my first professional appointment. I had nothing in view to-day but sheer, delightful idleness. It is true that a sketch-book in one pocket and a box of collecting-tubes in another suggested a bare hint of purpose in the expedition; but primarily it was a holiday, a pleasure jaunt, to which art and science were no more than possible sources of contributory satisfaction.

At the lower end of the Lane was the entrance to Churchyard Bottom Wood, then open and unguarded save by a few hurdles (it has since been enclosed and renamed ‘Queen’s Wood’). I entered and took my way along the broad, rough path, pleasantly conscious of the deep silence and seeming remoteness of this surviving remnant of the primeval forest of Britain, and letting my thoughts stray to the great plague-pit in the haunted bottom that gave the wood its name. The foliage of the oaks was still unchanged, despite the waning of the year. The low-slanting sunlight spangled it with gold and made rosy patterns on the path, where lay a few prematurely-fallen leaves; but in the hollows among the undergrowth traces of the night-mists lingered, shrouding tree-bole, bush and fern in a mystery of gauzy blue.

A turn of the path brought me suddenly within a few paces of a girl who was stooping at the entrance to a side track and seemed to be peering into the undergrowth as if looking for something. As I appeared, she stood up and looked round at me with a startled, apprehensive manner that caused me to look away and pass as if I had not seen her. But the single glance had shown me that she was a strikingly handsome girl–indeed, I should have used the word ‘beautiful’–that she seemed to be about my own age, and that she was evidently a lady.

The apparition, pleasant as it was, set me speculating as I strode forward. It was early for a girl like this to be afoot in the woods, and alone, too. Not so very safe, either, as she had seemed to realize, judging by the start that my approach seemed to have given her. And what could it be that she was looking for? Had she lost something at some previous time and come to search for it before anyone was about? It might be so. Certainly she was not a poacher, for there was nothing to poach, and she hardly had the manner or appearance of a naturalist.

A little farther on I struck into a side-path which led, as I knew, in the direction of a small pond. That pond I had had in my mind when I put the box of collecting-tubes in my pocket, and I now made my way to it as directly as the winding track would let me; but still, it was not the pond or its inmates that occupied my thoughts, but the mysterious maiden whom I had left peering into the undergrowth. Perhaps if she had been less attractive I might have given her less consideration. But I was twenty-five; and if a man at twenty-five has not a keen and appreciative eye for a pretty girl, there must be something radically wrong with his mental make-up.

In the midst of my reflections I came out into a largish opening in the wood, at the centre of which, in a slight hollow, was the pond–a small oval piece of water, fed by the trickle of a tiny stream, the continuation of which carried away the overflow towards the invisible valley. Approaching the margin, I brought out my box of tubes, and uncorking one, stooped and took a trial dip. When I held the glass tube against the light and examined its contents through my pocket-lens, I found that I was in luck. The ‘catch’ included a green hydra, clinging to a rootlet of duckweed, several active water-fleas, a scarlet water-mite and a beautiful sessile rotifer. Evidently this pond was a rich hunting-ground.

Delighted with my success, I corked the tube, put it away and brought out another, with which I took a fresh dip. This was less successful; but the naturalist’s ardour and the collector’s cupidity being thoroughly aroused, I persevered, gradually enriching my collection and working my way slowly round the margin of the pond, forgetful of everything–even of the mysterious maiden–but the objects of my search: indeed, so engrossed was I with my pursuit of the minute denizens of this watery world that I failed to observe a much larger object which must have been in view most of the time. Actually, I did not see it until I was right over it. Then, as I was stooping to clear away the duckweed for a fresh dip, I found myself confronted by a human face; just below the surface and half-concealed by the pondweed.

