Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 17

Further Surprises

THE air of finality with which Thorndyke had, so to speak, handed the baby back to Inspector Blandy might have been deceptive; but I don’t think it even deceived the inspector. Certainly it did not deceive me. Never had I known Thorndyke to resign from an unsolved problem, and I felt pretty certain that he was at least keeping this particular problem in view, and, in his queer, secretive way, trying over the various possible solutions in his mind.

This being so, I made no pretence of having dismissed the case, but took every opportunity of discussing it, not only with Thorndyke but especially with Polton, who was the actual fountain of information. And there were, about this time, abundant opportunities for discussion, for we were still engaged, in our spare time, in the great work of rearranging and weeding out our large collection of microscopical slides for which Polton had recently made a new set of cabinets. Naturally, that artist assisted us in sorting out the specimens, and it was in the intervals of these activities that I endeavoured to fill in the blanks of my knowledge of the case.

“I have been thinking,” I remarked on one of these occasions, “of what you told us, Polton, about that clock of Mr. Haire’s. You are of opinion that it is actually the clock to which you fitted the calendar for Mr. Parrish. I don’t know that it is a point of any importance, but I should like to know what convinces you that this is the identical clock, and not one which might have been copied from yours, or invented independently.”

“My principal reason for believing that it is the same clock is that it is made from the same kind of oddments of material that I used. For instance, I made the pallet-bar from an old hack-saw blade which I happened to have by me. It was not specially suitable, and an ordinary clock-maker would almost certainly have used a strip of brass. But the pallet-bar of this clock has been made from a hack-saw blade.”

He paused and seemed to reflect for a while. Then he continued: “But there is another point; and the more I have thought about it the more it has impressed me. Mr. Parrish had a nephew who lived with him and worked as a pupil in the workshop; a lad of about my own age or a little younger. Now this lad’s name was Haire, and he was always called Gus. I supposed at the time that Gus stood for Augustus, but when I heard at the inquest the name of Gustavus Haire, I wondered if it might happen to be the same person. You can’t judge by a mere similarity of names, since there are so many people of the same name. But when I saw this clock, I thought at once of Gus Haire. For he was in the workshop when I made the calendar, and he watched me as I was working on it and got me to explain all about it; though the principle on which it worked was obvious enough to any mechanic.”

“Should you describe Gus Haire as a mechanic?” I asked.

“Yes, of a sort,” Polton replied. “He was a poor workman, but he was equal to a simple job like the making of this calendar, especially when he had been shown; and certainly to the addition that had been made to it.”

“And what sort of fellow was he — morally, I mean?” Polton took time to consider this question. At length he replied: “It is not for me to judge any man’s character, and I didn’t know very much about him. But I do know this as a fact: that on a certain occasion when I was making a new key for Mr. Parrish’s cash drawer to replace one which was broken, Gus pinched a piece of my moulding wax and took a squeeze of the broken key; and that, later, Mr. Parrish accused me of having opened that drawer with a false key and taken money from it. Now, I don’t know that Gus made a false key and I don’t know that any money was actually stolen; but when a man takes a squeeze of the key of another man’s cash drawer, he lays himself open to a reasonable suspicion of an unlawful intention.”

“Yes, indeed,” said I. “A decidedly fishy proceeding; and from what you have just told us, it looks as if you were right — as if the clock were the original clock and Mr. Gustavus Haire the original Gus, though it is not quite clear how Mr. Parrish’s clock came into his possession.”

I don’t think, sir,” said he, “that it is difficult to imagine. Mr. Parrish was his uncle, and, as he was an old man even then, he must be dead long since. The clock must have gone to someone, and why not to his nephew?”

“Yes,” I agreed, “that is reasonable enough. However, we don’t know for certain, and, after all, I don’t see that the identity of either the clock or the man is of much importance. What do you think, Thorndyke?”

My colleague removed his eye from the microscope, and, laying the slide in its tray, considered the question. At length he replied: “The importance of the point depends on how much Polton remembers. Blandy’s difficulty at the moment is that he has no description of Gustavus Haire sufficiently definite for purposes of identification. Now, can we supply that deficiency? What do you say, Polton? Do you think that if you were to meet Gus Haire after all these years you would recognize him?”

