Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 14

A Visit from Inspector Blandy

WITH the close of the inquest, our connection with the case of the burnt house in Billington Street and Cecil Moxdale, deceased, seemed to have come to an end. No points of doubt or interest had arisen, or seemed likely to arise hereafter. We appeared to have heard the last of the case, and, when Thorndyke’s notes and Polton’s photographs had been filed, we wrote it off as finished with. At least, I did. But later events suggested that Thorndyke had kept it in mind as a case in which further developments were not entirely impossible.

My view of the case was apparently shared by Stalker; for when, being in the City on other business, we dropped in at his office, he expressed himself to that effect.

“An unsatisfactory affair from our point of view,” he commented, “but there was nothing that we could really boggle at. Of course, when an entire insured stock is destroyed, you have to be wary. A trader who has a redundant or obsolete or damaged stock can make a big profit by burning the whole lot out and recovering the full value from the insurance society. But there doesn’t seem to be anything of that kind. Green appears to be perfectly straight. He has given us every facility for checking the value of the stock, and we find it all correct.”

“I suppose,” said I, “you couldn’t have raised the question of negligence in allowing a casual stranger to occupy a bedroom in his box of fireworks. He knew that Moxdale wasn’t a very safe tenant.”

“There is no evidence,” Thorndyke reminded me, “that Moxdale set fire to the house. He probably did, but that is a mere guess on our part.”

“Exactly,” Stalker agreed, “and even if he did, he certainly did not do it consciously or intentionally. And, by the way, speaking of this man Moxdale, it happens, oddly enough, that his life was insured in this office. So he has let us in for two payments.”

“Anything considerable?” Thorndyke asked.

“No. Only a thousand.”

“Have you paid the claim?”

“Not yet; in fact, no claim has been made up to the present, and it isn’t our business to hunt up the claimants. But we shall have to pay, for I suppose that even you could not make out a case of suicide.”

“No,” Thorndyke admitted,” I think we can exclude suicide. At any rate, there was nothing to suggest it. You accept the identity?”

“There doesn’t seem to be much doubt,” replied Stalker, “but the next of kin, or whoever makes the claim, will have to confirm the statements of Green and Haire. But I don’t think there is anything in the question of identity. Do you?”

“So far as I know, the question was fairly well settled at the inquest, and I don’t think it could be contested unless some positive evidence to the contrary should be produced. But we have to bear in mind that the identity was based on the statement of Walter Green and that his evidence was hearsay evidence.”

“Yes,” said Stalker, “I will bear that in mind when the claim is put in, if it ever is. If no claim is made, the question will not be of any interest to me.”

So that was the position. Stalker was not interested and, consequently, we, as his agents, had no further interest in the case; and, so far as I was concerned, it had passed into complete oblivion when my recollection of it was revived by Thorndyke. It was at breakfast time a week or two after our conversation with Stalker that my colleague, who was, according to his habit, glancing over the legal notices in The Times, looked up at me and remarked: “Here is a coincidence in a small way. I don’t remember having ever met with the name of Moxdale until we attended the late inquest. It certainly is not a common name.”

“No,” I agreed, “I don’t think I ever heard it excepting in connection with Cecil Moxdale deceased. But what is the coincidence?

“Here is another Moxdale, also deceased,” he replied, handing me the paper and indicating the paragraph. It was an ordinary solicitor’s notice beginning, “Re. Harold Moxdale deceased who died on the 3 of April 1936”, and calling on creditors and others to make their claims by a certain specified date; of no interest to me apart from the mere coincidence of the name. Nor did Thorndyke make any further comment, though I observed that he cut out the notice, and, having fixed it with a dab of paste to a sheet of paper, added it to the collection of notes forming the Moxdale dossier. Then, once more, the” case” seemed to have sunk into oblivion.