It was a truly appalling experience. Utterly unprepared for this awful apparition, I was so overcome by astonishment and horror that I remained stooping, with motion arrested, as if petrified, staring at the thing in silence and hardly breathing. The face was that of a man of about fifty or a little more; a handsome, refined, rather intellectual face with a moustache and Vandyke beard and surmounted by a thickish growth of iron-grey hair. Of the rest of the body little was to be seen, for the duckweed and water-crowfoot had drifted over it, and I had no inclination to disturb them. Recovering somewhat from the shock of this sudden and fearful encounter, I stood up and rapidly considered what I had better do. It was clearly not for me to make any examination or meddle with the corpse in any way; indeed, when I considered the early hour and the remoteness of this solitary place, it seemed prudent to avoid the possibility of being seen there by any chance stranger. Thus reflecting, with my eyes still riveted on the pallid, impassive face, so strangely sleeping below the glassy surface and conveying to me somehow a dim sense of familiarity, I pocketed my tubes and, turning back, stole away along the woodland track, treading lightly, almost stealthily, as one escaping from the scene of a crime.

Very different was my mood, as I retraced my steps, from that in which I had come. Gone was all my gaiety and holiday spirit. The dread meeting had brought me into an atmosphere of tragedy, perchance even of something more than tragedy. With death I was familiar enough–death as it comes to men, prefaced by sickness or even by injury. But the dead man who lay in that still and silent pool in the heart of the wood had come there by none of the ordinary chances of normal life. It seemed barely possible that he could have fallen in by mere misadventure, for the pond was too shallow and its bottom shelved too gently for accidental drowning to be conceivable. Nor was the strange, sequestered spot without significance. It was just such a spot as might well be chosen by one who sought to end his life–or another’s.

I had nearly reached the main path when an abrupt turn of the narrow track brought me once more face to face with the girl whose existence I had till now forgotten. She was still peering into the dense undergrowth as if searching for something; and again, on my sudden appearance, she turned a startled face towards me. But this time I did not look away. Something in her face struck me with a nameless fear. It was not only that she was pale and haggard, that her expression betokened anxiety and even terror. As I looked at her I understood in a flash the dim sense of familiarity of which I had been conscious in the pallid face beneath the water. It was her face that it had recalled.

With my heart in my mouth, I halted, and, taking off my cap, addressed her.

“Pray pardon me; you seem to be searching for something. Can I help you in any way or give you any information?”

She looked at me a little shyly and, as I thought, with slight distrust, but she answered civilly enough though rather stiffly: “Thank you, but I am afraid you can’t help me. I am not in need of any assistance.”

This, under ordinary circumstances, would have brought the interview to an abrupt end. But the circumstances were not ordinary, and, as she made as if to pass me, I ventured to persist.

“Please,” I urged, “don’t think me impertinent, but would you mind telling me what you are looking for? I have a reason for asking, and it isn’t curiosity.”

She reflected for a few moments before replying and I feared that she was about to administer another snub. Then, without looking at me, she replied:

“I am looking for my father.” (and at these words my heart sank). “He did not come home last night. He left Hornsey to come home and he would ordinarily have come by the path through the wood. He always came that way from Hornsey. So I am looking through the wood in case he missed his way, or was taken ill, or–”

Here the poor girl suddenly broke off, and, letting her dignity go, burst into tears. I huskily murmured a few indistinct words of condolence, but, in truth, I was little less affected than she was. It was a terrible position, but there was no escape from it. The corpse that I had just seen was almost certainly her father’s corpse. At any rate, the question whether it was or was not had to be settled now, and settled by me–and her. That was quite clear; but yet I could not screw my courage up to the point of telling her. While I was hesitating, however, she forced the position by a direct question.

“You said just now that you had a reason for asking what I was searching for. Would it be–?” She paused and looked at me inquiringly as she wiped her eyes.

I made a last, frantic search for some means of breaking the horrid news to her. Of course there was none. Eventually I stammered:

“The reason I asked was–er–the fact is that I have just seen the body of a man lying–”

“Where?” she demanded. “Show me the place!”

Without replying, I turned and began quickly to retrace my steps along the narrow track. A few minutes brought me to the opening in which the pond was situated, and I was just beginning to skirt the margin, closely followed by my companion, when I heard her utter a low, gasping cry. The next moment she had passed me and was running along the bank towards a spot where I could now see the toe of a boot just showing through the duckweed. I stopped short and watched her with my heart in my throat. Straight to the fatal spot she ran, and for a moment stood on the brink, stooping over the weedy surface. Then, with a terrible, wailing cry she stepped into the water.