“I think I should, sir,” was the reply. And then he added as an afterthought: “I certainly should if he hadn’t lost his teeth.”

“His teeth!” I exclaimed. “Was there anything very distinctive about his teeth?”

“Distinctive isn’t the word, sir,” he replied. “They were most extraordinary teeth. I have never seen anything like them. They looked as if they were made of tortoiseshell.”

“You don’t mean that they were decayed?”

“Lord, no, sir. They were sound enough; good strong teeth and rather large. But they were such a queer colour. All mottled over with brown spots. And those spots wouldn’t come off. He tried all sorts of things to get rid of them — Armenian bole, charcoal, even jeweller’s red stuff — but it was no use. Nothing would shift those spots.”

“Well,” I said, “if those teeth are still extant, they would be a godsend to Blandy, for a written description would enable a stranger to identify the man.”

“I doubt if it would, sir,” Polton remarked with a significant smile. “Gus was extremely sensitive about those teeth, and showed them as little as possible when he talked or smiled. In those days he couldn’t produce much in the way of a moustache, but I expect he does now, and I’ll warrant he doesn’t crop it too close.”

“That is so,” Thorndyke confirmed. “The only description of Haire that the police have, as I understand, is that given by Mr. Green and that of the man who interviewed Haire in Dublin. Green’s description is very vague and sketchy, while the Dublin man hardly remembered him at all except by name, and that only because he had kept the card which Haire had presented. But both of these men mentioned that Haire wore a full, drooping moustache.”

Still,” I persisted, “the teeth are a very distinctive feature, and it would seem only fair to Blandy to give him the information.”

“Perhaps it might be as well,” Thorndyke agreed. Then, returning to the subject of Polton’s old acquaintance, he asked: “You say that Gus lived with his uncle. Why was that? Was he an orphan?”

“Oh, no, sir. Only his people lived in the country, not very far away, for he used to go down and stay with them occasionally at week-ends. It was somewhere in Essex. I have forgotten the name of the place, but it was a small town near the river.”

“It wouldn’t be Maldon?” Thorndyke suggested.

“That’s the place, sir. Yes, I remember now.” He stopped suddenly and, gazing at his principal with an expression of astonishment, exclaimed: “Now, I wonder, sir, how you knew that he lived at Maldon.”

Thorndyke chuckled. “But, my dear Polton, I didn’t know. I was only making a suggestion. Maldon happens to agree with your description.”

Polton shook his head and crinkled sceptically. “It isn’t the only waterside town in Essex,” he remarked, and added: “No, sir. It’s my belief that you knew that he lived at Maldon, though how you knew I can’t imagine.”

I was disposed to agree with Polton. There was something a little suspicious in the way in which Thorndyke had dropped pat on the right place. But further questions on my part elicited nothing but an exasperating grin and the advice to me to turn the problem over in my mind and consider any peculiarities that distinguished Maldon from other Essex towns; advice that I acted upon at intervals during the next few days with disappointingly negative results.

Nevertheless, Polton’s conviction turned out to be justified. I realized it when, one morning about a week later, I found Polton laying the breakfast-table and placing the “catch” from the letter-box beside our respective plates. As I entered the room, he looked at me with a most portentous crinkle and pointed mysteriously to a small package which he had just deposited by my colleague’s plate. I stooped over it to examine the typewritten address, but at first failed to discover anything significant about it; then, suddenly, my eye caught the postmark, and I understood. That package had been posted at Maldon.

“The Doctor is a most tantalizing person, sir,” Polton exclaimed. “I don’t mind admitting that I am bursting with curiosity as to what is in that package. But I suppose we shall find out presently.”

Once more he was right; in fact, the revelation came that very evening. We were working our way through the great collection of test specimens, examining and discussing each slide, when Thorndyke looked up from the microscope and electrified Polton and me by saying:

“By the way, I have got a specimen of another kind that I should like to take your opinion on. I’ll show it to you.”

