The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter XV. Circumstantial Evidence
The morning after the hearing saw me setting forth on my round in more than usually good spirits. The round itself was but a short one, for my list contained only a couple of "chronics," and this, perhaps, contributed to my cheerful outlook on life. But there were other reasons. The decision of the Court had come as an unexpected reprieve and the ruin of my friends' prospects was at least postponed. Then, I had learned that Thorndyke was back from Bristol and wished me to look in on him; and, finally, Miss Bellingham had agreed to spend this very afternoon with me, browsing round the galleries at the British Museum.
I had disposed of my two patients by a quarter to eleven, and three minutes later was striding down Mitre Court, all agog to hear what Thorndyke had to say with reference to my notes on the inquest. The "oak" was open when I arrived at his chambers, and a modest flourish on the little brass knocker of the inner door was answered by my quondam teacher himself.
"How good of you, Berkeley," he said, shaking hands genially, "to look me up so early. I am all alone, just looking through the report of the evidence in yesterday's proceedings."
He placed an easy chair for me, and, gathering up a bundle of type-written papers, laid them aside on the table.
"Were you surprised at the decision?" I asked.
"No," he answered. "Two years is a short period of absence; but still, it might easily have gone the other way. I am greatly relieved. The respite gives us time to carry out our investigations without undue hurry."
"Did you find my notes of any use?" I asked.
"Heath did. Polton handed them to him, and they were invaluable to him for his cross-examination. I haven't seen them yet; in fact, I have only just got them back from him. Let us go through them together now."
He opened a drawer, and taking from it my note-book, seated himself, and began to read through my notes with grave attention, while I stood and looked shyly over his shoulder. On the page that contained my sketches of the Sidcup arm, showing the distribution of the snails' eggs on the bones, he lingered with a faint smile that made me turn hot and red.
"Those sketches look rather footy," I said; "but I had to put something in my note-book."
"You didn't attach any importance, then, to the facts that they illustrated?"
"No. The egg-patches were there, so I noted the fact. That's all."
"I congratulate you, Berkeley. There is not one man in twenty who would have the sense to make a careful note of what he considers an unimportant or irrelevant fact; and the investigator who notes only those things that appear significant is perfectly useless. He gives himself no material for reconsideration. But you don't mean that these egg-patches and worm-tubes appeared to you to have no significance at all?"
"Oh, of course, they show the position in which the bones were lying."
"Exactly. The arm was lying, fully extended, with the dorsal side uppermost. There is nothing remarkable in that. But we also learn from these egg-patches that the hand had been separated from the arm before it was thrown into the pond; and there is something very remarkable in that."
I leaned over his shoulder and gazed at my sketches, amazed at the rapidity with which he had reconstructed the limb from my rough drawings of the individual bones.
"I don't quite see how you arrived at it, though," I said.
"Well, look at your drawings. The egg-patches are on the dorsal surface of the scapula, the humerus, and the bones of the fore-arm. But here you have shown six of the bones of the hand: two metacarpals, the os magnum, and three phalanges; and they all have egg-patches on the palmar surface. Therefore the hand was lying palm upwards."
"But the hand may have been pronated."
"If you mean pronated in relation to the arm, that is impossible, for the position of the egg-patches shows clearly that the bones of the arm were lying in the position of supination. Thus the dorsal surface of the arm and the palmar surface of the hand respectively were uppermost, which is an anatomical impossibility so long as the hand is attached to the arm."
"But might not the hand have become detached after lying in the pond some time?"
"No. It could not have been detached until the ligaments had decayed, and if it had been separated after the decay of the soft parts, the bones would have been thrown into disorder. But the egg-patches are all on the palmar surface, showing that the bones were still in their normal relative positions. No, Berkeley, that hand was thrown into the pond separately from the arm."
"But why should it have been?" I asked.
"Ah, there is a very pretty little problem for you to consider. And, meantime, let me tell you that your expedition has been a brilliant success. You are an excellent observer. Your only fault is that when you have noted certain facts you don't seem fully to appreciate their significance--which is merely a matter of inexperience. As to the facts that you have collected, several of them are of prime importance."