Instantly, I ran forward and waded into the pond to her side. Already she had her arms round the dead man’s neck and was raising the face above the surface. I saw that she meant to bring the body ashore, and, useless as it was, it seemed a natural thing to do. Silently I passed my arms under the corpse and lifted it; and as she supported the head, we bore it through the shallows and up the bank, where I laid it down gently in the high grass.

Not a word had been spoken, nor was there any question that need be asked. The pitiful tale told itself only too plainly. As I stood looking with swimming eyes at the tragic group, a whole history seemed to unfold itself–a history of love and companionship, of a happy, peaceful past made sunny by mutual affection, shattered in an instant by the hideous present, with its portent of a sad and lonely future. She had sat down on the grass and taken the dead head on her lap, tenderly wiping the face with her handkerchief, smoothing the grizzled hair and crooning or moaning words of endearment into the insensible ears. She had forgotten my presence; indeed, she was oblivious of everything but the still form that bore the outward semblance other father.

Some minutes passed thus. I stood a little apart, cap in hand, more moved than I had ever been in my life, and, naturally enough, unwilling to break in upon a grief so overwhelming and, as it seemed to me, so sacred. But presently it began to be borne in on me that something had to be done. The body would have to be removed from this place, and the proper authorities ought to be notified. Still, it was some time before I could gather courage to intrude on her sorrow, to profane her grief with the sordid realities of everyday life. At last I braced myself up for the effort and addressed her.

“Your father,” I said gently–I could not refer to him as ‘the body’–“will have to be taken away from here; and the proper persons will have to be informed of what has happened. Shall I go alone, or will you come with me? I don’t like to leave you here.”

She looked up at me and, to my relief, answered me with quiet composure: “I can’t leave him here all alone. I must stay with him until he is taken away. Do you mind telling whoever ought to be told,”–like me, she instinctively avoided the word ‘police’–“and making what arrangements are necessary?”

There was nothing more to be said, and loath as I was to leave her alone with the dead, my heart assented to her decision. In her place, I should have had the same feeling. Accordingly, with a promise to return as quickly as I could, I stole away along the woodland track. When I turned to take a last glance at her before plunging into the wood, she was once more leaning over the head that lay in her lap, looking with fond grief into the impassive face and stroking the dank hair.

My intention had been to go straight to the police-station, when I had ascertained its whereabouts, and make my report to the officer in charge. But a fortunate chance rendered this proceeding unnecessary, for, at the moment when I emerged from the top of Wood Lane, I saw a police officer, mounted on a bicycle–a road patrol, as I assumed him to be–approaching along the Archway Road. I hailed him to stop, and as he dismounted and stepped on to the footway, I gave him a brief account of the finding of the body and my meeting with the daughter of the dead man. He listened with calm, businesslike interest, and, when I had finished, said: “We had better get the body removed as quickly as possible. I will run along to the station and get the wheeled stretcher. There is no need for you to come. If you will go back and wait for us at the entrance to the wood, that will save time. We shall be there within a quarter of an hour.”

I agreed gladly to this arrangement, and when I had seen him mount his machine and shoot away along the road, I turned back down the Lane and re-entered the wood. Before taking up my post, I walked quickly down the path and along the track to the opening by the pond. My new friend was sitting just as I had left her, but she looked up as I emerged from the track and advanced towards her. I told her briefly what had happened, and was about to retire when she asked: “Will they take him to our house?”

“I am afraid not,” I replied. “There will have to be an inquiry by the coroner, and until that is finished, his body will have to remain in the mortuary.”

“I was afraid it might be so,” she said with quiet resignation; and as she spoke she looked down with infinite sadness at the waxen face in her lap. A good deal relieved by her reasonable acceptance of the painful necessities, I turned back and made my way to the rendezvous at the entrance to the wood.