He rose and stepped across the room to a cabinet, from which he took a small cardboard box of the kind that dentists use for the packing of dental plates. Opening this, he took from it the wax model of an upper denture, complete with teeth, and laid it on the table.

There was a moment’s silence as we both gazed at it in astonishment and Thorndyke regarded us with a quizzical smile. Then Polton, whose eyes seemed ready to drop out, exclaimed:

“God bless my soul! Why, they are Mr. Haire’s teeth!”

Thorndyke nodded. “Good!” said he. “You recognize these teeth as being similar to those of Gus Haire?

“They aren’t similar,” said Polton; “they are identically the same. Of course, I know that they can’t actually be his teeth, but they are absolutely the same in appearance: the same white, chalky patches, the same brown stains, and the same little blackish-brown specks. I recognized them in a moment, and I have never seen anything like them before or since. Now, I wonder how you got hold of them.”

“Yes,” said I, “that is what I have been wondering. Perhaps the time has come for the explanation of the mystery.”

“There is not much mystery,” he replied. “These teeth are examples of the rare and curious condition known as “mottled teeth”; of which perhaps the most striking feature is the very local distribution. It is known in many different places, and has been studied very thoroughly in the United States, but wherever it is met with it is confined to a quite small area, though within that area it affects a very large proportion of the inhabitants; so large that it is almost universal. Now, in this country, the most typically endemic area is Maldon; and, naturally, when Polton described Gus Haire’s teeth and told us that Gus was a native of Essex, I thought at once of Maldon.”

“I wonder, sir,” said Polton, “what there is about Maldon that affects people’s teeth in this way. Has it been explained?”

“Yes,” Thorndyke replied. “It has been found that wherever mottled teeth occur, the water from springs and wells contains an abnormal amount of fluorine, and the quantity of the fluorine seems to be directly related to the intensity of the mottling. Mr. Ainsworth, whose admirable paper in the British Dental Journal is the source of my information on the subject, collected samples of water from various localities in Essex and analysis of these confirmed the findings of the other investigators. That from Maldon contained the very large amount of five parts per million.”

“And how did you get this specimen?” I asked.

“I got into touch with a dental surgeon who practises in Maldon and explained what I wanted. He was most kind and helpful, and, as he has taken an interest in mottled teeth and carefully preserved all his extractions, he was able to supply me not only with this model to produce in court if necessary, but with a few spare teeth for experiments such as section-cutting.”

“You seem to have taken a lot of trouble,” I remarked, “but I don’t quite see why.”

“It was just a matter of verification,” he replied. “Polton’s description was clear enough for us as we know Polton; but for the purposes of evidence, the actual identification on comparison is infinitely preferable. Now we may say definitely that Gus Haire’s teeth were true mottled teeth; and if Gus Haire and Gustavus Haire are one and the same person, as they appear to be, then we can say that Mr. Haire has mottled teeth.”

“But,” I objected, “does it matter to us what his teeth are like?”

“Ah!” said he, “that remains to be seen. But if it should turn out that it does matter, we have the fact.”

“And are we going to pass the fact on to Blandy? It seems to be more his concern than ours.”

“I think,” he replied, “that, as a matter of principle, we ought to, though I agree with Polton that the information will not be of much value to him. Perhaps we might invite him to drop in and see the specimen and take Polton’s depositions. Will you communicate with him?”

I undertook to convey the invitation; and when the specimen had been put away in the cabinet, we dismissed the subject of mottled teeth and returned to our task of revision.

But that invitation was never sent; for, on the following morning, the inspector forestalled it by ringing us up on the telephone to ask for an interview, he having, as he informed us, some new and important facts which he would like to discuss with us. Accordingly, with Thorndyke’s concurrence, I made an appointment for that evening, which happened to be free of other engagements.