"I am glad you are satisfied," said I, "though I don't see that I have discovered much excepting those snails' eggs; and they don't seem to have advanced matters very much."
"A definite fact, Berkeley, is a definite asset. Perhaps we may presently find a little space in our Chinese puzzle which this fact of the detached hand will just drop into. But, tell me, did you find nothing unexpected or suggestive about those bones--as to their number and condition, for instance?"
"Well, I thought it a little queer that the scapula and clavicle should be there. I should have expected him to cut the arm off at the shoulder-joint."
"Yes," said Thorndyke; "so should I; and so it has been done in every case of dismemberment that I am acquainted with. To an ordinary person, the arm seems to join on to the trunk at the shoulder-joint, and that is where he would naturally sever it. What explanation do you suggest of this unusual mode of severing the arm?"
"Do you think the fellow could have been a butcher?" I asked, remembering Dr. Summers' remark. "This is the way a shoulder of mutton is taken off."
"No," replied Thorndyke. "A butcher includes the scapula in a shoulder of mutton for a specific purpose, namely, to take off a given quantity of meat. And also, as a sheep has no clavicle, it is the easiest way to detach the limb. But I imagine a butcher would find himself in difficulties if he attempted to take off a man's arm in that way. The clavicle would be a new and perplexing feature. Then, too, a butcher does not deal very delicately with his subject; if he has to divide a joint, he just cuts through it and does not trouble himself to avoid marking the bones. But you note here that there is not a single scratch or score on any one of the bones, not even where the finger was removed. Now, if you have ever prepared bones for a museum, as I have, you will remember the extreme care that is necessary in disarticulating joints to avoid disfiguring the articular ends of the bones with cuts and scratches."
"Then you think that the person who dismembered this body must have had some anatomical knowledge and skill?"
"That is what has been suggested. The suggestion is not mine."
"Then I infer that you don't agree?"
Thorndyke smiled. "I am sorry to be so cryptic, Berkeley, but you understand that I can't make statements. Still, I am trying to lead you to make certain inferences from the facts that are in your possession."
"If I make the right inference, will you tell me?" I asked.
"It won't be necessary," he answered, with the same quiet smile. "When you have fitted a puzzle together you don't need to be told that you have done it."
It was most infernally tantalising. I pondered on the problem with a scowl of such intense cogitation that Thorndyke laughed outright.
"It seems to me," I said, at length, "that the identity of the remains is the primary question and that is a question of fact. It doesn't seem any use to speculate about it."
"Exactly. Either these bones are the remains of John Bellingham or they are not. There will be no doubt on the subject when all the bones are assembled--if ever they are. And the settlement of that question will probably throw light on the further question: Who deposited them in the places in which they were found? But to return to your observations: did you gather nothing from the other bones? From the complete state of the neck vertebrae, for instance?"
"Well, it did strike me as rather odd that the fellow should have gone to the trouble of separating the atlas from the skull. He must have been pretty handy with the scalpel to have done it as cleanly as he seems to have done; but I don't see why he should have gone about the business in the most inconvenient way."
"You notice the uniformity of method. He has separated the head from the spine, instead of cutting through the spine lower down, as most persons would have done: he removed the arms with the entire shoulder-girdle, instead of simply cutting them off at the shoulder-joints. Even in the thighs the same peculiarity appears; for in neither case was the knee-cap found with the thigh-bone, although it seems to have been searched for. Now the obvious way to divide the leg is to cut through the patellar ligament, leaving the knee-cap attached to the thigh. But in this case, the knee-cap appears to have been left attached to the shank. Can you explain why this person should have adopted this unusual and rather inconvenient method? Can you suggest a motive for this procedure, or can you think of any circumstances which might lead a person to adopt this method by preference?"
"It seems as if he wished, for some reason, to divide the body into definite anatomical regions."
