Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 12

Light on the Mystery

FOR the reader of this narrative, the inquest on the body that had been recovered from the burnt house will serve, as it did to me, to present the known facts of the case in a coherent and related group — a condition which had been made possible by the stable and mummified state of the corpse. For, as the body was now virtually incorruptible, it had been practicable to postpone the inquiry until the circumstances had been investigated by the police and the principal facts ascertained, at least sufficiently for the purpose of an inquest.

When we arrived, the preliminaries had just been completed; the jury, having viewed the body, had taken their places and the coroner was about to open the proceedings. I need not report his brief address, which merely indicated the matters to be inquired into, but will proceed to the evidence. The first witness was Mr. Henry Budge, and he deposed as follows: “On the 19th of April, about a quarter to three in the morning, I started with my neighbour, James Place, to walk home from the house of a friend in Noel Street, where we had been spending the previous evening playing cards. My way home to Macclesfield Street lay through Billington Street, and Mr. Place walked that way with me. All the houses that we passed were in darkness with the exception of one in Billington Street in which we noticed a light showing through the Venetian blinds of two of the windows. Mr. Place pointed them out to me, remarking that we were not the only late birds. That would be about three o’clock.”

“Was the light like ordinary lamp, or electric light? the coroner asked.

“No. It looked more like fire-light — rather red in colour and not very bright. Only just enough to make the windows visible.”

“Will you look at this photograph of the house, in which the windows are marked with numbers, and tell us which were the ones that were lighted up?”

The witness looked at the photograph and replied that the lighted windows were those marked 8 and 9, adding that the one marked 7 seemed to be quite dark.

“That,” said the coroner, “is important as showing that the fire broke out in the bed-sitting room on the first floor. Number seven is the window of the store or workroom. Yes?”

“Well, we didn’t take any particular notice. We just walked on until we came to Little Pulteney Street, where Place lives, and there we stopped at a corner talking about the evening’s play. Presently, Place began to sniff, and then I noticed a smell as if there was a chimney on fire. We both crossed the road and looked up over the tops of the houses, and then we could see smoke drifting across and we could just make out the chimney that it seemed to be coming from. We watched it for a few minutes, and then we saw some sparks rising and what looked like a reddish glow on the smoke. That made us both think of the house with the lighted window, and we started to walk back to have another look. By the time we got into Billington Street we could see the chimney quite plain with lots of sparks flying out of it, so we hurried along until we came opposite the house, and then there was no mistake about it. All three windows on the first floor were brightly lighted up, and in one of them the Venetian blinds had caught; and now small flames began to show from the top of the chimney. We consulted as to what we should do, and decided that Place should run off and find a policeman while I tried to knock up the people of the house. So Place ran off, and I crossed the road to the front door of the house at the side of the shop.”

“And did you make a considerable noise?”

“I am afraid I didn’t. There was no proper knocker, only one of these new things fixed to the letter-box. I struck that as hard as I could and I pressed the electric bell, but I couldn’t tell whether it sounded or not. So I kept on with the silly little knocker.”

“Did you hear any sounds of any kind from within the house?”

“Not a sign, though I listened at the letter-box.”

“How long were you there alone?”

“Three or four minutes, I should think. Perhaps a little more. Then Place came running back with a policeman, who told me to go on knocking and ringing while he and Place roused up the people in the houses next door. But by this time the house was fairly alight, flames coming out of all three first-floor windows and a light beginning to show in the windows of the floor above. And then it got too hot for me to stay at the door, and I had to back away across the street.”

“Yes,” said the coroner, glancing at the jury, “I think the witness has given us a very clear and vivid description of the way and the time at which the fire broke out. The rest of the story can be taken up by other witnesses when we have heard Mr. Place.”

The evidence of James Place, given quite briefly, merely confirmed and repeated that of Mr. Budge, with the addition of his description of his meeting with the policeman. Then the latter, Edwin Pearson by name, was called and, having been sworn, deposed that on the 19th of April at about 3.14 a.m. he was accosted at the corner of Meard Street, Soho, by the last witness, who informed him that there was a house on fire in Billington Street. He immediately ran off with Place to the nearest fire alarm and sent off the warning. That was at 3.16 a.m. by his watch. Then he and the last witness hurried off to Billington Street, where they found the house alight as Mr. Budge had described it, and had endeavoured to rouse the inmates of the burning house and the two adjoining houses, and were still doing so when the first of the engines arrived. That would be about 3.24 a.m.

