Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 10

Fire

To an old Londoner, the aspect of the town in the small hours of the morning, in “the middle watch” as those dark hours are called in the language of the mariner, is not without its attractions. For however much he may love his fellow-creatures, it is restful, at least for a time, to take their society in infinitesimal doses, or even to dispense with it entirely, and to take one’s way through the empty and silent streets free to pursue one’s own thoughts undistracted by the din and hurly-burly that prevail in the daylight hours.

Thus I reflected as I turned out of Marylebone Station at about half-past two in the morning, and, crossing the wide, deserted road, bore away south-east in the direction of the Temple. Through what side streets I passed I cannot remember, and in fact never knew, for, in the manner of the born-and-bred Londoner, I simply walked towards my destination without consciously considering my route. And as I walked in a silence on which my own footfalls made an almost startling impression, I looked about me with something like curiosity and listened for the occasional far-off sounds which told of some belated car or lorry wending its solitary way through some distant street.

I was approaching the neighbourhood of Soho and passing through a narrow street lined by old and rather squalid houses, all dark and silent, when my ear caught a sound which, though faint and far-away, instantly attracted my attention: the clang of a bell, not rung, but struck with a hammer and repeating the single note in a quick succession of strokes — the warning bell of a fire-engine. I listened with mild interest — it was too far off to concern me — and compared the sound with that of the fire-engines of my young days. It was more distinctive, but less exciting. The bell gave its message plainly enough, but it lacked that quality of urgency and speed that was conveyed by the rattle of iron tyres on the stones and the sound of galloping horses.

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. The sound was more distinct. Then the engine must be coming my way; and even as I noted the fact, the clang of another bell rang out from the opposite direction, and suddenly I became aware of a faintly pungent smell in the air. Then, as I turned a corner, I met a thin cloud of smoke that was drifting up the street and noticed a glow in the sky over the house-tops; and presently, reaching another corner, came into full view of the burning house, though it was still some distance away, near the farther end of the street.

I watched it with some surprise as I walked quickly towards it, for there seemed to be something unusual in its appearance. I had not seen many burning houses but none that I had seen had looked quite like this one. There was a furious intensity in the way that it flared up that impressed me as abnormal. From the chimneys, flames shot up like the jets from a gas-blowpipe, and the windows emitted tongues of fire that looked as if they were being blown out by bellows. And the progress of the fire was frightfully rapid, for even in the short time that it took me to walk the length of the street there was an evident change. Glowing spots began to appear in the roof flames poured out of the attic windows, and smoke and flame issued from the ground floor, which seemed to be some kind of shop.

No crowd had yet collected, but just a handful of chance wayfarers like myself and a few policemen, who stood a little distance away from the house, looking on the scene of destruction and listening anxiously to the sounds of the approaching engines, now quite near and coming from several different directions.

“It’s a devil of a blaze,” I remarked to one of the constables. “What is it? An oil-shop?”

“It’s worse than that, sir,” he replied. “It’s a film dealer’s. The whole place chock full of celluloid films. It’s to be hoped that there isn’t anybody in the house, but I’m rather afraid there is. The caretaker of the offices next door says that there is a gentleman who has rooms on the first floor. Poor look-out for him if he is in there now. He will be burned to a cinder by this time.”

At this moment the first of the engines swung round the corner and swept up to the house with noiseless speed, discharging its brass-helmeted crew, who began immediately to prepare for action: opening the water-plugs, rolling out lengths of hose, and starting the pumps. In a minute or two, four other engines arrived, accompanied by a motor fire-escape; but the latter, when its crew had glanced at the front of the house, was trundled some distance up the street out of the way of the engines. There was obviously no present use for it, nor did there seem to be much left for the engines to do, for, almost at the moment when the first jet of water was directed at the flaming window-space, the roof fell in with a crash and a roar, a volume of flame and sparks leaped up into the sky, and through the holes which had once been windows an uninterrupted sheet of fire could be seen from the top of the house to the bottom. Evidently, the roof in its fall, had carried away what had been left of the floors, and the house was now no more than an empty shell with a mass of flaming debris at its base.

