The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter XII. A Voyage of Discovery
It was some two or three mornings after my little supper-party that, as I stood in the consulting-room brushing my hat preparatory to starting on my morning round, Adolphus appeared at the door to announce two gentlemen waiting in the surgery. I told him to bring them in, and a moment later Thorndyke entered, accompanied by Jervis. I noted that they looked uncommonly large in the little apartment, especially Thorndyke, but I had no time to consider this phenomenon, for the latter, when he had shaken my hand, proceeded at once to explain the object of their visit.
"We have come to ask a favour, Berkeley," he said; "to ask you to do us a very great service in the interests of your friends, the Bellinghams."
"You know I shall be delighted," I said warmly. "What is it?"
"I will explain. You know--or perhaps you don't--that the police have collected all the bones that have been discovered and deposited them in the mortuary at Woodford, where they are to be viewed by the coroner's jury. Now, it has become imperative that I should have more definite and reliable information about them than I can get from the newspapers. The natural thing would be for me to go down and examine them myself, but there are circumstances that make it very desirable that my connection with the case should not leak out. Consequently, I can't go myself, and, for the same reason, I can't send Jervis. On the other hand, as it is now stated pretty openly that the police consider the bones to be almost certainly those of John Bellingham, it would seem perfectly natural that you, as Godfrey Bellingham's doctor, should go down to view them on his behalf."
"I should like to go," I said. "I would give anything to go; but how is it to be managed? It would mean a whole day off and leaving the practice to take care of itself."
"I think that could be arranged," said Thorndyke; "and the matter is really important for two reasons. One is that the inquest opens to-morrow, and someone certainly ought to be there to watch the proceedings on Godfrey's behalf; and the other is that our client has received notice from Hurst's solicitors that the application would be heard in the Probate Court in a few days."
"Isn't that rather sudden?" I asked.
"It certainly suggests that there has been a good deal more activity than we were given to understand. But you see the importance of the affair. The inquest will be a sort of dress rehearsal for the Probate Court, and it is quite essential that we should have a chance of estimating the management."
"Yes, I see that. But how are we to manage about the practice?"
"We shall find you a substitute."
"Through a medical agent?"
"Yes," said Jervis. "Turcival will find us a man; in fact, he has done it. I saw him this morning; he has a man who is waiting up in town to negotiate for the purchase of a practice and who would do the job for a couple of guineas. Quite a reliable man. Only say the word, and I will run off to Adam Street and engage him definitely."
"Very well. You engage the locum tenens, and I will be prepared to start for Woodford as soon as he turns up."
"Excellent!" said Thorndyke. "That is a great weight off my mind. And if you could manage to drop in this evening and smoke a pipe with us we could talk over the plan of campaign and let you know what items of information we are particularly in want of."
I promised to turn up at King's Bench Walk as soon after half-past eight as possible, and my two friends then took their departure, leaving me to set out in high spirits on my scanty round of visits.
It is surprising what different aspects things present from different points of view; how relative are our estimates of the conditions and circumstances of life. To the urban workman--the journeyman baker or tailor, for instance, labouring year in year out in a single building--a holiday ramble on Hampstead Heath is a veritable voyage of discovery; whereas to the sailor the shifting panorama of the whole wide world is but the commonplace of the day's work.
So I reflected as I took my place in the train at Liverpool Street on the following day. There had been a time when a trip by rail to the borders of Epping Forest would have been far from a thrilling experience; now, after vegetating in the little world of Fetter Lane, it was quite an adventure.
The enforced inactivity of a railway journey is favourable to thought, and I had much to think about. The last few weeks had witnessed momentous changes in my outlook. New interests had arisen, new friendships had grown up; and, above all, there had stolen into my life that supreme influence that, for good or for evil, according to my fortune, was to colour and pervade it even to its close. Those few days of companionable labour in the reading-room, with the homely hospitalities of the milk-shop and the pleasant walks homeward through the friendly London streets, had called into existence a new world--a world in which the gracious personality of Ruth Bellingham was the one dominating reality. And thus, as I leaned back in a corner of the railway carriage with an unlighted pipe in my hand, the events of the immediate past, together with those more problematical ones of the impending future, occupied me rather to the exclusion of the business of the moment, which was to review the remains collected in the Woodford mortuary, until, as the train approached Stratford, the odours of the soap and bone-manure factories poured in at the open window and (by a natural association of ideas) brought me back to the object of my quest.