Here the narrative passed to the officer in charge of the engine which had been the first on the scene; and, when he had been sworn, the coroner remarked: “You realize that this is an inquiry into the death of the man whose body was found in the burnt house. The information that we want is that which is relevant to that death. Otherwise, the burning of the house is not specially our concern.”

“I understand that,” replied the witness — whose name had been given as George Bell. “The principal fact bearing on the death of deceased is the extraordinary rapidity with which the fire spread, which is accounted for by the highly inflammable nature of the material that the house contained. If deceased was asleep when the fire broke out, he might have been suffocated by the fumes without waking up. A mass of burning cellulose would give off volumes of poisonous gas.”

“You have made an examination of the ruins. Did you find any evidence as to how the fire started?”

“No. The ruins were carefully examined by me and by several other officers, but no clue to the origin of the fire could be discovered by any of us. There was nothing to go on. Apparently, the fire started in the first-floor rooms, and it would have been there that the clues would be found. But those rooms were completely destroyed. Even the floors had been carried away by the fall of the roof; so that there was nothing left to examine.”

“Does it appear to you that there is anything abnormal about this fire?”

“No. All fires are, in a sense, abnormal. The only unusual feature in this case is the great quantity of inflammable material in the house. But the existence of that was known.”

“You find nothing to suggest a suspicion of fire-raising? The time, for instance, at which it broke out?”

“As to the time, there is nothing remarkable or unusual in that. The beginning of a fire may be something which makes no show at first: a heap of soot behind a stove or a spark on some material which will smoulder but not burst into flame. It may go on smouldering for quite a long time before it reaches some material that is really inflammable. A spark on brown paper, for instance, might smoulder slowly for an hour or more; then, if the glowing part spread and came into contact with a celluloid film, there would be a burst of flame and the fire would be started; and in such a house as this, the place might be well alight in a matter of minutes.”

“Then you have no suspicion of incendiarism?”

“No, there is nothing positive to suggest it. Of course, it can’t be excluded. There is simply no evidence either way.”

“In what way might the fire have originated?”

The witness raised his eyebrows in mild protest, but he answered the rather comprehensive question without comment.

“There are a good many possibilities. It might have been started by the act of some person. That is possible in this case, as there was a person in the house, but there is no evidence that he started the fire. Then there is the electric wiring. Something might have occurred to occasion a short circuit — a mouse or a cock roach connecting two wires. It is extremely uncommon with modern wiring, and in this case, as the fuses were destroyed, we can’t tell whether it happened or not. And then there is the possibility of spontaneous combustion. That does occur occasionally. A heap of engineer’s cotton waste soaked with oil will sometimes start burning by itself. So will a big bin of sawdust or a large mass of saltpetre. But none of these things are known to have been in this house.”

“As to human agency. Suppose this person had been smoking in bed?”

“Well, that is a dangerous habit; but, after all, it would be only guess-work in this case. I have no evidence that the man was smoking in bed. If there is such evidence, then the fire might have been started in that way, though, even then, it would not be a certainty.”

This concluded Mr. Bell’s evidence, and, when he had been allowed to retire, the coroner commented: “As you will have observed, members of the jury, the expert evidence is to the effect that the cause of the fire is unknown; that is to say that none of the recognized signs of fire-raising were found. But possibly we may get some light on the matter from consideration of the circumstances. Perhaps we had better hear what Mr. Green can tell us before we take the medical evidence.”

Accordingly, Mr. Walter Green was called, and, having been sworn, deposed: “I am the lessee of the premises in which the fire occurred, and I carried on in them the business of a dealer in films of all kinds: kine films, X-ray films and the ordinary films for use in cameras. I do not manufacture but I am the agent for several manufacturers; and I also deal to some extent in projectors and cameras, both kine and ordinary. I always kept a large stock of films. Some were kept in the ground — floor shop for immediate sale, and the reserve stock was stored in the rooms on the second and third floors.”

“Were these films inflammable?”

“Nearly all of them were highly inflammable.”

“Then this must have been a very dangerous house. Did you take any special precautions against fire?”

“Yes. The store-rooms were always kept locked, and the rule was that they were only to be entered by daylight and that no smoking was allowed in them. We were naturally very careful.”

“And were the premises insured?”

“Yes, both the building and the contents were fully insured. Of course, the rate of insurance was high in view of the special risk.”

“How many persons were ordinarily resident in the house?”

“Only one. Formerly the premises used to be left at night entirely unoccupied, but, as there was more room than we needed, I decided to let the first floor. I would sooner have let it for use as offices, but my present tenant, Mr. Gustavus Haire, applied for it as a residential flat, and I let it to him, and he has resided in it for the last six months.”