But a few days later it was revived by no less a person than Inspector Blandy; and the manner of its revival was characteristic of that extremely politic gentleman. It was about half past eight one evening when, after an early dinner, Thorndyke, Polton and I were holding a sort of committee meeting to review and reclassify the great collection of microscope slides of hairs, fibres and other “comparison specimens” which had accumulated in the course of years. We had just finished the first of the new cabinets and were labelling the drawers when an unfamiliar knock, of an almost apologetic softness, was executed on the small brass knocker of the inner door.

“Confound it!” I exclaimed, impatiently. “We ought to have shut the oak. Who the deuce can it be?”

The question was answered by Polton, who, as he opened the door and peered out, stepped back and announced: “Inspector Blandy.”

We both stood up, and Thorndyke, with his customary suavity, advanced to greet the visitor and offer him a chair.

“Pray, gentlemen,” exclaimed Blandy, casting an inquisitive glance over the collection on the table, “do not let me disturb you, though, to be sure, I can see that I am disturbing you. But the disturbance need be only of the briefest. I have come — very improperly, without an appointment — merely to tender apologies and to make all too tardy amends. When I have done that, I can go, and leave you to pursue your investigations.”

“They are not investigations,” said Thorndyke. “We are just going over our stock of test specimens and rearranging them. But what do you mean by apologies and reparations? We have no grievance against you.”

“You are kind enough to say so,” replied Blandy, “but I am, nevertheless, a defaulter. I made a promise and have not kept it. Mea culpa.” He tapped his chest lightly with his knuckles and continued: “When I had the pleasure of meeting you in the ruins of the burned house I promised to let you have an opportunity of examining the various objects that were retrieved from the debris. This evening, it suddenly dawned on me that I never did so. I was horrified, and, in my impulsive way, I hurried, without reflection, to seek your forgiveness and to make such amends as were possible.”

“I don’t think, Blandy,” said Thorndyke, “that the trifling omission mattered. We seemed to have all the information that we wanted.”

“So we did, but perhaps we were wrong. At any rate, I have now brought the things for you to see, if they are still of any interest. It is rather late, I must admit.”

“Yes, by Jove!” I agreed. “It is the day after the fair. But what things have you brought, and where are they?”

“The exhibits which you saw at the inquest, I have here in my attaché-case. If you would like me to leave them with you for examination at your leisure, I can do so, but we shall want them back. The other things are a box in my car, and, as we have finished with them, you can dispose of them as you please when you have examined them, if you think the examination worth while.”

“I take it,” said Thorndyke, “that you have been through them pretty thoroughly. Did you find any thing in any way significant?”

The inspector regarded Thorndyke with his queer, benevolent smile as he replied: “Not significant to me; but who knows what I may have overlooked? I could not bring to bear on them either your intellect, your encyclopaedic knowledge, or your unrivalled means of research.” Here he waved his hand to wards the table and seemed to bestow a silent benediction on the microscopes and the trays of slides. “Perhaps,” he concluded, “these simple things might have for you some message which they have withheld from me.”

As I listened to Blandy’s discourse, I found myself speculating on the actual purpose of his visit. He could not have come to talk this balderdash or to deliver the box of trash that he had brought with him. What object, I wondered, lay behind his manoeuvres? Probably it would transpire presently; but, meanwhile, I thought it as well to give him a lead.

“It is very good of you, Blandy,” said I, “to have brought us these things to look at, but I don’t quite see why you did it. Our interest in the affair ended with the inquest, and I take it that yours did too. Or didn’t it?”

“It did not,” he replied. “We were then making certain inquiries through the Irish police, and we have not yet obtained the information that we were seeking. The case is still incomplete.”

“Do you mean,” Thorndyke asked, “that Mr. Haire has not been able to tell you all that you wanted to know?”

“We have not been able to get into touch with Mr. Haire; which is a rather remarkable fact, and becomes still more remarkable as the time passes and we get no news of him.”

“In effect, then,” said Thorndyke, “Mr. Haire has disappeared. Have you taken any special measures to trace him? ”

“We have taken such measures as were possible,” replied Blandy. “But we are in a difficult position. We have no reliable description of the man, and, if we had, we could hardly proceed as if we were trying to trace a ‘wanted’ man. It is curious that he should not have turned up in his usual places of resort, but there is nothing incriminating in the fact. We have no reason to suppose that he is keeping out of sight. There is nothing against him. No one could suspect him of having had any hand in starting the fire, as he was not there and another man was. But still, it is a little mysterious. It makes one wonder whether there could have been something that we overlooked.”

