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The Vanishing Man (Chapter11)

2006-08-22 18:49

  Chapter XI. The Evidence Reviewed

  “So the game has opened,” observed Thorndyke, as he struck a match. “The play has begun with a cautious lead off by the other side. Very cautious, and not very confident.”

  “Why do you say 'not very confident'?” I asked.

  “Well, it is evident that Hurst——and, I fancy, Jellicoe too——is anxious to buy off Bellingham's opposition, and at a pretty long price, under the circumstances. And when we consider how very little Bellingham has to offer against the presumption of his brother's death, it looks as if Hurst hadn't much to say on his side.”

  “No,” said Jervis, “he can't hold many trumps or he wouldn't be willing to pay four hundred a year for his opponent's chance; and that is just as well, for it seems to me that our own hand is a pretty poor one.”

  “We must look through our hand and see what we do hold,” said Thorndyke. “Our trump card at present——a rather small one, I am afraid——is the obvious intention of the testator that the bulk of the property should go to his brother.”

  “I suppose you will begin your inquiries now,” said I.

  “We began them some time ago——the day after you brought us the will, in fact. Jervis has been through the registers and has ascertained that no interment under the name of John Bellingham has taken place since the disappearance; which was just what we expected. He has also discovered that some other person has been making similar inquiries; which, again, is what we expected.”

  “And your own investigations?”

  “Have given negative results for the most part. I found Doctor Norbury, at the British Museum, very friendly and helpful; so friendly, in fact, that I am thinking whether I may not be able to enlist his help in certain private researches of my own, with reference to the changes effected by time in the physical properties of certain substances.”

  “Oh; you haven't told me about that,” said Jervis.

  “No: I haven't really commenced to plan my experiments yet, and they will probably lead to nothing when I do. It occurred to me that, possibly, in the course of time, certain molecular changes might take place in substances such as wood, bone, pottery, stucco, and other common materials, and that these changes might alter their power of conducting or transmitting molecular vibrations. Now, if this should turn out to be the case, it would be a fact of considerable importance, medico-legal and otherwise; for it would be possible to determine approximately the age of any object of known composition by testing its reactions to electricity, heat, light and other molecular vibrations. I thought of seeking Doctor Norbury's assistance because he can furnish me with materials for experiment of such great age that the reactions, if any, should be extremely easy to demonstrate. But to return to our case. I learned from him that John Bellingham had certain friends in Paris——collectors and museum officials——whom he was in the habit of visiting for the purpose of study and exchange of specimens. I have made inquiries of all of these, and none of them had seen him during his last visit. In fact, I have not yet discovered anyone who had seen Bellingham in Paris on this occasion. So his visit there remains a mystery for the present.”

  “It doesn't seem to be of much importance, since he undoubtedly came back,” I remarked; but to this Thorndyke demurred.

  “It is impossible to estimate the importance of the unknown,” said he.

  “Well, how does the matter stand,” asked Jervis, “on the evidence that we have? John Bellingham disappeared on a certain date. Is there anything to show what was the manner of his disappearance?”

  “The facts in our possession,” said Thorndyke, “which are mainly those set forth in the newspaper report, suggest several alternative possibilities; and in view of the coming inquiry——for they will, no doubt, have to be gone into in Court, to some extent——it may be worth while to consider them. There are five conceivable hypotheses”——here Thorndyke checked them on his fingers as he proceeded——“First, he may still be alive. Second, he may have died and been buried without identification. Third, he may have been murdered by some unknown person. Fourth, he may have been murdered by Hurst and his body concealed. Fifth, he may have been murdered by his brother. Let us examine these possibilities seriatim.

  “First, he may still be alive. If he is, he must either have disappeared voluntarily, have lost his memory suddenly and not been identified, or have been imprisoned——on a false charge or otherwise. Let us take the first case——that of voluntary disappearance. Obviously, its improbability is extreme.”

  “Jellicoe doesn't think so,” said I. “He thinks it quite on the cards that John Bellingham is alive. He says that it is not a very unusual thing for a man to disappear for a time.”

  “Then why is he applying for a presumption of death?”

  “Just what I asked him. He says that it is the correct thing to do; that the entire responsibility rests on the Court.”

  “That is all nonsense,” said Thorndyke. “Jellicoe is the trustee for his absent client, and, if he thinks that client is alive, it is his duty to keep the estate intact; and he knows that perfectly well. We may take it that Jellicoe is of the same opinion as I am: that John Bellingham is dead.”

  “Still,” I urged, “men do disappear from time to time, and turn up again after years of absence.”

