Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 19

The Evidence Reviewed

BRILLIANT finish to a most remarkable case,” I commented as our visitors’ footsteps died away upon the stairs, “and a most magnificent piece of bluff on the part of my revered senior.”

Thorndyke smiled and Polton looked shocked.

“I shall not contest your description, Jervis,” said the former, “but, in fact, the conclusion was practically a certainty.”

“Probability,” I corrected.

“In practice,” said he, “we have to treat the highest degrees of probability as certainties; and if you consider the evidence in this case as a whole, I think you will agree that only one possible conclusion emerged. The element of bluff was almost negligible.”

“Probably you are right,” I admitted. “You usually are, and you certainly were in this case. But the evidence was so complex and conflicting that I find it difficult to reconstitute it as a whole. It would interest me very much to hear you sort it out into a tidily arranged argument.”

“It would interest me, too,” said he, “to retrace our investigation and observe the curious way in which the different items of evidence came to light. Let us do so, taking the events in the order of their occurrence and noting the tendency of the evidence to close in on the final conclusion.

“This was a very singular case. The evidence did not transpire gradually but emerged in a number of successive and perfectly distinct stages, each stage being marked by the appearance of a new fact which reacted immediately on our previous conclusions. There were seven stages, each of which we will examine separately, noting how the argument stood at the end of it.

“The first is the inquest, including the post mortem. Perhaps we had better deal with the body first. There were only two points of interest, the neck and the teeth. The dislocation of the neck appeared to me to have occurred before death and I took it to be, most probably, the immediate cause of death. As to the teeth, there was nothing very striking in their appearance; just a little pitting of the enamel. But from the arrangement of the little pits in irregular transverse lines, corresponding roughly to the lines of growth, I did not believe them to have been due to the heat but to have existed during life. I thought it possible that deceased might have had mottled teeth which had been bleached out in the fire; but, as I had never seen a case of mottled teeth, I could not form a definite opinion. I just noted the facts and satisfied myself that the pitting showed clearly in Polton’s photograph of the dead man’s face.

“And now let us consider the body of evidence which was before us when the inquest was finished and the inferences that it suggested. To me — and also to Blandy — the appearances as a whole conveyed the idea of deliberate arson; of a fire which had been arranged and started for a definite purpose. And since the death of Cecil Moxdale seemed to be part of the plan — if there was a plan — it was reasonable to suspect that this was the purpose for which the fire was raised.

“What especially led me to suspect arson was the appearance of preparation. The room, itself crammed with highly inflammable material, seemed to have been expressly prepared for a fire. But most suspicious to me was the information given by Haire to Green. It seemed designed to create in Green’s mind (as it actually did) the fear that a fire might occur. But more than this; it prepared him, if a fire should occur, to decide at once upon the way in which it had been caused. Nor was that all. Haire’s statement even suggested to Green the possibility of a fatal accident; and in the event of such a fatality occurring, it provided Green in advance with the data for identifying any body that should be found.

“Then there were the objects found in the ruins which confirmed Green’s identification. They were marked objects composed of highly refractory material.”

“They would have to be,” I objected, “if they were found. All the combustible objects would have been destroyed.”

“True,” he admitted. “But still it was a striking coincidence that these imperishable objects should happen to bear the initials of a man whose corpse was unrecognizable. The clay pipe was especially significant, seeing that people do not usually incise their initials on their pipe-bowls. But a clay pipe is, as nearly as possible, indestructible by heat. No more perfect means of identification, in the case of a fire, could be devised than a marked clay pipe. To me, these most opportune relics offered a distinct suggestion of having been planted for the very purpose which they served.

“But there is one observation to make before finishing with the positive aspects of the case. It was assumed that the man who was in the house when the fire broke out was a live man; and it was agreed that that live man was Cecil Moxdale. Now, I did not accept, unreservedly, either of these assumptions. To me, the appearances suggested that the man was already dead when the fire started. As to the identity, the probability seemed to be that the man was Moxdale; but I did not regard the fact as having been established conclusively. I kept in my mind the possibility of either a mistake or deliberate deception.

“And now, what conclusions emerged from these considerations? To me — and to Blandy — they suggested a crime. My provisional hypothesis was that Haire had made away with Moxdale and raised the fire to cover the murder; that the crime had been carefully planned and prepared; and that, for some reason, Haire was especially anxious that the body should be identified as that of Cecil Moxdale. That, as I said, was the positive aspect of the case. Now let us look at the negative.

“There were two facts that conflicted with my hypothesis. The first was that when the fire broke out, Haire was in Dublin and had been there for five days. That seemed to be an unanswerable alibi. There was no trace of any sort of fire-raising apparatus known to the experts or the police; indeed, no apparatus was known which would have been capable of raising a fire after an interval of five days. The large and complicated appliances used for the automatic lighting of street lamps do not come into the problem; they would not have been available to Haire, and, in fact, no trace of anything of the kind was found. Apparently, it was a physical impossibility that the fire could have been started by Haire.

