Authors: Basil Thomson
“All right; you can go ahead provided that he's a discreet person and won't go running off to the Press.”
“I can answer for that, sir.”
Let me know if you get anything out of the taxi-driver.”
“I will, sir.”
Richardson went to bed early that evening, for he had to make an early start to catch the taxi-driver before he went out with his cab. He found him at home in Camberwell, just finishing breakfast.
“Are you the taxi-driver who took a bundle of letters to the Yard yesterday? I'm Inspector Richardson.”
“Has the gentleman called for the letters?” asked the man, with his mouth full.” I could do with a bit of a reward.”
“Not yet. What I want is a description of the man.”
“A description? I'd give you one if I could, but you know what it is when you're hailed going empty up the street after dark. You don't notice what your fare looks like. He was carrying an untidy-looking parcel in his hand, and he seemed in a hurry.”
“What time was it?”
“A few minutes after ten, I believe it was.”
“Where was it that he hailed you?”
“It was in the King's Road, not very far from Sloane Square.”
“And where did he tell you to drive to?”
“To the corner of Edgware Road and Euston Roadâsaid he'd tap on the window if he wanted me to stop on the way. To tell you the truth, I thought that the gent didn't rightly know where he wanted to go. He was shaky-like.”
“Did he tap on the window?”
“No, he didn't. When I pulled up at the kerb where he'd told me to, he was a long time getting out and pulling out his parcel, and then he had to fumble in his pockets for the fare, and he gave me a bob extra and told me to keep it, and off he went with the parcel under his arm. It wasn't until I got to the garage for the night that I found those letters on the floor of the cab. The parcel must have burst open as he was getting it out, and he never noticed it. I've driven some queer parties in me time, but he took the bun. The others had been doing themselves too wellâthat, one can understand and sympathize withâbut this bloke didn't talk like it nor smell of itâhe was just what you might call funny, if you know what I mean.”
“Which way did he go when you'd set him down?”Â
“I couldn't tell you that, Inspector. There was a lot of people about, and he just disappeared into the crowd while I was pulling out from the kerb. And now, sir, if you've nothing more to ask me, I ought to start off with me taxi.”
Richardson looked at his watch and reflected that it was too early to find any of his seniors at the Yard at that hour: he decided to invade the privacy of James Milsom at his flat in Queen Anne's Gate. He rang the bell: it was answered by the flat-holder himself, attired in a flowered dressing-gown. Before there was time for an apology for calling at such an early hour, Milsom burst out with, “Come right in. You're just in time for a bite of breakfast. Stick your hat on that peg and come right in, or the sausages will get cold.” He rang the bell and sent off his man for cutlery and another cup and plate, a second ration of coffee, sausages and bacon. “We don't get a chance every day, Withers, to feed the head sleuth from Scotland Yard. You wouldn't take him for a super-sleuth if you met him in the street, would you, Withers? And yet this man can tell at a glance what you've been doing.”
The man looked at Richardson with curiosity, but without emotion. He was familiar with his employer's badinage.
As soon as they were alone Milsom continued, “I've been thinking over this case of yours, Inspector, and I'm convinced that that poor woman was foully murdered.”
“You think so, sir?”
“I do, and more than that, I think that you ought to bring in all the possible suspects and put them through it. When you get a really hot case and you start grilling him and he doesn't come clean, you'll have to adopt the old New York Method with a short length of hose-pipe.”
“What was that, sir?”
“Oh, it was simple. When the guy stuck out that he didn't do it a sleuth came in at one door with a yard of rubber hose-pipe and went out at the other, but as he passed behind the guy he caught him a welt on the back of the neckâapologizing for the accident, of courseâand then, on the way back, he hit him again. After a few times he would come clean.”
“Didn't the man complain?”
“Not very often. He knew what was healthy for him, and the hose-pipe left no mark that he could show.”
“But in England the police are debarred from asking questions of a man that they are going to charge with a crimeâ¦”
“Good Lord! Then how can you expect ever to get home on a case? They've got soft in America now, I'm told. That's why there's so much crime there. They grill their men, of course, but they've gone bald-headed for tiring them out, and for using scientific instruments. In California, I'm told, they use a gadget which they call a âlie-detector.' They roll up the guy's sleeve and shove his naked arm into a tube of liquid connected with a dial on the wall. When the sleuth who's grilling him asks him a stiff question the blood flies to his head from all parts of the body; the arm gets thinner, and the needle on the dial goes down a few degrees. The super-sleuth's face hardens. âYou're a liar,' he says. âLook at the needle on that dial,' and the guy shouts, âTake this damned thing off my arm and I'll say everything you want me to.' That's the modern scientific method of crime detection. I suppose that you've got that gadget at Scotland Yard. Do you think it's better than the hose-pipe?”
“No, Mr. Milsom, we have none of these things except fingerprints, and we're debarred from grilling people, but we manage to get home all right. You see we've got a big machine behind us, and I came here this morning to ask you if you would consent to play the part of a wheel in the big machine.”
“Of course I will. What do you want me to do?”