Whether the jets of water that were directed in through the window-holes had any effect, or whether the highly inflammable material had by this time all been burnt, I could not judge, but, after the fall of the roof, the fire began almost suddenly to die down, and a good deal of the firemen’s attention became occupied by the adjoining house, which had already suffered some injury from the fire and now seemed likely to suffer more from the water. But in this I was not greatly interested, and, as the more spectacular phase of the disaster seemed to have come to an end, I extricated myself from the small crowd that had now collected and resumed my progress towards the Temple and the much-desired bed that awaited me there.

To a man who has turned in at past four o’clock in the morning, competition with the lark is not practicable. It was getting on for eleven when I emerged from my bedroom and descended the stairs towards the breakfast-room, becoming agreeably conscious of a subtle aroma which memory associated with bacon and coffee.

“I heard you getting up, sir,” said Polton with a last, satisfied glance at the breakfast-table, “and I heard you come in last night, or rather this morning, so I have cooked an extra rasher. You did make a night of it, sir.”

“Yes,” I admitted, “it was rather a late business, and what made me still later was a house on fire some where near Soho which I stopped for a while to watch. A most tremendous blaze. A policeman told me that it was a celluloid film warehouse, so you can imagine how it flared up.”

I produced this item of news designedly, knowing that it would be of interest; for Polton, the most gentle and humane of men, had an almost morbid love of the horrible and the tragic. As I spoke, his eyes glistened, and he commented with a sort of ghoulish relish: “Celluloid films! And a whole warehouse full of them, too! It must have been a fine sight. I’ve never seen a house on fire — not properly on fire; only just smoke and sparks. Was there a fire-escape?”

“Yes, but there was nothing for it to do. The house was like a furnace.”

“But the people inside, sir. Did they manage to get out in time?”

“It’s not certain that there was anybody in the house. I heard something about a gentleman who had rooms there, but there was no sign of him. It is not certain that he was there, but if he was, he is there still. We shall know when the firemen and salvage men are able to examine the ruins.”

“Ha!” said Polton, “there won’t be much of him left. Where did you say the place was, sir?”

“I can’t tell you the name of the street, but it was just off Old Compton Street. You will probably see some notice of the fire in the morning paper.”

Thereupon, Polton turned away as if to go in search of the paper, but at the door he paused and looked back at me.

“Speaking of burning houses, sir,” said he, “Mr. Stalker called about half an hour ago. I told him how things were, so he said he would probably look in again in an hour’s time. If he does, will you see him downstairs or shall I bring him up?

“Oh, bring him up here. We don’t make a stranger of Mr. Stalker.”

“Yes, sir. Perhaps he has come to see you about this very fire.”

“He could hardly have got any particulars yet,” said I. “Besides, fire insurance is not in our line of business.”

“No, sir,” Polton admitted; “but it may be about the gentleman who had the rooms. A charred body might be in your line if they happen to know that there is one among the ruins.”

I did not think it very likely, for there had hardly been time to ascertain whether the ruins did or did not contain any human remains. Nevertheless, Polton’s guess turned out to be right; for when Stalker (having declined a cup of coffee and then explained, according to his invariable custom, that he happened to be passing this way and thought he might as well just look in) came to the point, it appeared that his visit was concerned with the fire in Soho.

“But, my dear Stalker,” I protested, “we don’t know anything about fires.”

“I know,” he replied with an affable smile. “The number of things that you and Thorndyke don’t know anything about would fill an encyclopaedia. Still, there are some things that you do know. Perhaps you have forgotten that fire at Brattle’s oil-shop, but I haven’t. You spotted something that the fire experts had overlooked.”

“Thorndyke did. I didn’t until he pointed it out.”