  “Yes, but for a definite reason. Either they are irresponsible vagabonds who take this way of shuffling off their responsibilities, or they are men who have been caught in a net of distasteful circumstances. For instance, a civil servant or a solicitor or a tradesman finds himself bound for life to a locality and an occupation of intolerable monotony. Perhaps he has an ill-tempered wife, who, after the amiable fashion of a certain type of woman, thinking that her husband is pinned down without a chance of escape, gives a free rein to her temper. The man puts up with it for years, but at last it becomes unbearable. Then he suddenly disappears; and small blame to him. But this was not Bellingham's case. He was a wealthy bachelor with an engrossing interest in life, free to go whither he would and to do whatsoever he wished. Why should he disappear? The thing is incredible.

  “As to his having lost his memory and remained unidentified, that, also, is incredible in the case of a man who had visiting-cards and letters in his pocket, whose linen was marked, and who was being inquired for everywhere by the police. As to his being in prison, we may dismiss that possibility, inasmuch as a prisoner, both before and after conviction, would have full opportunity of communicating with his friends.

  “The second possibility, that he may have died suddenly and been buried without identification, is highly improbable; but, as it is conceivable that the body might have been robbed and the means of identification thus lost, it remains as a possibility that has to be considered, remote as it is.

  “The third hypothesis, that he may have been murdered by some unknown person, is, under the circumstances, not wildly improbable; but, as the police were on the look out and a detailed description of the missing man's person was published in the papers, it would involve the complete concealment of the body. But this would exclude the most probable form of the crime——the casual robbery with violence. It is therefore possible, but highly improbable.

  “The fourth hypothesis is that Bellingham was murdered by Hurst. Now the one fact which militates against this view is that Hurst apparently had no motive for committing the murder. We are assured by Jellicoe that no one but himself knew the contents of the will, and if this is so——but, mind, we have no evidence that it is so——Hurst would have no reason to suppose that he had anything material to gain by his cousin's death. Otherwise the hypothesis presents no inherent improbabilities. The man was last seen alive at Hurst's house. He was seen to enter it and he was never seen to leave it——we are still taking the facts as stated in the newspapers, remember——and it now appears that he stands to benefit enormously by that man's death.”

  “But,” I objected, “you are forgetting that, directly the man was missed, Hurst and the servants together searched the entire house.”

  “Yes. What did they search for?”

  “Why, for Mr. Bellingham, of course.”

  “Exactly; for Mr. Bellingham. That is, for a living man. Now how do you search a house for a living man? You look in all the rooms. When you look in a room, if he is there, you see him; if you do not see him, you assume that he is not there. You don't look under the sofa or behind the piano, you don't pull out large drawers or open cupboards. You just look into the rooms. That is what these people seem to have done. And they did not see Mr. Bellingham. But Mr. Bellingham's corpse might have been stowed away out of sight in any one of the rooms that they looked into.”

  “That is a grim thought,” said Jervis; “But it is perfectly true. There is no evidence that the man was not lying dead in the house at the very time of the search.”

  “But even so,” said I, “there was the body to be disposed of somehow. Now how could he possibly have got rid of the body without being observed?”

  “Ah!” said Thorndyke, “now we are touching on a point of crucial importance. If anyone should ever write a treatise on the art of murder——not an exhibition of literary fireworks like De Quincey's, but a genuine working treatise——he might leave all other technical details to take care of themselves if he could describe some really practicable plan for disposing of the body. That is, and always has been, the great stumbling-block to the murderer: to get rid of the body. The human body,” he continued, thoughtfully regarding his pipe, just as, in the days of my pupilage, he was wont to regard the black-board chalk, “is a very remarkable object. It presents a combination of properties that makes it singularly difficult to conceal permanently. It is bulky and of an awkward shape, it is heavy, it is completely incombustible, it is chemically unstable, and its decomposition yields great volumes of highly odorous gases, and it nevertheless contains identifiable structures of the highest degree of permanence. It is extremely difficult to preserve unchanged, and it is still more difficult completely to destroy. The essential permanence of the human body is well shown in the classical case of Eugene Aram; but a still more striking instance is that of Seqenen-Ra the Third, one of the last kings of the seventeenth Egyptian dynasty. Here, after a lapse of some four thousand years, it has been possible to determine, not only the cause of death and the manner of its occurrence, but the way in which the king fell, the nature of the weapon with which the fatal wound was inflicted, and even the position of the assailant. And the permanence of the body under other conditions is admirably shown in the case of Doctor Parkman, of Boston, U.S.A., in which identification was actually effected by means of remains collected from the ashes of a furnace.”