“Well, rather by luck than good management, we have got hold of a letter addressed to Miss Clynes by an American lady living in Paris a week or two ago, apparently in answer to a letter written to her by Miss Clynes. We want to get hold of that letter, and it would be a help to us if you made friends with this Miss or Mrs. Sidmore and got her to tell you all she knows about Miss Clynes. Here is a copy of her letter.”
Milsom read the letter with knitted brow. “I see that she talks about the old, sad days. That must mean that she was in Naomi Clynes' confidence. When do you want me to go?”
“As soon as you can, Mr. Milsom.”
“I shall have to square things with my chairman to-day, and I can start by the morning boat to-morrow. No, stop! You folks at the Yard always work under a full head of steam. I'll write a note to the old man and fly over from Croydon. You'll leave a copy of this letter with me?”
“I brought it for that purpose, Mr. Milsom.”
“Withers,” shouted Milsom, “I'm off to Paris in an hour's time. Shove some things into a bag for me while I'm dressing and have a taxi here in twenty minutes. So long, Richardson. Expect me back with the murderer in handcuffs.”
Air-France machine circled over Le Bourget up to time. A taxi carried James Milsom from the airplane office to the Grand Hotel in the Avenue de l'OpÃ©ra. Knowing that offices are closed during the sacred two hours devoted to lunch, he booked his room and assuaged his own appetite. At two o'clock he found the office open. Several depressed-looking young women were tapping on typewriters; one of them rose to receive him and conducted him to the principal, Mrs. Sidmore, who occupied an office on the first floor.
“A gentleman to see you, Madame,” she said, announcing Milsom, who found himself in the presence of a grey-haired American woman with a very pleasant face.
“I've just come over from London, Madame, on purpose to see you. I belong to a firm of publishers who are bringing out a book of Miss Naomi Clynes. I think she wrote to you about it. My name is James Milsom.”
“Is that so? You know Miss Naomi Clynes?”
“I did know her, Madame.”
“And I hope you know her still.”
“You haven't heard the news then: she's dead.”
“You don't say! What did she die of?”
“The doctor who saw her thinks it was suicide, but I believe it was murder.”
“Sakes alive! Why should anyone want to murder the poor thing?”
“That's what we have to find out, and that's why I've come to you. You knew her better than anybody else, I believe.”
“Well, she worked with our Committee here in Paris all through the Peace Conference, and when the American troops were all demobilized, and the Committee broke up, she stayed with me for quite a time. Say, hadn't you better read her letter to me? I can give you a copy of it if you like.”
She went to a nest of drawers against the wall, unlocked one and took out a typed letter. Milsom read it.
37A SEYMOUR STREET,
DEAR MRS. SIDMORE,
“You will be surprised to hear from me after so many years, and I do not now know whether this letter will ever reach you. I am now quite âon my own,' having at last attained my greatest ambitionâto try my luck as a writer. Moreover, I have had an unexpected success in getting my first mystery story accepted by a publisher on very good terms. I ought to be in the seventh heaven, but it is a little marred by a secret anxiety, which may prove to be a mare's nest after all. I need a wise head to consult with, and naturally, remembering how good you were to me in the old days, I turn instinctively to you. When my book is launched I shall feel free to run over and inflict my troubles upon you, if you will let me. I know that one talk with you will show me what my duty is. If you write the word âcome,' will you find me a cheap room not too far from you?
“She had some secret trouble then?” said Milsom.Â
“In London we all thought that she was the most unlikely person in the world to put an end to her life.”
“So she was when she had a worse trouble than this seems to be. You know that she was engaged to be married to an officer who was reported killed in the war. We all admired her for the courage she showed when the news reached her. She just went on with her work, a little more sad, a little more silent than she'd been before, and only once in a moment of confidence did she tell me that life was over for her; that she would have to get over the rest of it the best way she could.”
“Look here, Mrs. Sidmore, I want to have a long talk with you about this, and it would take up too much time just at the moment when you are so busy.
Will you come and dine with me at seven or so? I believe they can give one quite a passable meal at the Grand Hotel where I am staying.”
“That's just too kind of you. You see I must look after my girls, and we have work on hand that must be finished this evening, but I'll come on to the Grand at seven and I'll take you to a little restaurant where they give you a real cute little dinner. I guess that I can tell you something that will surprise you.”
At half-past seven the two sat down to the “cute little dinner” in a restaurant of the second order, where good cooking counted for more than table service. When their orders had been given, Mrs. Sidmore turned to business.
“You know I told you, Mr. Milsom, that Miss Clynes' fiancÃ© was reported killed. Well, as far as Miss Clynes was concerned, he was killed, but two years ago I was taking my vacation at Pourville, near Dieppe, and there in the hotel was a man whose face was strangely familiar to me. He limped just like hundreds of men who were badly wounded in the war. Whenever he passed me in the lounge the impression grew stronger, that he was Lieutenant BryantâMiss Clynes' fiancÃ©. You see, during the war he was in and out of our office whenever he could get Paris leave from his Colonel, and Miss Clynes had introduced him to us. On the second day I spoke to him in the lounge as he was going through with a Frenchwoman, talking French as fluently as a native. âYou don't remember me, Mr. Bryant?' I said. He stopped short and stared at me. âI seem to remember your face,' he said; âwhere did we meet?' The lady had gone through the swing doors and was waiting for him outside; she was getting impatient and he broke off, saying, âI'll see you later when I'm alone.' I managed to find out at the desk that he had registered as Wilfred Bryant, and that the lady was his wife.