It was natural that I should speculate with some interest on the nature of the new facts that Blandy had acquired. I even attempted to discuss the matter with Thorndyke, but he, I need not say, elected to postpone discussion until we had heard the facts. Polton, on the other hand, was in a twitter of curiosity, and I could see that he had made up his mind by hook or by crook to be present at the interview; to which end, as the hour of the appointment drew near, he first placed an easy-chair for the inspector, flanked by a small table furnished with a decanter of sherry and a box of cigarettes, and then covered the main table with a portentous array of microscopes, slide-trays, and cabinets. Having made these arrangements, he seated himself opposite a microscope and looked at his watch; and I noticed thereafter that the watch got a good deal more attention than the microscope.

At length, punctually to the minute, the inspector’s modest rat-tat sounded on the knocker, and Polton, as if actuated by a hidden spring, shot up from his chair like a Jack-inthe-box and tripped across to the door. Throwing it open, with a flourish, he announced “Inspector Blandy”; whereupon Thorndyke and I rose to receive our guest, and, having installed him in his chair, filled his, glass and opened the cigarette-box while Polton stole back to his seat and glued his eye to the microscope.

My first glance at the inspector as he entered assured me that he expected to spring a surprise on us. But I didn’t intend to let him have it all his own way. As he sipped his sherry and selected a cigarette from the box, I anticipated his offensive and took the initiative. “Well, Blandy, I suppose we may assume that you have caught your Haire?”

“I deprecate the word ‘caught’ as applied to Mr. Haire,” he answered, beaming on me, “but, in fact, we have not yet had the pleasure of meeting him. It is difficult to trace a man of whom one has no definite description.”

“Ah!” said I, “that is where we are going to help you. We can produce the magic touchstone which would identify the man instantly.”

Here I took the denture-box from the table, where it had been placed in readiness, and, having taken out the model, handed it to him. He regarded it for a while with an indulgent smile and then looked enquiringly at me.

“This is a very singular thing, Dr. Jervis,” said he. “Apparently a dentist’s casting-model. But the teeth look like natural teeth.”

“They look to me like deuced unnatural teeth,” said I, “but, such as they are, they happen to be an exact facsimile of Mr. Haire’s teeth.”

Blandy was visibly impressed, and he examined the model with a new interest.

“I am absolutely astounded,” said he; “not so much at the strange appearance of the teeth, though they are odd enough, as by your apparently unbounded resources. May I ask how you made this extraordinary discovery?”

Thorndyke gave him a brief account of the investigation which Polton confirmed and amplified, to which he listened with respectful attention.

“Well,” he commented, “it is a remarkable discovery and would be a valuable one if the identity had to be proved. In the existing circumstances it is not of much value, for Mr. Haire is known to wear a moustache, and we may take it that his facial expression is not at all like that of the Cheshire Cat. And you can’t stop a stranger in the street and ask him to show you his teeth.”

He handed the model back to me, arid, having refreshed himself with a sip of wine, opened the subject of his visit.

“Speaking of identity, I have learned some new facts concerning the body which was found in Mr. Haire’s house. I got my information from a rather unexpected source. Now, I wonder whether you can guess the name of my informant.”

Naturally, I could not, and, as Thorndyke refused to hazard a guess, the inspector disclosed his secret with the air of a conjuror producing a goldfish from a hat box. “My informant,” said he, “is Mr. Cecil Moxdale.”

“What!” I exclaimed, “the dead man!”

“The dead man,” he repeated; “thereby refuting the common belief that dead men tell no tales.”

“This is most extraordinary,” said I, “though, as a matter of fact, the body was never really identified. But why did Moxdale not come forward sooner?”

“It seems,” replied Blandy, “that he was travelling in the South of France at the time of the fire and, naturally, heard nothing about it. He has only just returned, and, in fact, would not have come back so soon but for the circumstance that he happened to see a copy of The Times in which the legal notice appeared in connection with his uncle’s death.”

“Then I take it,” said Thorndyke, “that he made his first appearance at the solicitor’s office.”

“Exactly,” replied Blandy; “and there he learned about his supposed death, and the solicitors communicated with me. I had left them my address and asked them to advise me in the case of any new developments.”