“I don’t care which of you spotted it,” said he. “I only know that, between you, you saved us two or three thousand pounds.”

I remembered the case quite well, and the recollection of it seemed to justify Stalker’s attitude.

“What do you want us to do?” I asked.

“I want you just to keep an eye on the case. The question of fire-raising will be dealt with by the Brigade men and the Salvage Corps. They are experts and they have their own methods. You have different methods and you bring a different sort of expert eye to bear on the matter.”

“I wonder,” said I,” why you are so Nosey–Parkerish about this fire. There hasn’t been time for you to get any particulars.”

“Indeed!” said he. “We don’t all stay in bed until eleven o’clock. While you were slumbering I was getting a report and making enquiries.”

“Ha!” I retorted. “And while you were slumbering I was watching your precious house burning; and I must say that it did you credit.”

Here, in response to his look of surprise, I gave him a brief account of my morning’s adventure.

“Very well,” said he when I had finished. “Then you know the facts and you can understand my position. Here is a house, full of inflammable material, which unaccountably bursts into flames at three o’clock in the morning. That house was either unoccupied or had a single occupant who was presumably in bed and asleep, as he apparently made no attempt to escape.”

I offered a vague suggestion of some failure of the electric installation such as a short circuit or other accident, but he shook his head.

“I know that such things are actually possible,” said he, “but it doesn’t do to accept them too readily. A man who has been in this business as long as I have acquires a sort of intuitive perception of what is and what is not a normal case; and I have the feeling that there is something a little queer about this fire. I had the same feeling about that oil-shop case, which is why I asked Thorndyke to look into it. And then there are rumours of a man who was sleeping in the house. You heard those yourself. Now, if that man’s body turns up in the debris, there is the possibility of a further claim, as there was in the oil-shop case.”

“But, my dear Stalker!” I exclaimed, grinning in his face. “This is foresight with a vengeance. This fire may have been an incendiary fire. There may have been a man sleeping in the house and he may have got burned to death; and that man may have insured his life in your Society. How does that work out by the ordinary laws of chance? Pretty long odds, I think.”

“Not so long as you fancy,” he replied. “Persons who lose their lives in incendiary fires have a tendency to be insured. The connection between the fire and the death may not be a chance connection. Still, I will admit that, beyond a mere suspicion that there may be something wrong about this fire, I have nothing to go on. I am asking you to watch the case ‘ex abundantia cautelae’ as you lawyers say. And the watching must be done now while the evidence is available. It’s no use waiting until the ruins have been cleared away and the body — if there is one — buried.”

“No,” I agreed; “Thorndyke will be with you in that. I will give him your instructions when I see him at lunch-time, and you can take it that he won’t lose any time in collecting the facts. But you had better give us something in writing, as we shall have to get authority to inspect the ruins and to examine the body if there is one to examine.”

“Yes,” said Stalker, “I’ll do that now. I have some of our letter-paper in my case.”

He fished out a sheet, and, having written a formal request to Thorndyke to make such investigations as might be necessary in the interests of the Griffin Assurance Company, handed it to me and took his departure. As his footsteps died away on the stairs, Polton emerged from the adjacent laboratory and came in to clear away the breakfast-things. As he put them together on the tray, he announced:

“I’ve read the account of the fire, sir, in the paper, but there isn’t much more than you told me. Only the address — Billington Street, Soho.”

“And now,” said I, “you would like to go and have a look at it, I suppose?”

“Well,” he admitted, “it would be interesting after having heard about it from you. But you see, sir, there’s lunch to be got ready. The Doctor had his breakfast a bit earlier than you did, and not quite so much of it.”