“The second objection to my hypothesis was in the nature of the injury. A dislocation of the neck is, in my experience, invariably an accidental injury. I have never heard of a homicidal case. Have you?”

“No,” I answered; “and, in fact, if you wanted to dislocate a man’s neck, I don’t quite know how you would go about it.”

“Exactly,” he agreed. “It is too difficult and uncertain a method for a murderer to use. So that, in this case, if the broken neck was the cause of death, the man would appear to have died from the effects of an accident.

“Thus, the position at the end of the first stage was that, although the case as a whole looked profoundly suspicious, there was not a particle of positive evidence of either arson or murder.

“The second stage was introduced by the disappearance of Haire. This was most mysterious. Why did Haire not return at the expected time? There was no reason why he should not, even if my hypothesis were true. For if he had raised a fire to cover a murder, his plan had succeeded to perfection. The fire had been accepted as an accident, the body had been identified, and the man’s death had been attributed to misadventure. And not only was there no reason why Haire should not have come home; there was a very good reason why he should. For his absence tended to start inquiries, and inquiries were precisely what he would have wished to avoid. I could think of no explanation of his disappearance. There was a suggestion that something had gone wrong; but there was no suggestion whatever as to what it was. Nevertheless, the fact of the disappearance tended to make the already suspicious group of events look even more suspicious.

“The third stage was reached when we learned that Moxdale senior was dead and heard of the provisions of his will. Then it appeared that Haire stood to benefit to the extent of four thousand pounds by the death of Cecil Moxdale. This, of course, did not, by itself, establish a probability that Haire had murdered Moxdale; but if that probability had already been suggested by other facts, this new fact increased it by supplying a reasonable and adequate motive. At this stage, then, I definitely suspected Haire of having murdered Moxdale, though still not without some misgivings. For the apparently insuperable difficulty remained. It seemed to be a physical impossibility that Haire could have started the fire.

“Then came Polton’s astonishing discovery; and immediately the position was radically altered. Now, it was shown, not only that it was possible for Haire to have started the fire, but that it was nearly certain that he had done so. But this new fact reacted on all the others, giving them an immensely increased evidential value. I had now very little doubt that Haire had murdered Moxdale.

“But the mystery of Haire’s disappearance remained. For he was all unaware of Polton’s discovery. To him, it should have seemed that all had gone according to plan and that it was perfectly safe for him to come back. Then why was he keeping out of sight? Why did he not return, now that his uncle was dead and the stake for which he had played was within his grasp? I turned this problem over and over in my mind. What was keeping him away? Some thing had gone wrong. Something of which we had no knowledge. What could it be?

“Once more, that dislocated neck presented itself for consideration. It had always seemed to me an anomaly, out of character with the known circum stances. How came Moxdale to have a broken neck? All the evidence pointed to a murder, long premeditated, carefully planned, and elaborately pre pared. And yet the murdered man seemed to have died from an accidental injury.

“Here another point recurred to me. The body had been identified as that of Cecil Moxdale. But on what evidence? Simply on the hearsay evidence of Green and the marked objects found in the ruins. Of actual identification there had been none. The body probably was Moxdale’s. The known facts suggested that it was, but there was no direct proof. Suppose, after all, that it were not. Then whose body could it be? Evidently, it must be Haire’s, for our picture contained only these two figures. But this assumption involved an apparent impossibility; for, at the time of the fire, Haire was in Dublin. But the impossibility disappeared when we realized that again there had been no real identification. The men whom Haire called upon in Dublin were strangers. They knew him as Haire simply because he said that he was Haire and presented Haire’s card. He might, quite easily, have been some other man, personating Haire. And if he were, that other person must have been Moxdale.

“It seemed a far-fetched suggestion, but yet it fitted the facts surprisingly well. It agreed, for instance, with the dislocated neck; for if Haire had been killed, he had almost certainly been killed accidentally. And it explained the disappearance of the Dublin ‘Haire’; for Moxdale’s object in personating Haire would have been to prove that Haire had been alive after the 14th of April, when the two men had been seen to enter Haire’s premises together; and for this purpose it would be necessary only for him to ‘enter an appearance’ at Dublin. When he had done that, he would naturally return from Ireland to his ordinary places of resort.

“Thus the fourth stage of the investigation left us with the virtual certainty that Haire had raised the fire, the probability that he had murdered Moxdale, but the possibility that the murder had failed and that Haire had been killed accidentally in the struggle. There were two alternatives, and we had no means of deciding which of them was the true one.

“Then, once more, Polton came to our help with a decisive fact. Haire had mottled teeth and was a native of Maldon. Instantly, as he spoke, I recalled the teeth of the burned corpse and my surmise that they might have been mottled teeth. At once, I got into communication with a dental practitioner at Maldon, who, though I was a stranger to him, gave me every possible assistance, including a wax denture of mottled teeth and some spare teeth for experimental purposes. Those teeth I examined minutely, comparing them with those of the body as shown in Polton’s enlarged photograph of the face; and, disregarding the brown stains, which the fire had bleached out, the resemblance was perfect. I did, as a matter of extra precaution, incinerate two of the spare teeth in a crucible. But it was not necessary. The first comparison was quite convincing. There was no doubt that the burnt body was that of a man who had mottled teeth and very little doubt that it was Haire’s body.”

