Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 11

The Ruins

IN the medico-legal mind the idea of horror, I suppose, hardly has a place. It is not only that sensibilities tend to become dulled by repeated impacts, but that the emotions are, as it were, insulated by the concentration of attention on technical matters. Speaking, however, dispassionately, I must admit that the body which had been disinterred from the ruins of the burned house was about as horrible an object as I had ever seen. Even the coroner’s officer, whose emotional epidermis might well have grown fairly tough, looked at that corpse with an undisguised shudder, while as to Polton, he was positively appalled. As he stood by the table and stared with bulging eyes at the dreadful thing, I surmised that he was enjoying the thrill of his life. He was in a very ecstasy of horror.

To both these observers, I think, Thorndyke’s proceedings imparted an added touch of gruesomeness; for my colleague — as I have hinted — saw in that hideous object nothing but a technical problem, and he proceeded in the most impassive and matter-of — fact way to examine it feature by feature and note down his observations as if he were drawing up an inventory. I need not enter into details as to its appearance. It will easily be imagined that a body which had been exposed to such intense heat that not only was most of its flesh reduced to mere animal charcoal, but the very bones, in places, were incinerated to chalky whiteness, was not a pleasant object to look on. But I think that what most appalled both Polton and the officer was the strange posture that it had assumed: a posture suggesting some sort of struggle or as if the man had been writhing in agony or shrinking from a threatened attack. The body and limbs were contorted in the strangest manner, the arms crooked, the hands thrust forward, and the skeleton fingers bent like hooks.

“Good Lord, sir!” Polton whispered, “how the poor creature must have suffered! And it almost looks as if someone had been holding him down.”

“It really does,” the coroner’s officer agreed; “as if somebody was attacking him and wouldn’t let him escape.”

“It does look rather horrid,” I admitted, “but I don’t think you need worry too much about the position of the limbs. This contortion is almost certainly due to shrinkage of the muscles after death as the heat dried them. What do you think, Thorndyke?”

“Yes,” he agreed. “It is not possible to draw any conclusions from the posture of a body that has been burned to the extent that this has, and burned so unequally. You notice that, whereas the feet are practically incinerated, there are actually traces of the clothing on the chest; apparently a suit of pyjamas, to judge by what is left of the buttons.”

At this moment the door of the mortuary opened to admit a newcomer, in whom we recognized a Dr. Robertson, the divisional surgeon and an old acquaintance of us both.

“I see,” he remarked, as Thorndyke laid down his tape-measure to shake hands, “that you are making your examination with your usual thoroughness.”

“Well,” Thorndyke replied, “the relevant facts must be ascertained now or never. They may be of no importance, but one can’t tell that in advance.”

“Yes,” said Robertson, “that is a sound principle. In this case, I don’t much think they are. I mean data in proof of identity, which are what you seem to be collecting. The identity of this man seems to be established by the known circumstances, though not so very clearly, I must admit.”

“That seems a little obscure,” Thorndyke remarked. “Either the man’s identity is known, or it isn’t.”

The divisional surgeon smiled. “You are a devil for accuracy, Thorndyke,” said he, “but you are quite right. We aren’t here to make guesses. But the facts as to the identity appear to be pretty simple. From the statement of Mr. Green, the lessee of the house, it seems that the first-floor rooms were let to a man named Gustavus Haire, who lived in them, and he was the only person resident in the house; so that, when the business premises closed down for the day and the employees went home, he had the place to himself.”

“Then,” said Thorndyke, “do we take it that this is the body of Mr. Gustavus Haire?”

“No,” replied Robertson, “that is where the obscurity comes in. Mr. Haire has — fortunately for him — gone on a business visit to Dublin, but, as Mr. Green informs us, during his absence he allowed a cousin of his, a Mr. Cecil Moxdale, to occupy the rooms, or at least to use them to sleep in to save the expense of an hotel. The difficulty is that Moxdale was not known personally to Mr. Green, or to anybody else, for that matter. At present, he is little more than a name. But, of course, Haire will be able to give all the necessary particulars when he comes back from Ireland.”

