The Jacob Street Mystery - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The Jacob Street Mystery ebook

R. Austin Freeman

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R. Austin Freeman’s mysteries are often divided into two parts, the first dealing with events leading up to a murder, followed by Dr. Thorndyke’s investigation. In this case, the first part, about a beautiful woman who poses as a serious artist, then disappears, is delightful. It details the friendship between Thomas Pedley and Loretta Schiller. The second part is written in the first person with Jervis, Thorndyke’s assistant, being the narrator as usual. A peaceful, pleasant afternoon in the woodland scene of Linton Green is disturbed when a brutal murder takes place. But thanks to an unseen witness, the killer may be caught, and the witness turns out to be a blessing in disguise. This is the story of Thomas Pedley, a gifted artist who paints what he sees from memory.

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Contents

PART I

A PLOT IN THE MAKING

I. THE EAVESDROPPER

II. MR. BLANDY

III. MRS. SCHILLER

IV. MR. VANDERPUYE

V. A TRIVIAL CHAPTER, BUT NOT IRRELEVANT

VI. THE FOREST OF ESSEX

VII. OF A PEDOMETER AND A TRAGEDY

VIII. REVELATIONS

IX. WHERE IS LOTTA?

X. THE CAMP REVISITED

PART II

THE UNKNOWN FACTOR NARRATED BY CHRISTOPHER JERVIS, M.D.

XI. MR. PENFIELD OPENS THE BALL

XII. TOM PEDLEY RECEIVES VISITORS

XIII. THORNDYKE BECOMES SECRETIVE

XIV. THE PROBATE COURT

XV. MR. LORIMER OBJECTS

XVI. SUPERINTENDENT MILLER INTERVENES

XVII. OBSERVATIONS ON THE ART OF DISGUISE

XVIII. THE INVESTIGATION REVIEWED

PART I

A PLOT IN THE MAKING

I. THE EAVESDROPPER

ON a pleasant, sunny afternoon near the end of May, when the late spring was just merging into early summer, Mr. Thomas Pedley (Tom Pedley to his friends, or more usually plain Tom) was seated on a substantial sketching stool before a light bamboo easel on which was fixed an upright canvas measuring eighteen inches by twelve. To an expert eye, his appearance, his simple, workmanlike outfit, the leisurely ease with which he handled his brush, and the picture which was growing into shape on the canvas, would all have suggested a competent and experienced landscape painter.

And such, in fact, was Tom Pedley. From his early boyhood, some forty-odd years ago, drawing and painting had been his one absorbing passion, coupled with that love of the countryside that marks the born landscape artist. To him that countryside, largely unspoiled in his early days, was an inexhaustible source of delight and a subject of endless study and meditation. In his daily rambles through meadow or woodland, by farmyards or quiet hamlets, every journey was a voyage of exploration yielding fresh discoveries; new truths of characteristic form and subtle, unexpected colour to be added to his growing store of knowledge of those less obvious aspects of nature which it is the landscape painter’s mission to reveal. And as the years passed and the countryside faded away under the withering touch of mechanical transport, that knowledge grew more and more precious. Now, the dwindling remnants had to be sought and found with considered judgment and their scanty material eked out with detail brought forth from the stores of the remembered past.

The picture which was shaping itself on the canvas was an example of this application of knowledge gained by experience. On the wall of a gallery it would have suggested to the spectator an open glade in some vast woodland. In fact, the place was no more than a scrubby little copse, the last surviving oasis in the squalid desert of a “developing” neighbourhood. From his “pitch,” ensconced in a clump of bushes, Tom could hear, faint and far away, the strident hoots of motor cars, the rumble of omnibuses, and the clatter of lorries; and but a hundred yards distant was the path by which he had come, a rutted track that led from a half-built street at one end to a dismantled farmyard at the other.

Nevertheless, apart from the traffic noises, the place was strangely peaceful and quiet, its silence accentuated by the natural sounds that pervaded it. Somewhere in the foliage hard by, a thrush sang joyously, and on a branch just overhead a chaffinch repeated again and again his pleasant little monotonous song. And the solitude was as perfect as the quiet. The rough path seemed to be untrodden by the foot of man, for, during the two hours that Tom had been at work, not a soul had passed along it.