There was a short pause, during which we all considered this “new development.” Then Thorndyke commented: “The reappearance of Moxdale furnishes conclusive negative evidence as to the identity of the body. Could he give any positive evidence?”

“Nothing that you could call evidence,” replied Blandy. “Of course, he knows nothing. But he has done a bit of guessing; and there may be something in what he says.”

“As to the identity of the body?” Thorndyke asked.

“Yes. He thinks it possible that the dead man may have been a man named O’Grady. The relations between Haire and O’Grady seem to have been rather peculiar; intimate but not friendly. In fact, Haire appears to have had an intense dislike for the other man, but yet they seem to have associated pretty constantly, and Moxdale has a strong impression that O’Grady used to “touch” Haire for a loan now and again, if they were really loans. Moxdale suspects that they were not; in short, to put it bluntly he suspects that Haire was being blackmailed by O’Grady.”

“No details, I suppose?”

“No. It is only a suspicion. Moxdale doesn’t know anything and he doesn’t want to say too much; naturally, as Haire is his cousin.”

“But how does this bear on the identity of the body?”

“Doesn’t it seem to you to have a bearing? The blackmailing, I mean, if it can be established. Blackmailers have a way of dying rather suddenly.”

“But,” I objected, “it hasn’t been established. It is only a suspicion, and a rather vague one at that.”

“True,” he admitted, “and very justly observed. Yet we may bear the suspicion in mind, especially as we have a fact which, taken in connection with that suspicion, has a very direct bearing on the identity of the body. Moxdale tells me that O’Grady had an appointment with Haire at his, Haire’s, rooms in the forenoon of the fourteenth of April; the very day on which Haire must have started for Dublin. He knows this for a fact, as he heard O’Grady make the appointment. Now, that appointment, at that place and on that date, strikes me as rather significant.”

“Apparently, Moxdale finds it significant, too,” said I. “The suggestion seems to be that Haire murdered O’Grady and went away, leaving his corpse in the rooms.”

“Moxdale didn’t put it that way,” said Blandy.

“He suggested that O’Grady might have had the use of the rooms while Haire was away. But that is mere speculation, and he probably doesn’t believe it himself. Your suggestion is the one that naturally occurs to us; and if it is correct, we can understand why Haire is keeping out of sight. Don’t you think so?”

The question was addressed to Thorndyke with a persuasive smile. But my colleague did not seem to be impressed.

“The figure of O’Grady,” he said, “seems to be rather shadowy and elusive, as, in fact, does the whole story. But perhaps Moxdale gave you a more circumstantial account of the affair.”

“No, he did not,” replied Blandy. “But my talk with him was rather hurried and incomplete. I dropped in on him without an appointment and found him just starting out to keep an engagement, so I only had a few minutes with him. But he voluntarily suggested a further meeting to go into matters in more detail; and I then ventured to ask if he would object to your being present at the interview, as you represent the insurance people, and he had no objection at all.

“Now, how would you like me to bring him along here so that you could hear his account in detail and put such questions as you might think necessary to elucidate it? I should be glad if you would let me, as you know so much about the case. What do you say?”

Thorndyke was evidently pleased at the proposal and made no secret of the fact, for he replied: “It is very good of you, Blandy, to make this suggestion. I shall be delighted to meet Mr. Moxdale and see if we can clear up the mystery of that body. Does your invitation include Jervis?”

“Of course it does,” Blandy replied, heartily, “as he is a party to the inquiry; and Mr. Polton, too, for that matter, seeing that he discovered the crucial fact. But, you understand that Moxdale knows nothing about that.”

“No,” said Thorndyke; “but if it should seem expedient for the purposes of the examination to let him know that the fire was raised by Haire, do you agree to my telling him?”

The inspector looked a little dubious. “We don’t want to make any unnecessary confidences,” said he. “But, still, I think I had better leave it to your discretion to tell him anything that may help the inquiry.”

Thorndyke thanked him for the concession, and, when one of two dates had been agreed on for the interview, the inspector took his leave, wreathed in smiles and evidently well satisfied with the evening’s work.

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