“Yes,” Thorndyke agreed, “but meanwhile there will be no harm in noting the facts relevant to the question of identity. The man may have made a will, or there may be other reasons for establishing proof of his identity independently of Haire’s statements. I have made notes of the principal data, but I am not very happy about the measurements. The contorted state of the body makes them a little uncertain. I suggest that you and Jervis take a set of measurements each, independently, and that we compare them afterwards.”

Robertson grinned at me, but he took the tape measure without demur and proceeded quite carefully to take the principal dimensions of the contorted body and the twisted limbs, and, when he had finished, I repeated the measurements, noting them down in my pocket-book. Then we compared our respective findings — which were in substantial agreement — and Thorndyke copied them all down in his note-book.

“When you came in, Robertson,” said he, “we were discussing the posture of the body, and we had concluded that the contortion was due to shrinkage and had no significance. Do you agree?”

“I think so. It is not an unusual condition, and I don’t see what significance it could have. The cause of death is practically established by the circumstances. But it certainly is a queer posture. The head especially. The man looks as if he had been hanged.”

“He does,” Thorndyke agreed, “and I want you to take a careful look at the neck. I noticed Jervis looking at it with a good deal of interest. Has my learned friend formed any opinion?”

“The neck is certainly dislocated,” I replied, “and the odontoid process is broken. I noted that, but I put it down to the effects of shrinkage of the neck muscles, and possibly to some disturbance when the body was moved.”

Robertson stooped over the body and examined the exposed neck-bones narrowly, testing the head for mobility and finding it quite stiff and rigid.

“Well,” said he, “the neck is undoubtedly broken, but I am inclined to agree with Jervis, excepting that, as the neck is perfectly rigid, I don’t think that the dislocation could have been produced by the moving of the body. I should say that it is the result of shrinkage; in fact, I don’t see how else it could have been caused, having regard to the circumstances in which the body was found.”

Thorndyke looked dissatisfied. “It always seems to me,” said he, “that when one is examining a particular fact, it is best to forget the circumstances; to consider the fact without prejudice and without connection with anything else, and then, as a separate proceeding, to relate it to the circumstances.”

The divisional surgeon chuckled. “This,” said he, “is what the Master instils into his pupils. And quite right, too. It is sound doctrine. But still, you know, we must be reasonable. When we find the body of a man among the debris of a house which has been burned out, and the evidence shows that the man was the only occupant of that house, it seems a little pedantic to enquire elaborately whether he may not have died from the effects of manual strangulation or homicidal hanging.”

“My point,” Thorndyke rejoined, as a parting shot, “is that our function is to ascertain the objective facts, leaving their interpretation to the coroner and his jury. Looking at that odontoid process, I find that the appearance of the fragments where the break took place is more consistent with the fracture having occurred during life than after death and during the subsequent shrinkage. I admit that I do not see how the fracture can have happened in the known — or assumed — circumstances, and I further admit that the appearances are not at all decisive.”

I took another careful look at the fractured bone and was disposed to agree with Thorndyke; but I had also to agree with Robertson when he closed the discussion with the remark: “Well, Thorndyke, you may be right, but in any case the point seems to be of only academic interest. The man was alone in the house, so he couldn’t have died from homicide; and I have never heard of anyone committing suicide by dislocating his neck.”

Nevertheless, he joined us in a very thorough examination of the body for any other traces of injury (of which I need hardly say there were none) and for any distinctive appearances which might help to determine the identity in case the question should arise. I noticed him closely examining the teeth, and as they had already attracted my attention, I asked: “What do you make of those teeth? Is that roughening and pitting of the enamel due to the heat, or to some peculiarity of the teeth, themselves?”

“Just what I was wondering,” he replied. “I think it must be the result of the fire, for I don’t recognize it as a condition that I have ever seen on living teeth. What do you think, Thorndyke?”

“I am in the same position as yourself,” was the reply. “I don’t recognize the condition. It is not disease, for the teeth are quite sound and strong. On the other hand, I don’t quite understand how that pitting could have been produced by the heat. So I have just noted the appearance in case it should have any significance later.”