At length, as he paused to fill his pipe and take a thoughtful survey of his picture, the sound of voices was followed by the appearance of two men walking slowly along the path, conversing earnestly though in low tones. Tom could not hear what they were saying, though the impression conveyed to him was that their manner was rather the reverse of amicable. But in fact he gave them little attention beyond noting the effect of the dark, sharply defined shapes against the in definite background; and even this interested him but little as his subject required no figures, and certainly not one in a bowler hat. So he continued filling his pipe and appraising his afternoon’s work as they walked by without noticing him–actually, he was almost invisible from the path–and as they passed out of sight he produced his matchbox and was about to strike a light when a third figure, that of a woman, made its appearance, moving in the same direction as the others.

This time Tom’s attention was definitely aroused, and he sat motionless with the unlighted match in his hand, peering out through the chinks in the bushes which concealed him. The woman’s behaviour was very peculiar. She was advancing rather more quickly than the two men, but with a silent, stealthy tread; and from her movements she seemed to be listening and trying to keep the men in sight while keeping out of sight, herself.

Tom watched her disapprovingly. He disliked “snoopers” of all sorts, but especially those who were eavesdroppers as well. However, this was none of his business, and, when she had passed out of his field of vision, he lit his pipe, took up his brush, and straightway forgot all about her.

But he had not finished with her after all. He had been painting but a few minutes when she reappeared; and now her behaviour was still more odd. She was returning at a quicker pace but with the same stealthy movements, listening and looking back over her shoulder with something like an air of alarm. Suddenly, when she was nearly opposite Tom’s pitch, she slipped into an opening in the bushes and disappeared from his sight.

This was really rather queer. Once more he transferred his brush to the palette hand, and, as he listened intently, felt in his pocket for the matchbox; for, of course, his pipe had gone out, as a painter’s pipe continually does. Very soon his ear caught the sound of footsteps; light, quick footsteps approaching from the direction of the farmyard. Then a man came into view, walking quickly but with a soft and almost stealthy tread and looking about him watchfully as he went.

Tom, sitting stock-still in his leafy ambush, followed the retreating figure with an inquisitive eye, recognizing him as the shorter of the two men who had passed down the path and wondering what had become of the other. Then the man disappeared in the direction of the street; and still Tom sat like a graven image, waiting to see if there were any further developments.

He had not long to wait. Hardly had the sound of the man’s footsteps died away when the woman stole forth from her hiding-place and stood for a few seconds listening intently and peering up the path in the direction in which the man had gone. Then she began slowly and warily to follow; and presently she, too, passed out of sight among the trees.

Tom thoughtfully lit his pipe and reflected. It was a queer affair. What was it all about? The woman was obviously spying on the men; apparently listening to their talk, and mighty anxious to keep out of sight. That was all there was to it so far as he was concerned; and as he was not really concerned in it at all, he decided that it was a “dam’ rum go” and dismissed it from his mind.

But the dismissal was not quite effective. The incident had broken the continuity of his ideas and he found it difficult to start afresh. For a few minutes he struggled to pick up the threads, adding a touch here and there; then, once more, he leaned back and surveyed his work, finally getting up from his stool and stepping back a pace or two to see it better as a whole. Now, one of the most important things that experience teaches a painteris when to leave off; and Tom, having considered his picture critically, decided that the time had come. He had painted steadily for a full two hours, and he was a rapid worker in spite of his leisurely manner; rapid because he knew what he wanted to do, made few mistakes, and painted very directly with a rigid economy of work.

Having decided that his picture was finished, excepting perhaps for a little work in the studio to “pull it together,” he proceeded forthwith to pack up, closing the folding palette and stowing it in the light wooden colour box, strapping the painting in the canvas carrier, and rolling the used brushes in the painting rag. When he had put these things tidily in his satchel, he folded up the easel and stool, fixed them in the carrying-strap, slung the satchel on his shoulder, and, having taken a last look at his subject, pushed his way through the undergrowth towards the path.

Arriving at the rutted track, he stood for a few seconds looking up and down it as he refilled his pipe. He was not an inquisitive man, but he felt a mild curiosity as to what had become of the man who had passed and had not returned. His previous explorations had given him the impression that the path, or cart track, came to a dead end where the wood petered out and the new devastations began. Apparently, he had been wrong; there must be some continuation of the track, perhaps holding out possibilities for the landscape painter.

