Chapter IV. The Story of the Photographs

The Inspector scanned me close for a few minutes in silence. He seemed doubtful, suspicious. At last he made a new move. "I believe you, Miss Callingham," he said, more gently. "I can see this train of thought distresses you too much. But I can see, too, our best chance lies in supplying you with independent clues which you may work out for yourself. You must re-educate your memory. You want to know all about this murder, of course. Well, now, look over these papers. They'll tell you in brief what little we know about it. And they may succeed in striking afresh some resonant chord in your memory."

He handed me a book of pasted newspaper paragraphs, interspersed here and there in red ink with little manuscript notes and comments. I began to read it with profound interest. It was so strange for me thus to learn for the first time the history of my own life; for I was quite ignorant as yet of almost everything about my First State, and my father and mother.

The paragraphs told me the whole story of the crime, as far as it was known to the world, from the very beginning. First of all, in the papers, came the bald announcement that a murder had been committed in a country town in Staffordshire; and that the victim was Mr. Vivian Callingham, a gentleman of means, residing in his own house, The Grange, at Woodbury. Mr. Callingham was the inventor of the acmegraphic process. The servants, said the telegram to the London papers, had heard the sound of a pistol-shot, about half-past eight at night, coming from the direction of Mr. Callingham's library. Aroused by the report, they rushed hastily to the spot, and broke open the door, which was locked from within. As they did so, a horrible sight met their astonished eyes. Mr. Callingham's dead body lay extended on the ground, shot right through the heart, and weltering in its life-blood. Miss Callingham stood by his side, transfixed with horror, and mute in her agony. On the floor lay the pistol that had fired the fatal shot. And just as the servants entered, for one second of time, the murderer who was otherwise wholly unknown, was seen to leap from the window into the shrubbery below. The gardener rushed after him, and jumped down at the same spot. But the murderer had disappeared as if by magic. It was conjectured he must have darted down the road at full speed, vaulted the gate, which was usually locked, and made off at a rapid run for the open country. Up to date of going to press, the Telegraph said, he was still at large and had not been apprehended.

That was the earliest account--bald, simple, unvarnished. Then came mysterious messages from the Central Press about the absence of any clue to identify the stranger. He hadn't entered the house by any regular way, it seemed; unless, indeed, Mr. Callingham had brought him home himself and let him in with the latchkey. None of the servants had opened the door that evening to any suspicious character; not a soul had they seen, nor did any of them know a man was with their master in the library. They heard voices, to be sure--voices, loud at times and angry,--but they supposed it was Mr. Callingham talking with his daughter. Till roused by the fatal pistol-shot, the gardener said, they had no cause for alarm. Even the footmarks the stranger might have left as he leaped from the window were obliterated by the prints of the gardener's boots as he jumped hastily after him. The only person who could cast any light upon the mystery at all was clearly Miss Callingham, who was in the room at the moment. But Miss Callingham's mind was completely unhinged for the present by the nervous shock she had received as her father fell dead before her. They must wait a few days till she recovered consciousness, and then they might confidently hope that the murderer would be identified, or at least so described that the police could track him.

After that, I read the report of the coroner's inquest. The facts there elicited added nothing very new to the general view of the case. Only, the servants remarked on examination, there was a strange smell of chemicals in the room when they entered; and the doctors seemed to suggest that the smell might be that of chloroform, mixed with another very powerful drug known to affect the memory. Miss Callingham's present state, they thought, might thus perhaps in part be accounted for.

You can't imagine how curious it was for me to see myself thus impersonally discussed at such a distance of time, or to learn so long after that for ten days or more I had been the central object of interest to all reading England. My name was bandied about without the slightest reserve. I trembled to see how cavalierly the press had treated me.

As I went on, I began to learn more and more about my father. He had made money in Australia, it was said, and had come to live at Woodbury some fourteen years earlier, where my mother had died when I was a child of four; and some accounts said she was a widow of fortune. My father had been interested in chemistry and photography, it seemed, and had lately completed a new invention, the acmegraph, for taking successive photographs at measured intervals of so many seconds by electric light. He was a grave, stern man, the papers said, more feared than loved by his servants and neighbours; but nobody about was known to have a personal grudge against him. On the contrary, he lived at peace with all men. The motive for the murder remained to the end a complete mystery.

On the second morning of the inquest, however, a curious thing happened. The police, it appeared, had sealed up the room where the murder took place, and allowed nobody to enter it till the inquiry was over. But after the jury came round to view the room, the policeman in charge found the window at the back of the house had been recently opened, and the box with the photographic apparatus had been stolen from the library. Till that moment nobody had attached any importance to the presence of this camera. It hadn't even been opened and examined by the police, who had carefully noted everything else in the library. But as soon as the box was missed strange questions began to be asked and conjecturally answered. The police for the first time then observed that though it was half-past eight at night when the murder occurred, and the lamp was not lighted, the witnesses who burst first into the room described all they saw as if they had seen it clearly. They spoke of things as they would be seen in a very bright light, with absolute definiteness. This set up inquiry, and the result of the inquiry was to bring out the fact, which in the excitement of the moment had escaped the notice of all the servants, that as they entered the room and stared about at the murder, the electric flash of the apparatus was actually in operation. But the scene itself had diverted their attention from the minor matter of the light that showed it.

The Inspector had been watching me narrowly as I read these extracts. When I reached that point, he broke in with a word of explanation.

"Well, that put me on the track, you see," he said, leaning forward once more. "I thought to myself, if the light was acting, then the whole apparatus must necessarily have been at work, and the scene as it took place must have been photographed, act by act and step by step, exactly as it happened. At the time the murderer, whoever he was, can't have known the meaning of the flashes. But later, he must have come to learn in some way what the electric light meant, and must have realised, sooner than we did, that therein the box, in the form of six successive negatives of the stages in the crime, was the evidence that would infallibly convict him of this murder." He stroked his moustache thoughtfully. "And to think, too," he went on with a somewhat sheepish air, "we should have had those photographs there in our power all those days and nights, and have let them in the end slip like that through our fingers! To think he should have found it out sooner than we! To think that an amateur like the murderer should have outwitted us!"