Thorndyke chuckled. "You are not offering that suggestion as an explanation, are you? Because it would require more explaining than the original problem. And it is not even true. Anatomically speaking, the knee-cap appertains to the thigh rather than to the shank. It is a sesamoid bone belonging to the thigh muscles; yet in this case it has been left attached, apparently, to the shank. No, Berkeley, that cat won't jump. Our unknown operator was not preparing a skeleton as a museum specimen; he was dividing a body up into convenient-sized portions for the purpose of conveying them to various ponds. Now what circumstances might have led him to divide it in this peculiar manner?"
"I am afraid I have no suggestion to offer. Have you?"
Thorndyke suddenly lapsed into ambiguity. "I think," he said, "it is possible to conceive such circumstances, and so, probably, will you if you think it over."
"Did you gather anything of importance from the evidence at the inquest?" I asked.
"It is difficult to say," he replied. "The whole of my conclusions in this case are based on what is virtually circumstantial evidence. I have not one single fact of which I can say that it admits only of a single interpretation. Still, it must be remembered that even the most inconclusive facts, if sufficiently multiplied, yield a highly conclusive total. And my little pile of evidence is growing, particle by particle; but we mustn't sit here gossiping at this hour of the day; I have to consult with Marchmont and you say that you have an early afternoon engagement. We can walk together as far as Fleet Street."
A minute or two later we went our respective ways, Thorndyke towards Lombard Street and I to Fetter Lane, not unmindful of those coming events that were casting so agreeable a shadow before them.
There was only one message awaiting me, and when Adolphus had delivered it (amidst mephitic fumes that rose from the basement, premonitory of fried plaice), I pocketed my stethoscope and betook myself to Gunpowder Alley, the aristocratic abode of my patient, joyfully threading the now familiar passages of Gough Square and Wine Office Court, and meditating pleasantly on the curious literary flavour that pervades these little-known regions. For the shade of the author of Rasselas still seems to haunt the scenes of his Titanic labours and his ponderous but homely and temperate rejoicings. Every court and alley whispers of books and of the making of books; forms of type, trundled noisily on trollies by ink-smeared boys, salute the wayfarer at odd corners; piles of strawboard, rolls or bales of paper, drums of printing-ink or roller-composition stand on the pavement outside dark entries; basement windows give glimpses into Hadean caverns tenanted by legions of printer's devils; and the very air is charged with the hum of press and with odours of glue and paste and oil. The entire neighbourhood is given up to the printer and binder; and even my patient turned out to be a guillotine-knife grinder--a ferocious and revolutionary calling strangely at variance with his harmless appearance and meek bearing.
I was in good time at my tryst, despite the hindrances of fried plaice and invalid guillotinists; but, early as I was, Miss Bellingham was already waiting in the garden--she had been filling a bowl with flowers--ready to sally forth.
"It is quite like old times," she said, as we turned into Fetter Lane, "to be going to the Museum together. It brings back the Tell el Amarna tablets and all your kindness and unselfish labour. I suppose we shall walk there to-day?"
"Certainly," I replied; "I am not going to share your society with the common mortals who ride in omnibuses. That would be sheer, sinful waste. Besides, it is more companionable to walk."
"Yes, it is; and the bustle of the streets makes one more appreciative of the quiet of the Museum. What are we going to look at when we get there?"
"You must decide that," I replied. "You know the collection much better than I do."
"Well, now," she mused, "I wonder what you would like to see; or, in other words, what I should like you to see. The old English pottery is rather fascinating, especially the Fulham ware. I rather think I shall take you to see that."
She reflected awhile, and then, just as we reached the gate of Staple Inn, she stopped and looked thoughtfully down the Gray's Inn Road.
"You have taken a great interest in our 'case,' as Doctor Thorndyke calls it. Would you like to see the churchyard where Uncle John wished to be buried? It is a little out of our way, but we are not in a hurry, are we?"
I, certainly, was not. Any deviation that might prolong our walk was welcome, and, as to the place--why, all places were alike to me if only she were by my side. Besides, the churchyard was really of some interest, since it was undoubtedly the "exciting cause" of the obnoxious paragraph two of the disputed will. I accordingly expressed a desire to make its acquaintance, and we crossed to the entrance to Gray's Inn Road.
