Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 16

Polton Astonishes the Inspector

POLTON’S revelation gave us both a good deal of material for thought, and, naturally, thought generated discussion.

“How does Polton’s discovery impress you?” I asked. “Is it a real one, do you think, or is it possible that he has only found a mare’s nest?”

“We must wait until we have seen the model,” Thorndyke replied. “But I attach great weight to his opinions for several reasons.”

“As, for instance —?”

“Well, first there is Polton himself. He is a profound mechanician, with the true mechanician’s insight and imagination. He reads a certain function into the machine which he has mentally reconstructed, and he is probably right. Then there is the matter which we were discussing recently: the puzzling, contradictory nature of the case. We agreed that the whole group of events looks abnormal; that it suggests a connected group of events, intentionally brought about, with an unlawful purpose behind it, but there is not a particle of positive evidence connecting anyone with those events in the character of agent. The crux of the matter has been from the first the impossibility of connecting Haire with the outbreak of the fire. His alibi seemed to be unchallengeable; for not only was he far away, days before the fire broke out; not only, was there no trace of any fire-raising appliance; but the presence of the other man in the rooms seemed to exclude the possibility of any such appliance having been used.

“But if Polton’s discovery turns out to be a real one, all these difficulties disappear. The impossible has become possible and even probable. It has become possible for Haire to have raised the fire while he was hundreds of miles away; and the appliance used was so ordinary in appearance that it would have passed unnoticed by the man who was living in the rooms. If Polton is right, he has supplied the missing link which brings the whole case together.”

“You speak of probability,” I objected. “Aren’t you putting it too high? At the most, Polton can prove that the mechanism could have been used for fire — raising; but what is the evidence that it was actually so used?”

“There is no direct evidence,” Thorndyke admitted. “But consider all the circumstances. The fire, itself, looked like the work of an incendiary, and all the other facts supported that view. The fatal objection was the apparent physical impossibility of the fire having been purposely raised. But Polton’s discovery — if we accept it provisionally — removes the impossibility. Here is a mechanism which could have been used to raise the fire, and for which no other use can be discovered. That, I say, establishes a probability that it was so used; and that probability would remain even if it could be proved that the mechanism had some legitimate function.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said I. “At any rate, I think Blandy will agree with you. Is he coming to the demonstration?”

“Yes. I notified him and invited him to come. I couldn’t do less; and, in fact, though I have no great love for the man, I respect his abilities. He will be here punctually at eight o’clock to-night.”

In effect, the inspector was more than punctual, for he turned up, in a state of undisguised excitement, at half-past seven. I need not repeat his adulatory greeting of my colleague nor the latter’s disclaimer of any merit in the matter. But I noted that he appeared to be genuinely grateful for Thorndyke’s help and much more frank and open in his manner than he had usually been.

As the demonstration had been arranged for eight, we occupied the interval by giving him a general outline of the mechanism while he fortified himself with a glass of sherry (which Thorndyke had, in some way, ascertained to be his particular weakness) and listened with intense attention. At eight o’clock, exactly, by Polton’s newly-completed regulator, the creator of that incomparable time-keeper appeared and announced that the model was ready for inspection, and we all, thereupon, followed him up to the laboratory floor.

As we entered the big workroom, Blandy cast an inquisitive glance round at the appliances and apparatus that filled the shelves and occupied the benches; then he espied the model, and, approaching it, gazed at it with devouring attention.

It was certainly an impressive object, and at the first glance I found it a little confusing, and not exactly what I had expected; but as the demonstration proceeded, these difficulties disappeared.

“Before I start the movement,” Polton began, “I had better explain one or two things. This is a demonstration model, and it differs in some respects from the actual mechanism. That mechanism was attached to an eight-day clock, and it moved once in twenty-four hours. This one moves once in an abbreviated day of thirty seconds.”

“Good gracious!” exclaimed Blandy. “How marvellous are the powers of the horologist! But I am glad that it is only a temporary arrangement. At that rate, we should all be old men in about twenty minutes.”

“Well, sir,” said Polton, with an apologetic and crinkly smile, “you wouldn’t want to stand here for five days to see it work. But the calendar movement is exactly the same as that in Mr. Haire’s clock; in fact, it is made from the actual parts that I found in your box, excepting the two wooden drums and the ratchet pulley that carries the cord and weight. Those I had to supply; but the spindle that carries the drums, I found with the star-wheel on it.

“As we haven’t got the clock, I have made a simple little clock to turn the snail, like those that are used to turn an equatorial telescope. You can ignore that. But the rest of the movement is driven by this little weight, just as the original was. Then, as to the addition that someone had made to the calendar, I have fixed the week-snail to the end of the spindle. I don’t suppose that is how it was done, but that doesn’t matter. This shows how the snail and pallet-bar worked, which is the important point.”

“And what is that contraption in the bowl?” asked Blandy.

“That,” Polton replied a little evasively, “you can disregard for the moment. It is a purely conjectural arrangement for starting the fire. I don’t suggest that it is like the one that was used. It is merely to demonstrate the possibility.”