As to the exact purpose of this expedition, I was not very clear; but I knew that I was acting as Thorndyke's proxy and thrilled with pride at the thought. But what particular light my investigations were to throw upon the intricate Bellingham case I had no very definite idea. With a view to fixing the course of procedure in my mind, I took Thorndyke's written instructions from my pocket and read them over carefully. They were very full and explicit, making ample allowance for my lack of experience in medico-legal matters:--
These were my instructions, and, considering that I was going merely to inspect a few dry bones, they appeared rather formidable; in fact, the more I read them over the greater became my misgivings as to my qualifications for the task.
As I approached the mortuary it became evident that some, at least, of Thorndyke's admonitions were by no means unnecessary. The place was in charge of a police-sergeant, who watched my approach suspiciously; and some half-dozen men, obviously newspaper reporters, hovered about the entrance like a pack of jackals. I presented the coroner's order which Mr. Marchmont had obtained, and which the sergeant read with his back against the wall, to prevent the newspaper men from looking over his shoulder.
My credentials being found satisfactory, the door was unlocked and I entered, accompanied by three enterprising reporters, whom, however, the sergeant summarily ejected and locked out, returning to usher me into the presence and to observe my proceedings with intelligent but highly embarrassing interest.
The bones were laid out on a large table and covered with a sheet, which the sergeant slowly turned back, watching my face intently as he did so to note the impression that the spectacle made upon me. I imagine that he must have been somewhat disappointed by my impassive demeanour, for the remains suggested to me nothing more than a rather shabby set of "student's osteology." The whole collection had been set out (by the police-surgeon, as the sergeant informed me) in their proper anatomical order; notwithstanding which I counted them over carefully to make sure that none were missing, checking them by the list with which Thorndyke had furnished me.
"I see you have found the left thigh-bone," I remarked, observing that this did not appear in the list.
"Yes," said the sergeant; "that turned up yesterday evening in a big pond called Baldwin's Pond in the Sand-pit plain, near Little Monk Wood."
"Is that near here?" I asked.
"In the forest up Loughton way," was the reply.
I made a note of the fact (on which the sergeant looked as if he was sorry he had mentioned it), and then turned my attention to a general consideration of the bones before examining them in detail. Their appearance would have been improved and examination facilitated by a thorough scrubbing, for they were just as they had been taken from their respective resting-places, and it was difficult to decide whether their reddish-yellow colour was an actual stain or due to a deposit on the surface. In any case, as it affected them all alike, I thought it an interesting feature and made a note of it. They bore numerous traces of their sojourn in the various ponds from which they had been recovered, but these gave me little help in determining the length of time during which they had been submerged. They were, of course, encrusted with mud, and little wisps of pond-weed stuck to them in places; but these facts furnished only the vaguest measure of time.
Some of the traces were, indeed, more informing. To several of the bones, for instance, there adhered the dried egg-clusters of the common pond-snail, and in one of the hollows of the right shoulder-blade (the "infra-spinous fossa") was a group of the mud-built tubes of the red river-worm. These remains gave proof of a considerable period of submersion, and since they could not have been deposited on the bones until all the flesh had disappeared, they furnished evidence that some time--a month or two, at any rate--had elapsed since this had happened. Incidentally, too, their distribution showed the position in which the bones had lain, and though this appeared to be of no importance in the existing circumstances, I made careful notes of the situation of each adherent body, illustrating their position by rough sketches.
The sergeant watched my proceedings with an indulgent smile.
"You're making a regular inventory, sir," he remarked, "as if you were going to put 'em up for auction. I shouldn't think those snails' eggs would be much help in identification. And all that has been done already," he added as I produced my measuring-tape.
"No doubt," I replied; "but my business is to make independent observations, to check the others, if necessary." And I proceeded to measure each of the principal bones separately and to compare those of the opposite sides. The agreement in dimensions and general characteristics of the pairs of bones left little doubt that all were parts of one skeleton, a conclusion that was confirmed by the eburnated patch on the head of the right thigh-bone and the corresponding patch in the socket of the right hip-bone. When I had finished my measurements I went over the entire series of bones in detail, examining each with the closest attention for any of those signs which Thorndyke had indicated, and eliciting nothing but a monotonously reiterated negative. They were distressingly and disappointingly normal.
"Well, sir, and what do you make of 'em?" the sergeant asked cheerfully as I shut up my note-book and straightened my back. "Whose bones are they? Are they Mr. Bellingham's, think ye?"
"I should be very sorry to say whose bones they are," I replied. "One bone is very much like another, you know."