“Well,” said Robertson, “if Thorndyke is reduced to an open verdict, I suppose we may follow suit,” and with this we returned to the general examination. When we had finished, he helped us to lift the stretcher, on which the body had been left, from the table to the floor to enable Polton to expose the photographs that Thorndyke required as records, and, when these had been taken, our business at the mortuary was finished.

“I suppose,” said Robertson, “you are going to have a look at the ruins, now. It seems a trifle off the medico-legal track, but you may possibly pick up some information there. I take it that you are acting for the insurance company?”

“Yes,” replied Thorndyke, “on instructions. As you say, it seems rather outside our province, as the company appears to be interested only in the house. But they asked me to watch the case, and I am doing so.”

“You are indeed,” Robertson exclaimed. “All that elaborate examination of the body seems to be completely irrelevant, if the question is only, How did the house catch fire? You carry thoroughness to the verge of fanaticism.”

Thorndyke smiled. “Not fanaticism,” said he; “merely experience, which bids us gather the rosebuds while we may. The question of today is not necessarily the question of to morrow. At present we are concerned with the house; but there was a dead body in it. A month hence that body may be the problem, but by then it will be underground.”

Robertson grinned at me. “’Twas ever thus,” he chuckled. “You can’t get a rise out of Thorndyke — for the reason, I suppose, that he is always right. Well, I wish you luck in your explorations and hope to meet you both at the inquest.”

With this, he took his departure, and, as Polton had now got his apparatus packed up, we followed him and made our way to what the papers described as “the Scene of the Conflagration”.

It was a rather melancholy scene, with a tinge of squalor. The street was still wet and muddy, but a small crowd stood patiently, regardless of the puddles, staring up at the dismal shell with its scorched walls and gaping windows — the windows that I had seen belch forth flames but which now showed only the cold light of day. A rough hoarding had been put up to enclose the ground floor, and at the wicket of this a Salvage Corps officer stood on guard. To him Thorndyke addressed himself, producing his authority to inspect the ruins.

“Well, sir,” said the officer, “you’ll find it a rough job, with mighty little to see and plenty to fall over. And it isn’t over-safe. There’s some stuff overhead that may come down at any moment. Still, if you want to look the place over, I can show you the way down.”

“Your people, I suppose,” said Thorndyke, “have made a pretty thorough inspection. Has anything been discovered that throws any light on the cause or origin of the fire?”

The officer shook his head. “No, sir,” he replied. “Not a trace. There wouldn’t be. The house was burned right out from the ground upwards. It might have been lighted in a dozen places at once and there would be nothing to show it. There isn’t even part of a floor left. Do you think it is worth while to take the risk of going down?”

“I think I should like to see what it looks like,” said Thorndyke, adding, with a glance at me, “but there is no need for you and Polton to risk getting a brick or a chimney-pot on your heads.”

Of course, I refused to be left out of the adventure, while, as to Polton, wild horses would not have held him back.

“Very well, gentlemen,” said the officer, “you know your own business,” and with this he opened the wicket and let us through to the brink of a yawning chasm which had once been the cellars. The remains of the charred beams had been mostly hauled up out of the way, but the floor of the cellars was still hidden by mountainous heaps of bricks, tiles, masses of charred wood and all-pervading white ash, amidst which three men in leather, brass-bound helmets were working with forks and shovels and with their thickly-gloved hands, removing the larger debris such as bricks, tiles, and fragments of boards and joists, while a couple of large sieves stood ready for the more minute examination of the dust and small residue.

We made our way cautiously down the ladder, becoming aware of a very uncomfortable degree of warmth as we descended and noting the steam that still rose from the wet rubbish. One of the men stopped his work to look at us and offer a word of warning.

“You’d better be careful where you are treading,” said he. “Some of this stuff is still red underneath, and your boots aren’t as thick as mine. You’d do best to stay on the ladder. You can see all there is to see from there, which isn’t much. And mind you don’t touch the walls with your hands.”

His advice seemed so reasonable that we adopted it, and seated ourselves on the rungs of the ladder and looked about the dismal cavern as well as we could through the clouds of dust and steam.

“I see,” said Thorndyke, addressing the shadowy figure nearest to us, “that you have a couple of sieves. Does that mean that you are going to sift all the small stuff?