Having lit his pipe, he strolled along the path for some three hundred yards until he emerged from the shade of the wood into open daylight. And then both his questions were disposed of. The track, or at least the cart-ruts, was visible, passing through the remains of a gateway and meandering through the devastated farmyard towards an area in which stacks of bricks and dumps of various building material foreshadowed a new eruption of houses similar to those that were to be seen beyond. Hard by, on his right hand, was an old, rat-eaten hayrick, and, a few yards farther away, a ruinous cart-shed of which the thatched roof had rotted away, exposing the decayed rafters. At these melancholy relics of the vanished farm Tom glanced regretfully; then he turned back and retraced his steps along the path.

He had trudged some two hundred yards when there was borne to his ear the sound of horse’s hoofs and the rumble of wheels, evidently approaching from the direction of the Street; and as he came nearly opposite his “pitch,” a two-wheeled cart appeared round a curve. He stopped to watch it and to note the interesting effect of the rustic-looking vehicle on the winding track, standing out sharply in dark silhouette against its back ground of sun-lighted foliage. As it drew near, he backed into the wood to make way for it and exchanged greetings with the man who was leading the horse; and when it had passed, he turned to look at it and make a mental note of its changed appearance in the altered conditions of light, until it disappeared round a bend of the track; whereupon he resumed his advance to wards the town, stepping out briskly and becoming aware of an increasing interest in the meal which was awaiting him at the end of his journey. At the top of the path where it opened on the half-built street, he paused for a few moments to look disparagingly on the unlovely scene, which but a year ago had still been country; then, having exchanged a few words with an elderly bricklayer who appeared to be standing guard over a stack of bricks, he strode away towards the main road to take up his position at the bus stop.

Here he had a considerable time to wait, and he spent it pacing up and down, looking expectantly at each turn in the direction whence the omnibus would come. From a young policeman who presently strolled past, he obtained a rather vague statement as to the time when it was due, with the discouraging addition that the last one had passed about five minutes ago. So Thomas resumed his sentry-go and meanwhile turned over in his mind once again that very queer episode in the wood; and he was still cogitating on it when the omnibus appeared and put a welcome end to his vigil.

It was not a long journey, in terms of modern transport, and the rather squalid domain of the speculative builder soon gave place to the established town. Tom’s natural stopping-place would have been the Hampstead Road, but he elected to alight at Marylebone Church and approach his destination by way of Osnaburgh Street and Cumberland Market; whereby he presently emerged into a quiet, shabby street of tall, shabby, but commodious old houses, and so to a green-painted wooden gate bearing the number 38A and flanked by a small brass plate on the jamb inscribed “T. Pedley” and surmounted by a big brass bell-pull.

As Thomas inserted his latch-key and opened the gate, he disclosed a feature common to many of the adjacent houses; a narrow passage opening into a paved yard. For Jacob Street was largely a street of studios. Once it had been a fashionable street, the abode of famous painters and sculptors. Now, the famous artists had gone, but the studios remained; some tenanted by artists of humbler status, but most of them converted into workshops. In either case, Jacob Street was a highly eligible place for persons of small means who wanted roomy premises; for, as studios are in little demand nowadays and are useless for residential purposes, the rents were surprisingly low, though the accommodation was, of its special kind, admirable.

The studio into which Tom admitted himself after crossing the yard was better adapted for residence than some of the others, being more moderate in height, and he had further adapted it by erecting a light wooden partition in one corner, enclosing a large cubicle which served him as a bedroom. With this and a tall folding screen to enclose the fireplace in winter, or to conceal the sink and the gas cooking-stove when he had visitors, Tom had converted the great bare studio into a convenient and fairly comfortable flat.

Having cleaned his palette, washed his brushes, and washed himself in a big bowl in the sink, he opened a hay-box (disguised by an upholstered top to look like, and serve as, an ottoman) and took out a couple of casseroles which he set on the neatly laid dinner table, opened a bottle of beer and decanted the contents into a fine white stoneware jug, drew up a chair, sat down with a sigh of contentment, and lifted off the lids of the casseroles; one of which proved to contain potatoes (cooked in their jackets) and the other a nondescript kind of stew based on a dismembered fowl.

The table and its appointments offered a summary of Tom Pedley’s character and personality. His simple philosophy of life was fairly expressed in his own statement that “a man’s wealth can be estimated in terms of what he can do without.” Now, the things that Tom could do without were the luxuries and extras that consume money. For entertainments other than museums and public galleries he had no use. He had hardly ever ridden in a taxi, he never smoked cigars, and his single bottle of whisky had lain unopened for a couple of years. He lived plainly, spent little, wasted nothing, and took care of what he had.