“Was he in residence at the time of the fire?”

“No. Fortunately for him, he was absent on a visit to Ireland at the time. The gentleman who met his death in the fire was a relative of Mr. Haire’s to whom he had lent the flat while he was away.”

“We will come to the question of deceased presently, but first we might have a few particulars about Mr. Haire; as to his occupation, for instance.”

“I really don’t know very much about him. He seems to be connected with the film and camera trade, mostly, I think, as a traveller and agent for some of the wholesale firms. But he does some sort of dealing on his own account, and he seems to be something of a mechanic. He has done some repairs on projectors for me, and once he mended up a gramophone motor that I bought second hand. And he does a little manufacturing, if you can call it by that name: he makes certain kinds of cements and varnishes. I don’t know exactly how much or what he does with them, but I presume that he sells them, as I can’t think of any use that he could have for the quantities that he makes.”

“Did he carry on this industry on your premises?”

“Yes, in the small room that adjoined the bedroom, which he also used as a workroom for his mechanical jobs. There was a cupboard in it in which he used to keep his stocks of varnish and the solvents for making them — mostly acetone and amyl acetate.”

“Aren’t those solvents rather inflammable?”

“They are very inflammable; and the varnish is still worse, as the basis is cellulose.”

“You say that you don’t know how much of this stuff he used to make in that room. Haven’t you any idea?”

“I can’t suggest a quantity, but I know that he must have made a good deal of it, because he used to buy some, at least, of his material from me. It consisted mostly of worn-out or damaged films, and I have sold him quite a lot from time to time. But I believe he had other sources of supply.”

“And you say he used to store all this inflammable material — the celluloid, the solvents and the varnish — in that small room?”

“Yes; but I think that when the little room got full up, he used to overflow into the bedroom — in fact, I know he did, for I saw a row of bottles of varnish on the bedroom mantelpiece, one of them a Winchester quart.”

“Then you have been into Mr. Haire’s rooms? Perhaps you could give us a general idea as to their arrangement and what was in them.”

“I have only been in them once or twice, and I didn’t take very much notice of them, as I just went in to talk over some matters which we had been discussing. There were two rooms; a small one — that would have the window marked 7 in the photograph. It was used as a workroom and partly as a store for the cements and varnishes. It contained a smallish deal table which had a vice fixed to it and served as a work bench. It was littered with tools and bits of scrap of various kinds and there was a gas-ring on a sheet of iron. Besides the table, there was a stool and a good-sized cupboard, rather shallow and fitted with five or six shelves which seemed to be filled principally with bottles.

The other room was quite a fair size — about twenty feet long and twelve feet wide. It was used as a bed-sitting room and was quite comfortably furnished. The bed was at the end opposite window number 9, with the dressing-table and washstand near it. At the other end was a mahogany table, a small side board, a set of book-shelves, three single chairs, an easy chair by the fireplace, and a grandfather clock against the wall in the corner. There was some sort of carpet on the floor and a rug before the fireplace. That is all I remember about the furniture of the room; but what dwells in my memory is the appalling untidiness of the place. The floor was littered with newspapers and magazines, the mantelpiece and the sideboard were filled up with bottles and boxes and pipes and all sorts of rubbish, and there were brown — paper parcels all over the place: stacked along the walls and round the clock and even under the bed.”

“Do you know what was in those parcels?”

“I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that they contained his stock of films. I recognized one as a parcel that he had had from me.”

The coroner looked at the witness with a frown of astonishment.

“It seems incredible,” he exclaimed. “These rooms must have been even more dangerous than the rest of the house.”

“Much more,” the witness agreed; “for, in the business premises, the films were at least securely packed. We didn’t keep them loose in paper parcels.”

“No. It is perfectly astonishing. This man, Haire, might as well have been living and sleeping in a powder magazine. No wonder that the fire started in his flat. The necessary conditions seem to have been perfect for the start of a fire. But still we have no evidence as to what actually started it. I suppose, Mr. Green, you have no suggestion to offer on that question?

“Of course, I have no certain knowledge, though I have a very definite suspicion. But a suspicion is not evidence.”

“No, but I suppose that you had something to go on. Let us hear what you suspect and why you suspect it.”