"I suppose it is," he agreed; "but I thought that, with all that measuring and all those notes, you might have arrived at something definite." Evidently he was disappointed in me; and I was somewhat disappointed in myself when I contrasted Thorndyke's elaborate instructions with the meagre result of my investigations. For what did my discoveries amount to? And how much was the inquiry advanced by the few entries in my note-book?
The bones were apparently those of a man of fair though not remarkable muscular development; over thirty years of age, but how much older I was unable to say. His height I judged roughly to be five feet eight inches, but my measurements would furnish data for a more exact estimate by Thorndyke. Beyond this the bones were quite uncharacteristic. There were no signs of disease either local or general, no indications of injuries either old or recent, no departures of any kind from the normal or usual; and the dismemberment had been effected with such care that there was not a single scratch on any of the separated surfaces. Of adipocere (the peculiar waxy or soapy substance that is commonly found in bodies that have slowly decayed in damp situations) there was not a trace; and the only remnant of the soft structures was a faint indication, like a spot of dried glue, of the tendon on the tip of the right elbow.
The sergeant was in the act of replacing the sheet, with the air of a showman who has just given an exhibition, when there came a sharp rapping on the mortuary door. The officer finished spreading the sheet with official precision, and having ushered me out into the lobby, turned the key and admitted three persons, holding the door open after they had entered for me to go out. But the appearance of the new-comers inclined me to linger. One of them was a local constable, evidently in official charge; a second was a labouring man, very muddy and wet, who carried a small sack; while in the third I thought I scented a professional brother.
The sergeant continued to hold the door open.
"Nothing more I can do for you, sir?" he asked genially.
"Is that the divisional surgeon?" I inquired.
"Yes. I am the divisional surgeon," the new-comer answered. "Did you want anything of me?"
"This," said the sergeant, "is a medical gentleman who has got permission from the coroner to inspect the remains. He is acting for the family of the deceased--I mean, for the family of Mr. Bellingham," he added in answer to an inquiring glance from the surgeon.
"I see," said the latter. "Well, they have found the rest of the trunk, including, I understand, the ribs that were missing from the other part. Isn't that so, Davis?"
"Yes, sir," replied the constable. "Inspector Badger says all the ribs is here, and all the bones of the neck as well."
"The inspector seems to be an anatomist," I remarked.
The sergeant grinned. "He's a very knowing gentleman, is Mr. Badger. He came down here this morning quite early and spent a long time looking over the bones and checking them by some notes in his pocket-book. I fancy he's got something on, but he was precious close about it."
Here the sergeant shut up rather suddenly--perhaps contrasting his own conduct with that of his superior.
"Let us have these new bones out on the table," said the police-surgeon. "Take that sheet off, and don't shoot them out as if they were coals. Hand them out carefully."
The labourer fished out the wet and muddy bones one by one from the sack, and as he laid them on the table the surgeon arranged them in their proper relative positions.
"This has been a neatly executed job," he remarked; "none of your clumsy hacking with a chopper or a saw. The bones have been cleanly separated at the joints. The fellow who did this must have had some anatomical knowledge, unless he was a butcher, which, by the way, is not impossible. He has used his knife uncommonly skilfully, and you notice that each arm was taken off with the scapula attached, just as a butcher takes off a shoulder of mutton. Are there any more bones in that bag?"
"No, sir," replied the labourer, wiping his hands with an air of finality on the posterior aspect of his trousers; "that's the lot."
The surgeon looked thoughtfully at the bones as he gave a final touch to their arrangement, and remarked:
"The inspector is right. All the bones of the neck are there. Very odd. Don't you think so?"
"I mean that this very eccentric murderer seems to have given himself such an extraordinary amount of trouble for no reason that one can see. There are these neck vertebrae, for instance. He must have carefully separated the skull from the atlas instead of just cutting through the neck. Then there is the way he divided the trunk; the twelfth ribs have just come in with this lot, but the twelfth dorsal vertebra to which they belong was attached to the lower half. Imagine the trouble he must have taken to do that, and without cutting or hacking the bones about, either. It is extraordinary. This is rather interesting, by the way. Handle it carefully."
He picked up the breast-bone daintily--for it was covered with wet mud--and handed it to me with the remark: "That is the most definite piece of evidence we have."
"You mean," I said, "that the union of the two parts into a single mass fixes this as the skeleton of an elderly man?"
"Yes, that is the obvious suggestion, which is confirmed by the deposit of bone in the rib-cartilages. You can tell the inspector, Davis, that I have checked this lot of bones and that they are all here."