“But,” I objected, “Moxdale might have had mottled teeth. He was Haire’s cousin.”

“Yes,” Thorndyke agreed, “there was that element of uncertainty. But there was not much in it. The mere relationship was not significant, as mottled teeth are not transmitted by heredity but are purely environmental phenomena. But, of course, Moxdale might also have been born and grown up at Maldon. Still, we had the definite fact that Haire was known to have had mottled teeth and that the dead man had had teeth of the same, very rare, kind. So this stage left us with the strong probability that the body was Haire’s, but the possibility that it might be that of Moxdale.

“But at the next stage this question was settled by the reappearance of Moxdale in the flesh. That established the identity of the body as a definite fact. But it also established the identity of the personator. For if the dead man was Haire, the live man at Dublin must have been Moxdale. There appeared to be no alternative possibility.

“Nevertheless, Moxdale essayed to present us with one in the form of a moderately plausible story. I don’t know whether Blandy believed this story. He professed to; but then Blandy is — Blandy. He was certainly puzzled by it, as we can judge by his anxiety to bring Moxdale here that we might question him, and we have to remember that he did not know what we knew as to the identity of the body. For my part, I never entertained that story for a moment. It sounded like fiction pure and simple; and a striking feature of it was that no part of it admitted of verification. The mysterious O’Grady was a mere shadow, of whom nothing was known and nothing could be discovered, and the alleged blackmailing was not supported by a single tangible fact. Moreover, O’Grady, the blackmailer, did not fit the facts. The murder which had been so elaborately prepared was, specifically, the murder of Cecil Moxdale. Not only was it Moxdale whose identification was prepared for; the motive for the murder was connected with Moxdale.

“However, it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic. One had to accept the infinitely remote possibility that the story might be true, at least in parts. Accordingly I grasped at Blandy’s suggestion that he should bring Moxdale here and give us the opportunity to put the story to the test of comparison with the known facts.

“We need not consider that interview in detail. It was an ingenious story that Moxdale told, and he told it extremely well. But still, as he went on, its fictional character became more and more pronounced and its details more and more elusive. You probably noticed that when I asked for a description of O’Grady, he gave an excellent one — which was an exact description of himself. It had to be; for O’Grady must needs correspond to Green’s description of the man whom he saw with Haire, and that description applied perfectly to Moxdale.

“I followed the narrative with the closest attention, waiting for some definite discrepancy on which one could fasten. And at last it came. Moxdale, unaware of what we knew, made the inevitable false step. In his anxiety to prove that Haire was alive and had gone to Dublin, he gave a circumstantial account of his having seen Haire into the taxi en route for Euston at past ten o’clock at night. Now, we knew that Haire had never gone to Dublin. Moreover we knew that, by ten o’clock, Haire had been dead some hours; and we knew, also, that, by that time, the personator must have been well on his way to Holyhead, since he appeared in Dublin early the next morning.

“Here, then, was a definitely false statement. It disposed at once of any possibility that the story might be true; and its effect was to make it certain that the Dublin personator was Moxdale, himself. I was now in a position to tax Moxdale with having killed Haire and carried out the personation, and I did so with studied abruptness in order to force him to make a statement. You see there was not very much bluff about it, after all.”

“No,” I admitted. “It was not really bluff. I withdraw the expression. I had not realized how complete the evidence was. But your question had a grand dramatic effect.”

“That, however, was not its object,” said Thorndyke. “I was anxious, for Moxdale’s own sake, that he should make a true and straightforward statement. For if he had stuck to his fictitious story, he would certainly have been charged with having murdered Haire; and, as Blandy very justly observed, a story told by an accused man from the witness-box is much less convincing than the same story told voluntarily before any charge has been made. Fortunately, Moxdale, being a sensible fellow, realized this and took my advice.”

“What do you suppose the police will do about it?” I asked.

“I don’t see why they should do anything,” he replied. “No crime has been committed. A charge of manslaughter could not be sustained, since Moxdale’s action was purely defensive and the death was the result of an accident.”

“And what about the question of concealment of death?”

“There doesn’t seem to be much in that. Moxdale did not conceal the body; he merely tried to dissociate himself from it. He did not, it is true, report the death as he ought to have done. That was rather irregular and so was the personation. But I think that the police will take the view that, in the absence of any criminal intention, there is no need, on grounds of public policy, for them to take any action.”

Thorndyke’s forecast proved to be correct. The Assistant Commissioner asked us for a complete statement of the evidence, and when this had been supplied (including a demonstration by Polton) he decided that no proceedings were called for. It was, however, necessary to amend the finding of the coroner’s jury, not only for the purposes of registration, but for that of obtaining probate of Harold Moxdale’s will. Accordingly, Thorndyke issued a certificate of the death of Gustavus Haire, and thereby put the finishing touch to one of the most curious cases that had passed through our hands.

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