  “Then we may take it,” said Jervis, “that the world has not yet seen the last of John Bellingham.”

  “I think we may regard that as almost a certainty,” replied Thorndyke. “The only question——and a very important one——is as to when the reappearance may take place. It may be to-morrow or it may be centuries hence, when all the issues involved have been forgotten.”

  “Assuming,” said I, “for the sake of argument, that Hurst did murder him and that the body was concealed in the study at the time the search was made. How could it have been disposed of? If you had been in Hurst's place, how would you have gone to work?”

  Thorndyke smiled at the bluntness of my question.

  “You are asking me for an incriminating statement,” said he, “delivered in the presence of a witness too. But, as a matter of fact, there is no use in speculating a priori; we should have to reconstruct a purely imaginary situation, the circumstances of which are unknown to us, and we should almost certainly reconstruct it wrong. What we may fairly assume is that no reasonable person, no matter how immoral, would find himself in the position that you suggest. Murder is usually a crime of impulse, and the murderer a person of feeble self-control. Such persons are most unlikely to make elaborate and ingenious arrangements for the disposal of the bodies of their victims. Even the cold-blooded perpetrators of the most carefully planned murders appear, as I have said, to break down at this point. The almost insuperable difficulty of getting rid of a human body is not appreciated until the murderer suddenly finds himself face to face with it.

  “In the case that you are suggesting, the choice would seem to lie between burial on the premises or dismemberment and dispersal of the fragments; and either method would be pretty certain to lead to discovery.”

  “As illustrated by the remains of which you were speaking to Mr. Bellingham,” Jervis remarked.

  “Exactly,” Thorndyke answered, “though we could hardly imagine a reasonably intelligent criminal adopting a watercress-bed as a hiding-place.”

  “No. That was certainly an error of judgment. By the way, I thought it best to say nothing while you were talking to Bellingham, but I noticed that, in discussing the possibility of those being the bones of his brother, you made no comment on the absence of the third finger of the left hand. I am sure you didn't overlook it, but isn't it a point of some importance?”

  “As to identification? Under the present circumstances, I think not. If there were a man missing who had lost that finger it would, of course, be an important fact. But I have not heard of any such man. Or, again, if there were any evidence that the finger had been removed before death, it would be highly important. But there is no such evidence. It may have been cut off after death, and there is where the real significance of its absence lies.”

  “I don't quite see what you mean,” said Jervis.

  “I mean that, if there is no report of any missing man who had lost that particular finger, the probability is that the finger was removed after death. And then arises the interesting question of motive. Why should it have been removed? It could hardly have become detached accidentally. What do you suggest?”

  “Well,” said Jervis, “it might have been a peculiar finger; a finger, for instance, with some characteristic deformity, such as an ankylosed joint, which would be easy to identify.”

  “Yes; but that explanation introduces the same difficulty. No person with a deformed or ankylosed finger has been reported as missing.”

  Jervis puckered up his brows and looked at me.

  “I'm hanged if I see any other explanation,” he said. “Do you, Berkeley?”

  I shook my head.

  “Don't forget which finger it is that is missing,” said Thorndyke. “The third finger on the left hand.”

  “Oh, I see!” said Jervis. “The ring-finger. You mean it may have been removed for the sake of a ring that wouldn't come off.”

  “Yes. It would not be the first instance of the kind. Fingers have been severed from dead hands——and even from living ones——for the sake of rings that were too tight to be drawn off. And the fact that it is the left hand supports this suggestion; for a ring that was inconveniently tight would be worn by preference on the left hand, as that is usually slightly smaller than the right. What is the matter, Berkeley?”

  A sudden light had burst upon me, and I suppose my countenance betrayed the fact.

  “I am a confounded fool!” I exclaimed.

  “Oh, don't say that,” said Jervis. “Give your friends a chance.”

  “I ought to have seen this long ago and told you about it. John Bellingham did wear a ring, and it was so tight that, when once he had got it on, he could never get it off again.”

  “Do you happen to know on which hand he wore it?” Thorndyke asked.

  “Yes. It was the left hand; because Miss Bellingham, who told me about it, said that he would never have been able to get the ring on at all but for the fact that his left hand was slightly smaller than his right.”

  “There it is, then,” said Thorndyke. “With this new fact in our possession, the absence of this finger furnishes the starting-point of some very curious speculations.”

  “As, for instance?” said Jervis.

  “Ah, under the circumstances, I must leave you to pursue those speculations independently. I am now acting for Mr. Bellingham.”