“Yes,” Thorndyke agreed, “there does certainly seem to be something a little queer about the affair. As I understand it, Haire went away with the stated intention of making a short visit to Dublin. He was known to have arrived there on a certain day and to have made two calls at a business house. He is said to have announced his intention to go on to Belfast, but it is not known whether he did, in fact, go there. Nothing at all is known as to his movements after he had left the dealer’s premises. From that moment, no one, so far as we know, ever saw him again. Isn’t that the position?”

“That is the position exactly, sir,” replied Blandy, “and a very curious position it is if we remember that Haire was a man engaged in business in London and having a set of rooms there containing his household goods and personal effects.”

“Before the fire,” I remarked. “There wasn’t much left of either after the flare up. He hadn’t any home then to come back to.”

“But, sir,” Blandy objected, “what reason is there for supposing that he knew anything about the fire? He was somewhere in Ireland when it happened. But a fire in a London by-street isn’t likely to be reported in the Irish papers.”

“No,” I admitted, “that is true; and it only makes the affair still more queer.”

There was a short silence. Then Thorndyke raised a fresh question. “By the way, Inspector,” said he, “there was a legal notice in The Times a few days ago referring to a certain Moxdale deceased. Did you happen to observe it?”

“Yes, my attention was called to it by one of my colleagues, and, on the chance that there might be some connection with the other Moxdale deceased, I called on the solicitors to make a few enquiries. They are quite a respectable firm — Home, Croner, and Home of Lincoln’s Inn — and they were as helpful as they could be, but they didn’t know much about the parties. The testator, Harold Moxdale, was an old gentleman, practically a stranger to them, and the other parties were nothing more than names. However, I learned that the principal beneficiary was the testator’s nephew, Cecil Moxdale, and that, if he had not had the misfortune to be burned, he would have inherited a sum of about four thousand pounds.”

“It is possible,” I suggested, “that it may not be the same Cecil Moxdale. You say that they did not know anything about him. Did you try to fix the identity?”

“It wasn’t necessary,” replied Blandy, “for the next beneficiary was another nephew named Gustavus Haire; and as we knew that Haire and Moxdale were cousins, that settled the identity.”

As Blandy gave this explanation, his habitual smile became tinged with a suggestion of foxiness, and I noticed that he was furtively watching Thorndyke to see how he took it. But there was no need, for my colleague made no secret of his interest.

“Did you learn whether these two bequests were in any way mutually dependent?” he asked.

Blandy beamed on him almost affectionately. It was evident that Thorndyke’s reactions were those that had been desired.

“A very pertinent question, sir,” he replied. “Yes, the two bequests were mutually contingent. The entire sum to be divided between the two nephews was about six thousand pounds. Of this, four thousand went to Cecil and two thousand to Gustavus. But it was provided that if either of them should predecease the testator, the whole amount should go the survivor.”

“My word, Blandy!” I exclaimed. “This puts quite a new complexion on the affair. As Harold Moxdale died, if I remember rightly, on the 30th of April, and Cecil died on the 19th of the same month, it follows that the fire in Billington Street was worth four thousand pounds to Mr. Gustavus Haire. A decidedly illuminating fact.”

Blandy turned his benign smile on me. “Do you find it illuminating, sir?” said he. “If you do, I wish you would reflect a few stray beams on me.”

Thorndyke chuckled, softly. “I am afraid, Jervis,” said he, “that the inspector is right. This new fact is profoundly interesting — even rather startling. But it throws no light whatever on the problem.”

“It establishes a motive,” I retorted.

“But what is the use of that?” he demanded. “You, as a lawyer, know that proof of a motive to do some act is no evidence, by itself, that the person who had the motive did the act. Haire, as you imply, had a motive for making away with Moxdale. But before you could even suggest that he did actually make away with him, you would have to prove that he had the opportunity and the intention; and even that would carry you no farther than suspicion. To support a charge, there would have to be some positive evidence that the act was committed.”