By thus thriftily ordering his life, he was able to indulge himself in the things that mattered to him. The beer-jug was a museum piece, as was also the fine ale-glass with its charming engraved design of hops and barley. The little French cheese reposed in a covered dish of Moorcroft ware, the pile of apples in a hand some bowl of beaten bronze, and a finely carved wooden trencher supported the brown loaf. Every object on the table, even including the casseroles, was pleasant and comely to look at, though not necessarily costly, and had been the subject of carefully considered choice. For Tom was an artist to his finger-tips. To him art was no Sunday religion. He loved to have beautiful things around him, not merely to look at but to live with; and he could afford to indulge his fancy, since he did his own domestic work and knew that his treasures were safe from the devastating duster of servant maid or charwoman.

So Tom sat in the fine “Chippendale Windsor” chair at the picturesque gate-leg table and consumed his dinner with placid enjoyment, keeping himself entertained, as is the way of solitary men, with a train of reflections. Principally, his thoughts tended to concern themselves with the curious episode in the wood, which seemed to haunt him to a quite unreasonable extent. For it had been but a trivial affair, and he was not deeply interested in it. Nevertheless, his memory persisted in recalling the incident and filling in details of which he had been unaware at the time, until he was able to visualize a curiously complete picture of the scene and the action. Then his lively imagination took charge and wove a little story around those three figures; and this interested him so much that it presently occurred to him that here was the making of quite a good subject picture of a simple kind, and he decided to try an experimental sketch and see what he could make of it.

When he had finished his dinner, he proceeded to wash up, still turning the project over in his mind. The washing up was not a protracted business, for he had learned to economize in the use of plates and dishes. There was, in fact, only one plate and a knife and fork, and, when these had been dealt with and tidily stowed away, together with the casseroles, in a great French armoire, he was ready to begin. Taking his fresh painting from the canvas-carrier, he set it on an easel, and, selecting a smaller spare canvas, put that on another easel alongside, set his palette and fell to work, first roughing in some of the background from his painting and then proceeding to the disposition of the figures.

The subject of the projected picture was to be “The Eavesdropper,” and this seemed to require that the woman should be the principal figure, placed as near as possible in the foreground and painted in some detail on a sufficient scale. Accordingly, he began with her, first blocking in a flat grey silhouette to get the form and the pose and then proceeding to colour and detail. And as he worked he was surprised to find how much he remembered and how little he had to invent. The gleam of sunlight which had fallen on the woman as she retired, lighting up her hair like burnished gold and picking out bright spots on her clothing, came back to him vividly, and when he had put in a few lively touches of positive colour to render the effect, there seemed little more to do. Roughly as the figure was indicated, it recalled the appearance of the woman exactly as he had seen her.

The same was true of the male figures, though as they were more distant they could be painted more simply. In their definitely urban dress they were not very pictorial, but, as this was only a preliminary sketch, Tom decided to keep to the actual facts. And here again he was surprised to note how much he had seen in those casual glances without conscious observation. In fact, when he had put in the two figures from memory not only had he rendered admirably the argumentative pose and action but he had put in more distinctive detail than the distance of the figures required.

For over an hour he worked away with great enjoyment until the little sketch was completed so far as it need be. Then he “knocked off,” cleaned his palette, washed his brushes, and, after a glance at the old “hood” clock on the wall, proceeded to smarten him self up with a view to an informal call on his bachelor friend, Dr. Oldfield, who lived hard by in Osnaburgh Street; with whom it was his custom to spend an occasional evening in pleasant, companionable gossip and perhaps a game of chess. But they were not often reduced to that resource, for the doctor was something of an artist, and they had plenty of material for interesting and sympathetic conversation.

When he had refilled his tobacco pouch from a tin and brushed his hat, Tom stood awhile before the easel considering critically the newly finished sketch. It had been interesting enough in the doing but, now that it was done, he found it a little disappointing. As a subject picture, it was somewhat indefinite and lacking in matter; in short, it was hardly a subject picture at all, but rather a landscape with figures. However, it could be reconsidered and perhaps elaborated if that should seem worth while; and, having reached this conclusion, Tom took his gloves and stick and set forth en route for Osnaburgh Street.

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