"Do you ever try," she asked, as we turned down the dingy thoroughfare, "to picture to yourself familiar places as they looked a couple of hundred years ago?"
"Yes," I answered, "and very difficult I find it. One has to manufacture the materials for reconstruction, and then the present aspect of the place will keep obtruding itself. But some places are easier to reconstitute than others."
"That is what I find," said she. "Now Holborn, for example, is quite easy to reconstruct, though I daresay the imaginary form isn't a bit like the original. But there are fragments left, like Staple Inn and the front of Gray's Inn; and then one has seen prints of the old Middle Row and some of the taverns, so that one has some material with which to help out one's imagination. But this road that we are walking in always baffles me. It looks so old and yet is, for the most part, so new that I find it impossible to make a satisfactory picture of its appearance, say, when Sir Roger de Coverley might have strolled in Gray's Inn Walks, or farther back, when Francis Bacon had chambers in the Inn."
"I imagine," said I, "that part of the difficulty is in the mixed character of the neighbourhood. Here, on the one side, is old Gray's Inn, not much changed since Bacon's time--his chambers are still to be seen, I think, over the gateway; and there, on the Clerkenwell side, is a dense and rather squalid neighbourhood which has grown up over a region partly rural and wholly fugitive in character. Places like Bagnigge Wells and Hockley in the Hole would not have had many buildings that were likely to survive; and in the absence of surviving specimens the imagination hasn't much to work from."
"I daresay you are right," said she. "Certainly, the purlieus of old Clerkenwell present a very confused picture to me; whereas, in the case of an old street like, say, Great Ormond Street, one has only to sweep away the modern buildings and replace them with glorious old houses like the few that remain, dig up the roadway and pavements and lay down cobble-stones, plant a few wooden posts, hang up one or two oil-lamps, and the transformation is complete. And a very delightful transformation it is."
"Very delightful; which, by the way, is a melancholy thought. For we ought to be doing better work than our forefathers; whereas what we actually do is to pull down the old buildings, clap the doorways, porticoes, panelling, and mantels in our museums, and then run up something inexpensive and useful and deadly uninteresting in their place."
My companion looked at me and laughed softly. "For a naturally cheerful, and even gay young man," said she, "you are most amazingly pessimistic. The mantle of Jeremiah--if he ever wore one--seems to have fallen on you, but without in the least impairing your good spirits excepting in regard to matters architectural."
"I have much to be thankful for," said I. "Am I not taken to the Museum by a fair lady? And does she not stay me with mummy cases and comfort me with crockery?"
"Pottery," she corrected; and then, as we met a party of grave-looking women emerging from a side-street, she said: "I suppose those are lady medical students."
"Yes, on their way to the Royal Free Hospital. Note the gravity of their demeanour and contrast it with the levity of the male student."
"I was doing so," she answered, "and wondering why professional women are usually so much more serious than men."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "it is a matter of selection. A peculiar type of woman is attracted to the professions, whereas every man has to earn his living as a matter of course."
"Yes, I daresay that is the explanation. This is our turning."
We passed into Heathcote Street, at the end of which was an open gate giving entrance to one of those disused and metamorphosed burial-grounds that are to be met with in the older districts of London; in which the dispossessed dead are jostled into corners to make room for the living. Many of the headstones were still standing, and others, displaced to make room for asphalted walks and seats, were ranged around by the walls, exhibiting inscriptions made meaningless by their removal. It was a pleasant enough place on this summer afternoon, contrasted with the dingy street whence we had come, though its grass was faded and yellow and the twitter of the birds in the trees mingled with the hideous Board-school drawl of the children who played around the seats and the few remaining tombs.
"So this is the last resting-place of the illustrious house of Bellingham," said I.
"Yes; and we are not the only distinguished people who repose in this place. The daughter of no less a person than Richard Cromwell is buried here; the tomb is still standing--but perhaps you have been here before, and know it."