“Exactly, sir,” said Blandy; “and the position is that we have not a particle of evidence that Haire had any intention of murdering his cousin, and there is clear evidence that he had no opportunity. When the fire broke out, he was in Ireland and had been there five days. That is, for practical purposes, an absolutely conclusive alibi.”

“But,” I persisted, “aren’t there such things as time-fuses or other timing appliances?”

Blandy shook his head. “Not in a case like this,” he replied. “Of course, we have considered that question, but there is nothing in it. In the case of a man who wants to set fire to a lock-up shop or empty premises, it is possible to use some such appliance — a time-fuse, or a candle set on some inflammable material, or an alarm clock — to give him time to show himself a few miles away and establish an alibi; and even then the firemen usually spot it. But here you have a flat, with somebody living in it, and the owner of that flat on the other side of the Irish Channel, where he had arrived five days before the fire broke out.

“No, sir, I don’t think Mr. Haire is under any suspicion of having raised the fire. The thing is a physical impossibility. And I don’t know of any other respect in which he is under suspicion. It is odd that we can’t discover his whereabouts, but there is really nothing suspicious in it. There is no reason why he should let anyone know where he is.”

I did not contest this, though my feeling was that Haire was purposely keeping out of sight, and I suspected that Blandy secretly took the same view. But the inspector was such an exceedingly downy bird that it was advisable not to say too much. However, I now understood — or thought I did — why he had made this pretext to call on us; he was at a dead end and hoped to interest Thorndyke in the case and thereby get a lead of some kind. And now, having sprung his mine, he reverted to the ostensible object of his visit.

“As to this salvage stuff,” said he. “Would you like me to leave these small things for you to look over?”

I expected Thorndyke to decline the offer, for there was no mystery about the things, and they were no affair of ours in any case. But, to my surprise, he accepted, and, having checked the list, signed the receipt which Blandy had written out.

“And as to the stuff in the box; perhaps Mr. Polton might show my man where to put it.”

At this, Polton, who had been calmly examining and sorting the test-slides during the discussion (to which I have no doubt he had given close attention), rose and suggested that the box should be deposited in the laboratory in the first place; and when Thorndyke had agreed, he departed to superintend the removal.

“I am afraid,” said Blandy, “that you will find nothing but rubbish in that box. That, at least, is what it appeared like to me. But, having studied some of your cases, I have been deeply impressed by your power of extracting information from the most unpromising material, and it is possible that these things may mean more to you than they do to me.”

“It is not very likely,” Thorndyke replied. “You appear to have extracted from them all the information that one could expect. They have conveyed to you the fact that Cecil Moxdale was apparently the occupant of the rooms at the time of the fire, and that is probably all that they had to tell.”

“It is all they had to tell me,” said Blandy, rising and picking up his attaché-case, “and it is not all that I want to know. There is still the problem of how the fire started, and they throw no light on that at all.”

“You have got the clay pipe,” I suggested. “Doesn’t that tell the story?

He smiled at me with amiable reproach as he replied:

“We don’t want the material for plausible guesses. We want facts, or at least a leading hint of some kind, and I still have hopes that you may hit on something suggestive.”

“You are more optimistic than I am,” replied Thorndyke; “but I shall look over the material that you have brought, and, if it should yield any facts that are not already known to you, I promise to let you have them without delay.”

Blandy brightened up appreciably at this, and, as he turned to depart, he expressed his gratitude in characteristic terms.

“That, sir, is most generous of you. It sends me on my way rejoicing in the consciousness that my puny intelligence is to be reinforced by your powerful intellect and your encyclopaedic knowledge. I thank you, gentlemen, for your kindly reception of an intruder and a disturber of your erudite activities, and I wish you a very good evening.”

With this, the inspector took his departure, leaving us both a little overpowered by his magniloquence and me a little surprised by Thorndyke’s promise which had evoked it.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54