“Exactly,” said Blandy. “The possibility is the point that matters.”

“Well,” Polton continued, “that is all that I need explain. I have fitted the little clock with a dial and one hand so that you can follow the time, and, of course, the day of the week and the day of the month are shown on the two drums. And now we can set it going. You see that the day-drum shows Sunday and the date-drum shows the first, and the hand on the dial shows just after three o’clock; so it has just turned three o’clock on Sunday morning. And, if you look at the week-snail, you will see that it is set to discharge on the fifth day — that is, at three o’clock on Friday morning. And now here goes.”

He pulled up the little weight by its cord and released some sort of stop. Forthwith the little conical pendulum began to gyrate rapidly, and the single hand to travel round the dial, while Polton watched it ecstatically and chanted out the events as they occurred.

“Six a.m., nine a.m., twelve noon, three p.m., six p.m., nine p.m., midnight.”

Here he paused with his eye on the dial, and we all watched expectantly as the hand moved swiftly towards the figure three. As it approached there was a soft click accompanied by a slight movement of the two drums. Then the hand reached the figure and there was another click; and, immediately, the two drums turned, and Sunday, the first, became Monday, the second.

So the rather weird-looking machine went on. The little pendulum gyrated madly, the hand moved rapidly round the dial, and at each alternate three o’clock there came the soft click, and then the two drums moved together and showed a new day. Mean while, Polton continued to chant out his announcements — rather unnecessarily, as I thought, for the thing was obvious enough.

“Tuesday, the third; Wednesday, the fourth; Thursday, the fifth, six a.m., nine a.m., noon, three p.m., six p.m., nine p.m., midnight — now, look out for Friday morning.”

I think we were all as excited as he was, and we gazed at the dial with the most intense expectancy as the hand approached the figure, and the first warning click sounded. Then the hand reached the hour mark, and, immediately, there was a double click, followed by a faint whirring sound; and suddenly a cloud of white smoke shot up from the bowl and was instantly followed by a sheet of flame.

“My word!” exclaimed Blandy, “there’s no nonsense about that. Would you mind showing us how that was done, Mr. Polton?”

“It was quite a simple and crude affair,” Polton replied, apologetically, “but, you see, I am not a chemist.”

“The simpler, the better,” said Blandy, “for it was quite effectual. I wish you had shown it to us before you let it off.”

“That’s all right, sir,” said Polton. “I’ve got another ready to show you, but I thought I would like you to see how it worked before I gave you the details.”

“Quite right, too, Polton,” said I. “The conjurer should always do the trick first, and not spoil the effect by giving the explanation in advance. But we want to see how it was done, now.”

With a crinkly smile of satisfaction, Polton went to a cupboard, from which he brought out a second enamelled iron bowl, and, with the greatest care, carried it across to the bench.

“It is quite a primitive arrangement, you see,” said he. “I have just put a few celluloid films in the bowl, and on the top one I have put a ring of this powder, which is a mixture of loaf sugar and chlorate of potash, both finely powdered and thoroughly stirred together. In the middle of the ring is this little wide mouthed bottle, containing a small quantity of strong sulphuric acid. Now, as soon as any of the acid touches the mixture, it will burst into flame; so all that is necessary to start the fire is to capsize the bottle and spill the acid on the chlorate mixture.

“You see how I did that. When the escapement discharged, it released this small wheel, which was driven by a separate spring, and the wheel then began to spin and wind up this thin cord, the other end of which was attached to this spindle carrying this long wire lever. As soon as the cord tightened up, it carried the lever across the bowl until it struck the little bottle and knocked it over. You notice that I stood the bottle inside an iron washer so that it couldn’t slide, but must fall over when it was struck.”

“A most remarkable monument of human ingenuity,” commented Blandy, beaming benevolently on our gratified artificer. “I regard you, Mr. Polton, with respectful astonishment as a worker of mechanical miracles. Would it be possible to repeat the experiment for the benefit of the less gifted observer?”

Poiton was only too delighted to repeat his triumph. Removing the first bowl, in which the fire had now died out, he replaced it with the second one and then proceeded to wind up the separate spring.

“There is no need to set it to the exact day,” said he, “as it is only the ignition that you want to see. I will give you notice when it is ready to discharge; and you had better not stand too close to the bowl in case the acid should fly about. Now, there are two days to run; that is one minute.”

We gathered round the bowl as near as was safe, and I noticed with interest the perfect simplicity of the arrangement and its infallible efficiency — so characteristic of Polton. In a couple of minutes the warning was given to “look out” and we all stepped back a pace. Then we heard the double click, and the cord — actually bookbinder’s thread — which had fallen slack when the spring had been rewound — began to tighten. As soon as it was at full tension the spindle of the long wire lever began to turn, carrying the latter at increasing speed towards the bowl. Passing the rim, it skimmed across until it met the bottle, and, giving it a little tap, neatly capsized it. Instantly, a cloud of white smoke shot up; the powder disappeared and a tongue of flame arose from the heap of films at the bottom of the bowl.