"Would you mind writing it down, sir?" said the constable. "Inspector Badger said I was to have everything in writing."
The surgeon took out his pocket-book, and, while he was selecting a suitable piece of paper, he asked: "Did you form any opinion as to the height of the deceased?"
"Yes, I thought he would be about five feet eight" (here I caught the sergeant's eyes fixed on me with a knowing leer).
"I made it five eight and a half," said the police-surgeon; "but we shall know better when we have seen the lower leg-bones. Where was this lot found, Davis?"
"In the pond just off the road in Lord's Bushes, sir, and the inspector has gone off now to--"
"Never mind where he's gone," interrupted the sergeant. "You just answer questions and attend to your business."
The sergeant's reproof conveyed a hint to me on which I was not slow to act. Friendly as my professional colleague was, it was clear that the police were disposed to treat me as an interloper who was to be kept out of the "know" as far as possible. Accordingly I thanked my colleague and the sergeant for their courtesy, and bidding them adieu until we should meet at the inquest, took my departure and walked away quickly until I found an inconspicuous position from which I could keep the door of the mortuary in view. A few moments later I saw Constable Davis emerge and stride away up the road.
I watched his rapidly diminishing figure until he had gone as far as I considered desirable, and then I set forth in his wake. The road led straight away from the village, and in less than half a mile entered the outskirts of the forest. Here I quickened my pace to close up somewhat, and it was well that I did so, for suddenly he diverged from the road into a green lane, where for a while I lost sight of him. Still hurrying forward, I again caught sight of him just as he turned off into a narrow path that entered a beech wood with a thickish undergrowth of holly, along which I followed him for several minutes, gradually decreasing the distance between us, until suddenly there fell on my ear a rhythmical, metallic sound like the clank of a pump. Soon after I caught the sound of men's voices, and then the constable struck off the path into the wood.
I now advanced more cautiously, endeavouring to locate the search party by the sound of the pump, and when I had done this I made a little detour so that I might approach from the opposite direction to that from which the constable had appeared.
Still guided by the noise of the pump, I at length came out into a small opening among the trees and halted to survey the scene. The centre of the opening was occupied by a small pond, not more than a dozen yards across, by the side of which stood a builder's handcart. The little two-wheeled vehicle had evidently been used to convey the appliances which were deposited on the ground near it, and which consisted of a large tub--now filled with water--a shovel, a rake, a sieve, and a portable pump, the latter being fitted with a long delivery hose. There were three men besides the constable, one of whom was working the handle of the pump, while another was glancing at a paper that the constable had just delivered to him. He looked up sharply as I appeared, and viewed me with unconcealed disfavour.
"Hallo, sir!" said he. "You can't come here."
Now, seeing that I actually was here, this was clearly a mistake, and I ventured to point out the fallacy.
"Well, I can't allow you to stay here. Our business is of a private nature."
"I know exactly what your business is, Inspector Badger."
"Oh, do you?" said he, surveying me with a foxy smile. "And I expect I know what yours is, too. But we can't have any of you newspaper gentry spying on us just at present, so you just be off."
I thought it best to undeceive him at once, and accordingly, having explained who I was, I showed him the coroner's permit, which he read with manifest annoyance.
"This is all very well, sir," said he as he handed me back the paper, "but it doesn't authorise you to come spying on the proceedings of the police. Any remains that we discover will be deposited in the mortuary, where you can inspect them to your heart's content; but you can't stay here and watch us."
I had no defined object in keeping a watch on the inspector's proceedings; but the sergeant's indiscreet hint had aroused my curiosity, which was further excited by Mr. Badger's evident desire to get rid of me. Moreover, while we had been talking, the pump had stopped (the muddy floor of the pond being now pretty fully exposed), and the inspector's assistant was handling the shovel impatiently.
"Now, I put it to you, Inspector," said I, persuasively, "is it politic of you to allow it to be said that you refused an authorised representative of the family facilities for verifying any statements that you may make hereafter?"
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean that if you should happen to find some bone which could be identified as part of the body of Mr. Bellingham, that fact would be of more importance to his family than to anyone else. You know that there is a very valuable estate and a rather difficult will."
"I didn't know it, and I don't see the bearing of it now" (neither did I, for that matter); "but if you make such a point of being present at the search, I can't very well refuse. Only you mustn't get in our way, that's all."