  Jervis grinned and was silent for a while, refilling his pipe thoughtfully; but when he had got it alight he resumed.

  “To return to the question of the disappearance; you don't consider it highly improbable that Bellingham might have been murdered by Hurst?”

  “Oh, don't imagine that I am making an accusation. I am considering the various probabilities merely in the abstract. The same reasoning applies to the Bellinghams. As to whether any of them did commit the murder, that is a question of personal character. I certainly do not suspect the Bellinghams after having seen them, and with regard to Hurst, I know nothing, or at least very little, to his disadvantage.”

  “Do you know anything?” asked Jervis.

  “Well,” Thorndyke said, with some hesitation, “it seems a thought unkind to rake up the little details of a man's past, and yet it has to be done. I have, of course, made the usual routine inquiries concerning the parties to this affair, and this is what they have brought to light:

  “Hurst, as you know, is a stockbroker——a man of good position and reputation; but, about ten years ago, he seems to have committed an indiscretion, to put it mildly, which nearly got him into rather serious difficulties. He appears to have speculated rather heavily and considerably beyond his means, for when a sudden spasm of the market upset his calculations, it turned out that he had been employing his clients' capital and securities. For a time it looked as if there was going to be serious trouble; then, quite unexpectedly, he managed to raise the necessary amount in some way and settle all claims. Whence he got the money has never been discovered to this day, which is a curious circumstance, seeing that the deficiency was rather over five thousand pounds; but the important fact is that he did get it and that he paid up all that he owed. So that he was only a potential defaulter, so to speak; and, discreditable as the affair undoubtedly was, it does not seem to have any direct bearing on this present case.”

  “No,” Jervis agreed, “though it makes one consider his position with more attention than one would otherwise.”

  “Undoubtedly,” said Thorndyke. “A reckless gambler is a man whose conduct cannot be relied on. He is subject to sudden vicissitudes of fortune which may force him into other kinds of wrongdoing. Many an embezzlement has been preceded by an unlucky plunge on the turf.”

  “Assuming the responsibility for this disappearance to lie between Hurst and——and the Bellinghams,” said I, with an uncomfortable gulp as I mentioned the name of my friends, “to which side does the balance of probability incline?”

  “To the side of Hurst, I should say, without doubt,” replied Thorndyke. “The case stands thus——on the facts presented to us: Hurst appears to have had no motive for killing the deceased (as we will call him); but the man was seen to enter his house, was never seen to leave it, and was never again seen alive. Bellingham, on the other hand, had a motive, as he believed himself to be the principal beneficiary under the will. But the deceased was not seen at his house, and there is no evidence that he went to the house or to the neighbourhood of the house, excepting the scarab that was found there. But the evidence of the scarab is vitiated by the fact that Hurst was present when it was picked up, and that it was found on a spot over which Hurst had passed only a few minutes previously. Until Hurst is cleared, it seems to me that the presence of the scarab proves nothing against the Bellinghams.”

  “Then your opinions on the case,” said I, “are based entirely on the facts that have been made public.”

  “Yes, mainly. I do not necessarily accept those facts just as they are presented, and I may have certain views of my own on the case. But if I have, I do not feel in a position to discuss them. For the present, discussion has to be limited to the facts and inferences offered by the parties concerned.”

  “There!” exclaimed Jervis, rising to knock out his pipe, “that is where Thorndyke has you. He lets you think you're in the very thick of the 'know' until one fine morning you wake up and discover that you have only been a gaping outsider; and then you are mightily astonished——and so are the other side, too, for that matter. But we must really be off now, mustn't we, reverend senior?”

  “I suppose we must,” replied Thorndyke; and, as he drew on his gloves, he asked: “Have you heard from Barnard lately?”

  “Oh, yes,” I answered. “I wrote to him at Smyrna to say that the practice was flourishing and that I was quite happy and contented, and that he might stay away as long as he liked. He writes by return that he will prolong his holiday if an opportunity offers, but will let me know later.”

  “Gad,” said Jervis, “it was a stroke of luck for Barnard that Bellingham happened to have such a magnificent daughter——there! don't mind me, old man. You go in and win——she's worth it, isn't she, Thorndyke?”

  “Miss Bellingham is a very charming young lady,” replied Thorndyke. “I am most favourably impressed by both the father and the daughter, and I only trust that we may be able to be of some service to them.” With this sedate little speech Thorndyke shook my hand, and I watched my two friends go on their way until their fading shapes were swallowed up in the darkness of Fetter Lane.

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