“Never mind about lunch,” said I. “William can see to that.” (William, I may explain, was a youth who had lately been introduced to assist Polton and relieve him of his domestic duties; and a very capable under-study he had proved. Nevertheless, Polton clung tenaciously to what he considered his privilege of attending personally to “The Doctor’s” wants, which, in effect, included mine.) “You see, Polton,” I added by way of overcoming his scruples, “one of us ought to go, and I don’t want to. But The Doctor will want to make an inspection at the earliest possible moment and he will want to know how soon that will be. At present, the ruins can’t have cooled down enough for a detailed inspection to be possible, but you could find out from the man in charge how things are and when we could make our visit. We shall want to see the place before it has been considerably disturbed, and, if there are any human remains, we shall want to know where the mortuary is.”

On this Polton brightened up considerably. “Of course, sir,” said he, “If could be of any use, I should like to go; and I think William will be able to manage, as it is only a cold lunch.”

With this he retired, and a few minutes later I saw him from the window hurrying along Crown Office Row, carefully dressed and carrying a fine, silver-topped cane and looking more like a dignitary of the Church than a skilled artificer.

When Thorndyke came in, I gave him an account of Stalker’s visit as well as of my own adventure.

“I don’t quite see,” I added, “what we can do for him or why he is in such a twitter about this fire.”

“No,” he replied. “But Stalker is enormously impressed by our one or two successes and is inclined to over-estimate our powers. Still, there seem to be some suspicious features in the case, and I notice, on the placards, a rumour that a man was burned to death in the fire. If that is so, the affair will need looking into more narrowly. But we shall hear more about that when Polton comes back.”

We did. For when, just as we had finished lunch, our deputy returned, he was able to give us all the news up to the latest developments. He had been fortunate enough to meet Detective Sergeant Wills, who was watching the case for the police, and had learned from him that a body had been discovered among the debris, but that there was some mystery about its identity, as the tenant of the rooms was known to be away from home on a visit to Ireland. But it was not a mere matter of hearsay, for Polton had actually seen the body brought out on a stretcher and had followed it to the mortuary.

“You couldn’t see what its condition was, I suppose?” said I.

“No, sir,” he replied, regretfully. “Unfortunately, it was covered up with a waterproof sheet.”

“And as to the state of the ruins; did you find out how soon an examination of them will be possible?”

“Yes, sir. I explained matters to the Fire Brigade officer and asked him when you would be able to make your inspection. Of course, everything is too hot to handle just now. They had the greatest difficulty in getting at the corpse; but the officer thought that by tomorrow morning they will be able to get to work, and he suggested that you might come along in the forenoon.”

“Yes,” said Thorndyke, “that will do. We needn’t be there very early, as the heavier material — joists and beams and the debris of the roof — will have to be cleared away before we shall be able to see anything. We had better make our visit to the mortuary first. It is possible that we may learn more from the body than from the ruins. At any rate, it is within our province, which the ruins are not.”

“Judging from what I saw,” said I, “there will be mighty little for anyone to learn from the ruins. When the roof fell, it seemed to go right through to the basement.”

“Will you want anything got ready, sir?” Polton asked, a little anxiously.

Thorndyke apparently noted the wistful tone, for he replied: “I shall want you to come along with us, Polton; and you had better bring a small camera with the adjustable stand. We shall probably want photographs of the body, and it may be in an awkward position.”

“Yes, sir,” said Polton. “I will bring the extension as well; and I will put out the things that you are likely to want for your research-case.”

With this, he retired in undissembled glee, leaving us to discuss our arrangements.

“You will want authorities to examine the body and the ruins,” said I. “Shall I see to them? I have nothing special to do this afternoon.”

“If you would, Jervis, it would be a great help,” he replied. “I have some work which I should like to finish up, so as to leave tomorrow fairly free. We don’t know how much time our examinations may take.”

“No,” said I, “especially as you seem to be taking the case quite seriously.”

“But, my dear fellow,” said he, “we must. There may be nothing in it at all, but, in any case, we have got to satisfy Stalker and do our duty as medico-legal advisers to The Griffin.”

With this he rose and went forth about his business, while I, having taken possession of Stalker’s letter, set out in quest of the necessary authorities.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06