As I paced to and fro on the shady path, keeping a lookout up the Lane, my mind was busy with the tragedy to which I had become a party. It was a grievous affair. The passionate grief which I had witnessed spoke of no common affection. On one life at least this disaster had inflicted irreparable loss, and there were probably others on whom the blow had yet to fall. But it was not only a grievous affair; it was highly mysterious. The dead man had apparently been returning home at night in a customary manner and by a familiar way. That he could have strayed by chance from the open, well-worn path into the recesses of the wood was inconceivable, while the hour and the circumstances made it almost as incredible that he should have been wandering in the wood by choice. And again, the water in which he had been lying was quite shallow, so shallow as to rule out accidental drowning as an impossibility.

What could the explanation be? There seemed to be but three possibilities, and two of them could hardly be entertained. The idea of intoxication I rejected at once. The girl was evidently a lady, and her father was presumably a gentleman who would not be likely to be wandering abroad drunk; nor could a man who was sober enough to have reached the pond have been so helpless as to be drowned in its shallow waters. To suppose that he might have fallen into the water in a fit was to leave unexplained the circumstance of his being in that remote place at such an hour. The only possibility that remained was that of suicide, and I could not but admit that some of the appearances seemed to support that view. The solitary place–more solitary still at night–was precisely such as an intending suicide might be expected to seek; the shallow water presented no inconsistency; and when I recalled how I had found his daughter searching the wood with evident foreboding of evil, I could not escape the feeling that the dreadful possibility had not been entirely unforeseen.

My meditations had reached this point when, as I turned once more towards the entrance and looked up the Lane, I saw two constables approaching, trundling a wheeled stretcher, while a third man, apparently an inspector, walked by its side. As the little procession reached the entrance and I turned back to show the way, the latter joined me and began at once to interrogate me. I gave him my name, address and occupation, and followed this with a rapid sketch of the facts as known to me, which he jotted down in a large note-book, and he then said:

“As you are a doctor, you can probably tell me how long the man had been dead when you first saw him.”

“By the appearance and the rigidity,” I replied, “I should say about nine or ten hours; which agrees pretty well with the account his daughter gave of his movements.”

The inspector nodded. “The man and the young lady,” said he, “are strangers to you, I understand. I suppose you haven’t picked up anything that would throw any light on the affair?”

“No,” I answered; “I know nothing but what I have told you.”

“Well,” he remarked, “it’s a queer business. It is a queer place for a man to be in at night, and he must have gone there of his own accord. But there, it is no use guessing. It will all be thrashed out at the inquest.”

As he reached this discreet conclusion, we came out into the opening and I heard him murmur very feelingly, “Dear, dear! Poor thing!” The girl seemed hardly to have changed her position since I had last seen her, but she now tenderly laid the dead head on the grass and rose as we approached; and I saw with great concern that her skirts were soaked almost from the waist downwards.

The officer took off his cap and as he drew near looked down gravely but with an inquisitive eye at the dead man. Then he turned to the girl and said in a singularly gentle and deferential manner:

“This is a very terrible thing, miss. A dreadful thing. I assure you that I am more sorry for you than I can tell; and I hope you will forgive me for having to intrude on your sorrow by asking questions. I won’t trouble you more than I can help.”

“Thank you,” she replied quietly. “Of course I realize your position. What do you want me to tell you?”

“I understand,” replied the inspector, “that this poor gentleman was your father. Would you mind telling me who he was and where he lived and giving me your own name and address?”

“My father’s name,” she answered, “was Julius D’Arblay. His private address was Ivy Cottage, North Grove, Highgate. His studio and workshop, where he carried on the profession of a modeller, is in Abbey Road, Hornsey. My name is Marion D’Arblay and I lived with my father. He was a widower and I was his only child.”

As she concluded, with a slight break in her voice, the inspector shook his head and again murmured, “Dear, dear!” as he rapidly entered her answers in his note-book. Then, in a deeply apologetic tone, he asked:

“Would you mind telling what you know as to how this happened?”

“I know very little,” she replied. “As he did not come home last night, I went to the studio quite early this morning to see if he was there. He sometimes stayed there all night when he was working very late. The woman who lives in the adjoining house and looks after the studio, told me that he had been working late last night, but that he left to come home soon after ten. He always used to come through the wood, because it was the shortest way and the most pleasant. So when I learned that he had started to come home, I came to the wood to see if I could find any traces of him. Then I met this gentleman and he told me that he had seen a dead man in the wood and–” Here she suddenly broke down and, sobbing passionately, flung out her hand towards the corpse.