"But how do you know," I cried, "there was ever more than one photograph? How do you know this wasn't the only negative?"

"Because," the Inspector answered quickly, pointing to a figure in the corner of the proof, "do you see that six? Well, that tells the tale. Each plate of the series was numbered so in the apparatus. Number six could only fall into focus after numbers one, and two, and three, and four, and five, had first been photographed. We've only got the last--and least useful for our purpose. There must have been five earlier ones, showing every stage of the crime, if only we'd known it."

I was worked up now to a strange pitch of excitement.

"And how did this one come into your possession?" I asked, all breathless. "If you managed to lay your hands on one, why not on all six of them?"

The Inspector drew a long breath.

"Ah, that's the trouble!" he replied, still gazing at me hard. "You see, it was this way. As soon as we found the camera was missing, we came to the conclusion the murderer must have returned to The Grange to fetch it. But it was a large and heavy box, and the only one of its kind as yet manufactured; so, to carry it away in his hands would no doubt have led to instant detection. I concluded, therefore, the man would take off the box entire, so as to prevent the danger of removing the plates on the spot; and as soon as he reached a place of safety in the shrubbery, he'd fling away the camera, either destroying the incriminating negatives then and there or carrying them off with him. The details of the invention had already been explained to me by your father's instrument-maker, who set up the clockwork for him from his own designs; and I knew that the removal of the plates from the box was a delicate, and to some extent a difficult, operation. So I felt sure they could only have been taken out in a place of comparative safety, not far from the house; and I searched the shrubbery carefully, to find the camera."

"And you found it at last?" I asked, unable to restrain my agitation.

"I found it at last," he answered, "near the far end of the grounds, just flung into the deep grass, behind a clump of lilacs. The camera was there intact, but five plates were missing. The sixth, from which the positive you hold in your hand was taken, had got jammed in the mechanism in the effort to remove it. Evidently the murderer had tried to take out the plates in a very great hurry and with trembling hands, as was not unnatural. He had succeeded with five, when the sixth stuck fast in the groove of the clockwork. Just at that moment, as we judged, either an alarm was raised in the rear, or some panic fear seized on him. Probably the fellow judged right that the most incriminating pictures of all had by that time been removed, and that the last would only show his back, if it included him at all, or if he came into focus. Perhaps he had even been able unconsciously to count the flashes at the moment, and knew that before the sixth flash arrived he was on the ledge of the window. At any rate, he clearly gave up the attempt to remove the sixth, and flung the whole apparatus away from him in a sudden access of horror. We guessed as much both from the appearance of the spot where the grass was trampled down, and the way the angle of the camera was imbedded forcibly in the soft ground of the shrubbery."

"And he got away with the rest!" I exclaimed, following it up like a story, but a story in which I was myself an unconscious character.

"No doubt," the Inspector answered, stroking his chin regretfully. "And what's most annoying of all, we've every reason to suppose the fellow stole the things only a few minutes before we actually missed them. For we saw grounds for supposing he jumped away from the spot, and climbed over the wall at the back, cutting his hands as he went with the bottle-glass on the top to prevent intruders. And what makes us think only a very short time must have elapsed between the removal of the plates and the moment we came upon his tracks is this--the blood from his cut hands was still fresh and wet upon the wall when we found it."

"Then you only just missed him!" I exclaimed. "He got off by the skin of his teeth. It's wonderful, when you were so near, you shouldn't have managed to overtake him! One would have thought you must have been able to track him to earth somehow!"

"One would have thought so," the Inspector answered, rather crestfallen. "But policemen, after all, are human like the rest of us. We missed the one chance that might have led to an arrest. And now, what I want to ask you once more is this: Reflecting over what you've heard and read to-day, do you think you can recollect--a very small matter--whether or not there were several distinct flashes?"

I shut my eyes once more, and looked hard into the past. Slowly, as I looked, a sort of dream seemed to come over me. I saw it vaguely now, or thought I saw it. Flash, flash, flash, flash. Then the sound of the pistol. Then the Picture, and the Horror, and the awful blank. I opened my eyes again, and told the Inspector so.

"And once more," he went on, in a very insinuating voice. "Shut your eyes again, and look back upon that day. Can't you remember whether or not, just a moment before, you saw the murderer's face by the light of the flashes?"

I shut my eyes and thought. Again the flashes seemed to stand out clear and distinct. But no detail supervened--no face came back to me. I felt it was useless.

"Impossible!" I said shortly. "It only makes my head swim. I can remember no further."

"I see," the Inspector answered. "It's just as Dr. Wade said. Suggest a fact in your past history, and you may possibly remember it; but ask you to recall anything not suggested or already known, and all seems a mere blank to you! You haven't the faintest idea, then, who the murderer was or what he looked like?"

I rose up before him solemnly, and stared him full in the face. I was wrought up by that time to a perfect pitch of excitement and interest.

"I haven't the faintest idea," I answered, feeling myself a woman at last, and realising my freedom; "I know and remember no more of it than you do. But from this moment forth, I shall not rest until I've found him out and tracked him down, and punished him. I shall never let my head rest in peace on my pillow until I've discovered my father's murderer!"

"That's well," the Inspector said sharply, shutting his notes up to go. "If you persevere in that mind, and do as you say, we shall soon get to the bottom of the Woodbury Mystery!"

And even as he spoke a key turned in the front door. I knew it was Aunt Emma, come in from her marketing.