“Yes,” was the reply. “We are going to do this job a bit more thoroughly than usual on account of the dead man who was found here. The police want to find out all they can about him, and I think the insurance people have been asking questions. You see, the dead man seems to have been a stranger, and he hasn’t been properly identified yet. And I think that the tenant of the house isn’t quite satisfied that everything was according to Cocker.”

“And I suppose,” said Thorndyke, “that whatever is found will be kept carefully and produced at the inquest?

“Yes. Everything that is recovered will be kept for the police to see. The larger stuff will be put into a box by itself, and the smaller things which may be important for purposes of identification are to be sifted out and put into a separate box so that they don’t get mixed up with the other things and lost sight of. But our instructions are that nothing is to be thrown away until the police have seen it.”

“Then,” Thorndyke suggested, “I presume that some police officer is watching the case. Do you happen to know who he is?”

“We got our instructions from a detective sergeant — name of Wills, I think — but an inspector from Scotland Yard looked in for a few minutes this morning; a very pleasant-spoken gentleman he was. Looked more like a dissenting minister than a police officer.”

“That sounds rather like Blandy,” I remarked; and Thorndyke agreed that the description seemed to fit our old acquaintance. And so it turned out; for when, having finished our survey of the cellars, we retired up the ladder and came out of the wicket, we found Sergeant Wills and Inspector Blandy in conference with the officer who had admitted us. On observing us, Blandy removed his hat with a flourish and made demonstrations of joy.

“Well, now,” he exclaimed, “this is very pleasant. Dr. Jervis, too, and Mr. Polton with photographic apparatus. Quite encouraging. No doubt there will be some crumbs of expert information which a simple police officer may pick up.”

Thorndyke smiled a little wearily. Like me, he found Blandy’s fulsome manner rather tiresome. But he replied amiably enough: “I am sure, Inspector, we shall try to be mutually helpful, as we always do. But at present I suspect that we are in much the same position: just observers waiting to see whether anything significant comes into sight.”

“That is exactly my position,” Blandy admitted. “Here is a rather queer-looking fire and a dead man in the ruins. Nothing definitely suspicious, but there are possibilities. There always are when you find a dead body in a burned house. You have had a look at the ruins, sir. Did you find anything suggestive in them?”

“Nothing whatever,” Thorndyke replied; “nor do I think anyone else will. The most blatant evidences of fire-raising would have been obliterated by such total destruction. But my inspection was merely formal. I have no expert knowledge of fires, but, as I am watching the case for the Griffin Company, I thought it best to view the ruins.”

“Then,” said Blandy with a slightly disappointed air, “you are interested only in the house, not in the body?”

“Officially, that is so; but, as the body is a factor in the case, I have made an examination of it, with Dr. Robertson, and if you want copies of the photographs that Polton has just taken at the mortuary, I will let you have them.”

“But how good of you!” exclaimed Blandy. “Certainly, Doctor, I should like to have them. You see,” he added, “the fact that this dead man was not the ordinary resident makes one want to know all about him and how he came to be sleeping in that house. I shall be most grateful for the photographs; and if there is anything that I can do —”

“There is,” Thorndyke interrupted. “I learn that you are, very wisely, making a thorough examination of the debris and passing the ashes through a sieve.”

“I am,” said Blandy, “and what is more, the sergeant and I propose to superintend the sifting. Nothing from a pin upwards will be thrown away until it has been thoroughly examined. I suppose you would like to see the things that we recover.”

“Yes,” replied Thorndyke, “when you have finished with them, you might pass them on to me.”

Blandy regarded Thorndyke with a benevolent and slightly foxy smile, and, after a moment’s pause, asked deferentially:

“Was there anything in particular that you had in your mind, Doctor? I mean, any particular kind of article?”

“No,” Thorndyke replied. “I am in the same position as you are. There are all sorts of possibilities in the case. The body tells us practically nothing, so we can only pick up any stray facts that may be available, as you appear to be doing.”

This brought the interview to an end. Blandy and the sergeant disappeared through the wicket, and we went on our way homewards to see what luck Polton would have with his photographs.

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