The inspector shut his note–book, and murmuring some indistinct words of sympathy, nodded to the constables, who had drawn up the stretcher a few paces away and lifted off the cover. On this silent instruction, they approached the body and, with the inspector’s assistance and mine, lifted it on to the stretcher without removing the latter from its carriage. As they picked up the cover, the inspector turned to Miss D’Arblay and said gently but finally: “You had better not come with us. We must take him to the mortuary, but you will see him again after the inquest, when he will be brought to your house if you wish it.”

She made no objection; but as the constables approached with the cover, she stooped over the stretcher and kissed the dead man on the forehead.

Then she turned away, the cover was placed in position, the inspector and the constables saluted reverently, and the stretcher was wheeled away along the narrow track.

For some time after it had gone, we stood in silence at the margin of the pond with our eyes fixed on the place where it had disappeared. I considered in no little embarrassment what was to be done next. It was most desirable that Miss D’Arblay should be got home as soon as possible, and I did not at all like the idea of her going alone, for her appearance, with her drenched skirts and her dazed and rather wild expression, was such as to attract unpleasant attention. But I was a total stranger to her and I felt a little shy of pressing my company on her. However, it seemed a plain duty, and, as I saw her shiver slightly, I said: “You had better go home now and change your clothes. They are very wet. And you have some distance to go.”

She looked down at her soaked dress and then she looked at me.

“You are rather wet, too,” she said. “I am afraid I have given you a great deal of trouble.”

“It is little enough that I have been able to do,” I replied. “But you must really go home now; and if you will let me walk with you and see you safely to your house, I shall be much more easy in my mind.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “It is kind of you to offer to see me home, and I am glad not to have to go alone.”

With this, we walked together to the edge of the opening and proceeded in single file along the track to the main path, and so out into Wood Lane, at the top of which we crossed the Archway Road into Southwood Lane. We walked mostly in silence, for I was unwilling to disturb her meditations with attempts at conversation, which could only have seemed banal or impertinent. For her part, she appeared to be absorbed in reflections the nature of which I could easily guess, and her grief was too fresh for any thought of distraction. But I found myself speculating with profound discomfort on what might be awaiting her at home. It is true that her own desolate state as an orphan without brothers or sisters had its compensation in that there was no wife to whom the dreadful tidings had to be imparted, nor any fellow-orphans to have their bereavement broken to them. But there must be someone who cared; or if there were not, what a terrible loneliness would reign in that house!

“I hope,” I said as we approached our destination, “that there is someone at home to share your grief and comfort you a little.”

“There is,” she replied. “I was thinking of her and how grievous it will be to have to tell her–an old servant and a dear friend. She was my mother’s nurse when the one was a child and the other but a young girl. She came to our house when my mother married and has managed our home ever since. This will be a terrible shock to her, for she loved my father dearly–everyone loved him who knew him. And she has been like a mother to me since my own mother died. I don’t know how I shall break it to her.”

Her voice trembled as she concluded and I was deeply troubled to think of the painful homecoming that loomed before her; but still it was a comfort to know that her sorrow would be softened by sympathy and loving companionship, not heightened by the empty desolation that I had feared.

A few minutes more brought us to the little square–which, by the way, was triangular–and to a pleasant little old-fashioned house, on the gate of which was painted the name, ‘Ivy Cottage’. In the bay window on the ground-floor I observed a formidable-looking elderly woman, who was watching our approach with evident curiosity; which, as we drew nearer and the state of our clothing became visible, gave place to anxiety and alarm. Then she disappeared suddenly, to reappear a few moments later at the open door, where she stood viewing us both with consternation and me in particular with profound disfavour.

At the gate Miss D’Arblay halted and held out her hand. “Good-bye,” she said. “I must thank you some other time for all your kindness,” and with this she turned abruptly and, opening the gate, walked up the little paved path to the door where the old woman was waiting.

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