"I don't think I have ever been here before; and yet there is something about the place that seems familiar." I looked around, cudgelling my brains for the key to the dimly reminiscent sensations that the place evoked; until, suddenly, I caught sight of a group of buildings away to the west, enclosed within a wall heightened by a wooden trellis.
"Yes, of course!" I exclaimed. "I remember the place now. I have never been in this part before, but in that enclosure beyond which opens at the end of Henrietta Street, there used to be and may be still, for all I know, a school of anatomy, at which I attended in my first year; in fact, I did my first dissection there."
"There was a certain gruesome appropriateness in the position of the school," remarked Miss Bellingham. "It would have been really convenient in the days of the resurrection men. Your material would have been delivered at your very door. Was it a large school?"
"The attendance varied according to the time of the year. Sometimes I worked there quite alone. I used to let myself in with a key and hoist my subject out of a sort of sepulchral tank by means of a chain tackle. It was a ghoulish business. You have no idea how awful the body used to look, to my unaccustomed eyes, as it rose slowly out of the tank. It was like the resurrection scenes that you see on some old tombstones, where the deceased is shown rising out of his coffin while the skeleton, Death, falls vanquished with his dart shattered and his crown toppling off.
"I remember, too, that the demonstrator used to wear a blue apron, which created a sort of impression of a cannibal butcher's shop. But I am afraid I am shocking you."
"No, you are not. Every profession has its unpresentable aspects, which ought not to be seen by out-siders. Think of a sculptor's studio and of the sculptor himself when he is modelling a large figure or group in the clay. He might be a bricklayer or a road-sweeper if you judge by his appearance. This is the tomb I was telling you about."
We halted before the plain coffer of stone, weathered and wasted by age, but yet kept in decent repair by some pious hands, and read the inscription, setting forth with modest pride, that here reposed Anna, sixth daughter of Richard Cromwell, "The Protector." It was a simple monument and commonplace enough, with the crude severity of the ascetic age to which it belonged. But still, it carried the mind back to those stirring times when the leafy shades of Gray's Inn Lane must have resounded with the clank of weapons and the tramp of armed men; when this bald recreation-ground was a rustic churchyard, standing amidst green fields and hedgerows, and countrymen leading their pack-horses into London through the Lane would stop to look in over the wooden gate.
Miss Bellingham looked at me critically as I stood thus reflecting, and presently remarked, "I think you and I have a good many mental habits in common."
I looked up inquiringly, and she continued: "I notice that an old tombstone seems to set you meditating. So it does me. When I look at an ancient monument, and especially an old headstone, I find myself almost unconsciously retracing the years to the date that is written on the stone. Why do you think that is? Why should a monument be so stimulating to the imagination? And why should a common headstone be more so than any other?"
"I suppose it is," I answered reflectively, "that a churchyard monument is a peculiarly personal thing and appertains in a peculiar way to a particular time. And the circumstance that it has stood untouched by the passing years while everything around has changed, helps the imagination to span the interval. And the common headstone, the memorial of some dead and gone farmer or labourer who lived and died in the village hard by, is still more intimate and suggestive. The rustic, childish sculpture of the village mason and the artless doggerel of the village schoolmaster, bring back the time and place and the conditions of life much more vividly than the more scholarly inscriptions and the more artistic enrichments of monuments of greater pretensions. But where are your own family tombstones?"
"They are over in that farther corner. There is an intelligent, but inopportune, person apparently copying the epitaphs. I wish he would go away. I want to show them to you."
I now noticed, for the first time, an individual engaged, note-book in hand, in making a careful survey of a group of old headstones. Evidently he was making a copy of the inscriptions, for not only was he poring attentively over the writing on the face of the stone, but now and again he helped out his vision by running his fingers over the worn lettering.
"That is my grandfather's tombstone that he is copying now," said Miss Bellingham; and even as she spoke, the man turned and directed a searching glance at us with a pair of keen, spectacled eyes.
Simultaneously we uttered an exclamation of surprise; for the investigator was Mr. Jellicoe.