“My opinion is based on a conversation that I had with Mr. Haire shortly before he went away. It occurred in a little restaurant in Wardour Street where we both used to go for lunch. He was telling me about his proposed visit to Dublin. He said he was not sure how long he might be away, but he thought it would be as well for him to leave me his address in case anyone should call on any matter that might seem urgent. So he wrote down the address of the firm on whom he would be calling and gave it to me, and I then said, jestingly, that, as there would be no one in the house while he was away, I hoped he would deposit his jewellery and plate and other valuable property in the bank before he left.

“He smiled and promised that he would, but then he remarked that, in fact, the house would probably not be empty, as he had agreed to let a cousin of his have the use of the rooms to sleep in while he was away. I was not very pleased to hear this, and I remarked that I should not much care to hand the keys of any rooms of mine to another person. He agreed with me, and admitted that he would rather have avoided the arrangement; ‘but,’ he said, ‘what could I do? The man is my cousin and quite a decent fellow. He happens to be coming up to town just at the time when I shall be away, and it will be a great convenience to him to have a place where he can turn in and save the expense of an hotel. He may not use the rooms after all, but if he does, I don’t expect that you will see much of him, as he will only be coming to the rooms to sleep. His days will be occupied in various business calls. I must admit,’ he added, ‘that I wish him at Halifax, but he asked me to let him have the use of the rooms, and I didn’t feel that I could refuse.’

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I should have refused. But he is your cousin, so I suppose you know all about him.’

“‘Oh, yes,’ he replied; ‘he is quite a responsible sort of man; and I have cautioned him to be careful.’

“That struck me as a rather curious remark, so I said: ‘How do you mean? What did you caution him about?’ and he replied: ‘Oh, I just cautioned him not to do himself too well in the matter of drinks in the evening, and I made him promise not to smoke in bed.’

“‘Does he usually smoke in bed?’ I asked; and he replied: ‘I think he likes to take a book to bed with him and have a read and a smoke before going to sleep. But he has promised solemnly that he won’t.’

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I hope he won’t. It is a shockingly dangerous habit. He might easily drop off to sleep and let his cigarette fall on the bed-clothes.’

“‘He doesn’t smoke cigarettes in bed,’ said Haire. ‘He smokes a pipe; his favourite is a big French clay bowl in the form of a death’s head with glass eyes and a cherry-wood stem. He loves that pipe. But you need not worry; he has sworn not to smoke in bed.’

“I was not very happy about the affair, but I didn’t like to make a fuss. So I made no further objection.”

“I think,” said the coroner, “that you ought to have forbidden him to lend the rooms. However, you didn’t. Did you learn what this man’s name was?”

“Yes, I asked Mr. Haire, in case I should see the man and have occasion to speak to him. His name was Moxdale — Cecil Moxdale.”

“Then we may take it that the body which is the subject of this inquiry is that of Cecil Moxdale. Did you ever see him?”

“I think I saw him once. That would be just before six in the evening of the 14th of April. I was standing inside the doorway of my premises when Mr. Haire passed with another man, whom I assumed to be Mr. Moxdale from his resemblance to Mr. Haire. The two men went to the street door which is the entrance to Mr. Haire’s staircase and entered together.”

“Could you give us any description of Moxdale?”

“He was a biggish man — about five feet nine or ten — with dark hair and a rather full dark moustache. That is all I noticed. I only took a passing glance at him.”

“From what you said just now,” the coroner suggested, “I suppose we may assume that you connect the outbreak of the fire with this unfortunate man?”

“I do,” the witness replied. “I have no doubt that he lit up his pipe notwithstanding his promise, and set his bedclothes on fire. That would account for everything, if you remember that there were a number of parcels under the bed which were almost certainly filled with inflammable films.”

“Yes,” the coroner agreed. “Of course, it is only a surmise, but it is certainly a very probable one. And that, I suppose, Mr. Green, is all that you have to tell us.”

“Yes, sir,” was the reply, “that is about all I know of the case.”

The coroner glanced at the jury and asked if there were any questions, and, when the foreman replied that there were none, the witness was allowed to retire when the depositions had been read and signed.

There was a short pause, during which the coroner glanced at the depositions and, apparently, reflected on the last witness’s evidence. “I think,” he said at length, “that, before going further into the details of this deplorable affair, we had better hear what the doctors have to tell us. It may seem, having regard to the circumstances in which deceased met his death and the condition of the body, that the taking of medical evidence is more or less of a formality; but, still, it is necessary that we should have a definite statement as to the cause of death. We will begin with the evidence of the divisional surgeon, Dr. William Robertson.”

As his name was mentioned, our colleague rose and stepped up to the table, where the coroner’s officer placed a chair for him.

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