On hearing this conclusion, his assistant, who looked like a plain-clothes officer, took up his shovel and stepped into the mud that formed the bottom of the pond, stooping as he went and peering among the masses of weed that had been left stranded by the withdrawal of the water. The inspector watched him anxiously, cautioning him from time to time to "look out where he was treading"; the labourer left the pump and craned forward from the margin of the mud, and the constable and I looked on from our respective points of vantage. For some time the search was fruitless. Once the searcher stooped and picked up what turned out to be a fragment of decayed wood; then the remains of a long-deceased jay were discovered, examined, and rejected. Suddenly the man bent down by the side of a small pool that had been left in one of the deeper hollows, stared intently into the mud, and stood up.
"There's something here that looks like a bone, sir," he sang out.
"Don't grub about, then," said the inspector. "Drive your shovel right into the mud where you saw it and bring it to the sieve."
The man followed out these instructions, and as he came shorewards with a great pile of the slimy mud on his shovel we all converged on the sieve, which the inspector took up and held over the tub, directing the constable and labourer to "lend a hand," meaning thereby that they were to crowd round the tub and exclude me as completely as possible. This, in fact, they did very effectively with his assistance, for, when the shovelful of mud had been deposited on the sieve, the four men leaned over it and so nearly hid it from view that it was only by craning over, first on one side and then on the other, that I was able to catch an occasional glimpse of it and to observe it gradually melting away as the sieve, immersed in the water, was shaken to and fro.
Presently the inspector raised the sieve from the water and stooped over it more closely to examine its contents. Apparently the examination yielded no very conclusive results, for it was accompanied by a series of rather dubious grunts.
At length the officer stood up, and turning to me with a genial but foxy smile, held out the sieve for my inspection.
"Like to see what we have found, Doctor?" said he.
I thanked him and stooped over the sieve. It contained the sort of litter of twigs, skeleton leaves, weed, pond-snails, dead shells, and fresh-water mussels that one would expect to strain out from the mud of an ancient pond; but in addition to these there were three small bones which at the first glance gave me quite a start until I saw what they were.
The inspector looked at me inquiringly. "H'm?" said he.
"Yes," I replied. "Very interesting."
"Those will be human bones, I fancy; h'm?"
"I should say so, undoubtedly," I answered.
"Now," said the inspector, "could you say, off-hand, which finger those bones belong to?"
I smothered a grin (for I had been expecting this question), and answered:
"I can say off-hand that they don't belong to any finger. They are the bones of the left great toe."
The inspector's jaw dropped. "The deuce they are!" he muttered. "H'm. I thought they looked a bit stout."
"I expect," said I, "that if you go through the mud close to where this came from you'll find the rest of the foot."
The plain-clothes man proceeded at once to act on my suggestion, taking the sieve with him to save time. And sure enough, after filling it twice with the mud from the bottom of the pool, the entire skeleton of the foot was brought to light.
"Now you're happy, I suppose," said the inspector when I had checked the bones and found them all present.
"I should be more happy," I replied, "if I knew what you were searching for in this pond. You weren't looking for the foot, were you?"
"I was looking for anything that I might find," he answered. "I shall go on searching until we have the whole body. I shall go through all the streams and ponds around here, except Connaught Water. That I shall leave to the last, as it will be a case of dredging from a boat and isn't so likely as the smaller ponds. Perhaps the head will be there; it's deeper than any of the others."
It now occurred to me that as I had learned all that I was likely to learn, which was little enough, I might as well leave the inspector to pursue his researches unembarrassed by my presence. Accordingly I thanked him for his assistance and departed by the way I had come.
But as I retraced my steps along the shady path I speculated profoundly on the officer's proceedings. My examination of the mutilated hand had yielded the conclusion that the finger had been removed either after death or shortly before, but more probably after. Someone else had evidently arrived at the same conclusion, and had communicated his opinion to Inspector Badger; for it was clear that that gentleman was in full cry after the missing finger. But why was he searching for it here when the hand had been found at Sidcup? And what did he expect to learn from it when he found it? There is nothing particularly characteristic about a finger, or, at least, the bones of one; and the object of the present researches was to determine the identity of the person of whom these bones were the remains. There was something mysterious about the affair, something suggesting that Inspector Badger was in possession of private information of some kind. But what information could he have? And whence could he have obtained it? These were questions to which I could find no answer, and I was still fruitlessly revolving them when I arrived at the modest inn where the inquest was to be held, and where I proposed to fortify myself with a correspondingly modest lunch as a preparation for my attendance at that inquiry.