Blandy watched them with a smile of concentrated benevolence until the flame had died out. Then he turned to Polton with a ceremonious bow.

“Sir,” said he, “you are a benefactor to humanity, an unraveller of criminal mysteries. I am infinitely obliged to you. Now I know how the fire in Billington Street arose, and who is responsible for the lamented death of the unfortunate gentleman whose body we found.”

Polton received these tributes with his characteristic smile, but entered a modest disclaimer. “I don’t suggest, sir, that this is exactly the method that was used.”

“No,” said Blandy, “but that is of no consequence. You have demonstrated the possibility and the existence of the means. That is enough for our purposes. But as to the details; have you formed any opinion on the methods by which the fire was communicated to the room from its starting-point?”

“Yes, sir,” Polton replied; “I have considered the matter and thought out a possible plan, which I feel sure must be more or less right. From Mr. Green’s evidence at the inquest we learned that the whole room was littered with parcels filled with used films; and it appeared that these parcels were stacked all round the walls, and even piled round the clock and under the bed. It looked as if those parcels, stacked round and apparently in contact, formed a sort of train from the clock round the room to the heap under the bed.

“Now, I think that the means of communication was celluloid varnish. We know that there was a lot of it about the room, including a row of bottles on the mantelpiece. This varnish is extremely inflammable. If some of it got spilt on the floor, alight, it would run about, carrying the flame with it and lighting up the films as it went. I think that is the way the fire was led away from the clock. You probably know, sir, that the cases of these tall clocks are open at the bottom. The plinth doesn’t make a watertight contact with the floor; and, even if it did, it would be easy to raise it an eighth of an inch with little wedges. My idea is that the stuff for starting the fire was in the bottom of the clock-case. It must have been; for we know that the mechanism was inside the clock, and there couldn’t have been anything showing outside. I think that the bottom of the clock was filled with loose films, but underneath them were two or three bottles of celluloid varnish, loosely corked, and on top, the arrangement that you have just seen, or some other.

“When the escapement tipped the bottle over — or started the fire in some other way — the films would be set alight, and the flames would either crack the varnish-bottles right away or heat the varnish and blow out the corks. In any case, there would be lighted varnish running about inside the clock, and it would soon run out under the plinth, stream over the floor of the room and set fire to the parcels of films; and when one parcel was set alight, the fire would spread from that to the next, and so all over the room. That is my idea as to the general arrangement. Of course, I may be quite wrong.”

“I don’t think you are, Polton,” said Thorndyke, “at least in principle. But, to come to details; wouldn’t your suggested arrangement take up a good deal of space? Wouldn’t it interfere with the pendulum and the weights?”

“I think there would be plenty of room, sir,” replied Polton. “Take the pendulum first. Now, these tall — case clocks are usually about six feet high, sometimes a little more. The pendulum is about forty-five inches over all and suspended from near the top. That brings the rating-nut to about twenty-four inches above the floor level — a clear two feet to spare for the films and the apparatus. Then as to the weights; there was only one weight, as the striking-gear had been taken away. It is a rule that the weight ought not to touch the floor even when the clock is quite run down. But supposing it did; there would be about four feet from the bottom of the weight to the floor when the clock was fully wound — and we can assume that it was fully wound when the firing mechanism was started. As the fall per day would be not more than seven inches, the weight would be thirteen inches from the floor at the end of the fifth day, or at three a.m. on the fifth day, twenty inches.

“That leaves plenty of room in any case. But you have to remember that the weight, falling straight down, occupies a space of not more than four inches square. All round that space there would be the full two feet or even more at the sides, keeping clear of the pendulum. I don’t think, sir, that the question of space raises any difficulty.”

“I agree with you, Polton,” said Thorndyke. “You have disposed of my objection completely. What do you say, Inspector?”

The inspector smiled benignly and shook his head. “What can I say?” he asked. “I am rendered almost speechless by the contemplation of such erudition, such insight, and such power of mental synthesis. I feel a mere dilettante.”

Thorndyke smiled appreciatively. “We are all gratified,” said he, “by your recognition of Mr. Polton’s merits. But, compliments apart, how does his scheme strike you?

“It strikes me,” replied Blandy, subsiding into a normal manner (excepting his smile, which was of the kind that “won’t come off”), “as supplying an explanation that is not only plausible but is probably the true explanation. Mr. Polton has shown that our belief that it was impossible for Mr. Haire to have raised the fire was a mistaken belief, that the raising of the fire was perfectly possible, that the means and appliances necessary for raising it were there, and that those means and appliances could have no other purpose. From which we are entitled to infer that those means were so used, and that the fire was actually raised, and was raised by Mr. Gustavus Haire.”

“Yes,” Thorndyke agreed, “I think that is the position; and with that we retire, temporarily, at any rate, and the initiative passes to you. Mr. Haire is a presumptive fire-raiser. But he is your Haire, and it is for you to catch him, if you can.”

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