“Later in the day he came to me alone and sat down beside me. âI remember you quite well now. You were one of the ladies in that American Society in Paris.' I said, âPerhaps you remember another lady who was there, Miss Naomi Clynes?' He changed colour and didn't seem to know which way to look.”
“What a swine!” broke in Jim Milsom. “I hope you told him so in plain English.”
“If I'd said that he'd have taken himself off and I should never have heard his explanation. What I did say was, âAnd now I hear you're married, after being reported killed.' âYes,' he said; âI was buried by a high explosive shell, and when they dug me out my death had already been reported. I was taken into a French hospital and the lady you saw this morning nursed me back to life.'
“âAnd you never thought of poor Naomi who was crying her eyes out? Why didn't you tell her that the death notice was a mistake?' âI was too much smashed up at the time, and when I got better I thought that a wreck like me had no right to come and claim a girl like Naomi, and I don't knowâ somehow I let things drift until it was too late to tell her.' âAnd so you went off and married someone else?' I said.
“He looked awkward and I thought he was going to leave me, so I added, âI suppose that the girl had a
“That made him flare up. âI thought you were going to say that,' he said. âIt's quite true. Her father was a rich war profiteer and she had a
, but I didn't marry her on that account. After all, she saved my life by her devoted nursing.'
“He was very much embarrassed, but I gathered from his manner that it was his wife who had married
, not he who married
, and if it is any satisfaction to know it, she looked a thoroughly bad-tempered woman who makes his life a hell. To do him justice he had made no secret of his marriage. She goes everywhere with him. He took her over to England and introduced her to his people over there, onlyâ he never announced his marriage to poor Naomi.”
“Do you think that she could have run across him in London, and that was what she wanted to consult you about?” asked Milsom.
“That is what I think it was, Mr. Milsom.”
“I wonder whether he was over in England at the time when she wrote that letter. There ought to be a way of finding out. Did you ask him where he was living?”
“No, I did not. His treatment of poor Naomi who had believed in him had been so mean that I had lost interest in him. He must have been living in Paris when I met him in Dieppe, because twice during the inside of the week they went off early in their car and didn't get back much before dinner. Now, if you'll let me speak to our waiter we might have a look at the telephone book.”
She made a sign to the waiter and asked that the directory be brought to their table. The request caused a stir among the staff, for, as it appeared, the ponderous volume was chained to the desk, and permission to unfasten the chain must be sought from higher authority. But authority seemed to attach some importance to the pleasing of foreign tourists during the financial crisis, and the waiter reappeared from the back regions armed with a skewer with which he prised open one of the links in the brass chain, and bore his prize in triumph to Milsom's table.
Milsom pushed back the table furniture and spread the volume out before him. “Bryant, I think you said the name was? Bâ¦Bâ¦Bâ¦ Here we areââBRYANT, WILFRED, 14 rue Georges V.' Where's that?”
“Why, it's right here in Paris. No. 14 is that big new block of apartments at the corner of the rue Georges Cinq and the Avenue President Wilson. Madame Bryant must be just rolling in money.”
“Do you think that I could find out from the concierge where Bryant is to be found?”
“If you think that your French is equal to it. No, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll go up there tomorrow morning with my business card, and if the concierge tells me that Mr. Bryant is at home, I'll say that I know him and go right up to his
and ask to see him. I have a good excuse. One of my girls is leaving my school to seek a job as an expert stenographer. I'll ask him to take her name and address and give it to his friends. Then in the course of conversation I can ask him anything you want to know, and we can meet during the luncheon interval. I'll tell you what he says.”
“We want to know first whether he was in England during April or Mayâher letter to you was dated May 11thâand secondly, whether he was in London on the night of Miss Clynes' death on May 15th. Do you think he'd tell you?”
“Not if I asked the questions straight and he had anything to hide, but I shan't do that. I'll round off the corners.”
“You're a wonder, Mrs. Sidmore. You ought to have been in the State Department as a trained diplomatist, just as I ought to have been at Scotland Yard as one of their super-sleuths. One of the tragedies of modern life is that all the square holes have round pegs in them. Then it is understood that to-morrow you lunch here as my guest.”
“Oh, no; to-morrow it will be my turn to be hostess.”
“Unless you accept my invitation right now, Mrs. Sidmore, I warn you that I shall take the morning airplane back to England. Come, be sensible. Promise that you'll meet me here to-morrow at twelve, that you'll lunch here as my guest, and that you will bring with you a note of what you've spent on taxis. You have to make it a business matter.”
“Very wellâif it will make you happier I will.”
Milsom spent his morning in writing out a report for his friend Richardson, reckoning nothing of additions that he would have to make to it before the day was out. At noon he strolled down to the little restaurant and loitered about until he saw the ample form of Mrs. Sidmore bearing down upon him. “Well,” he said, when they were seated at their old table, and the waiter had gone to the kitchen with their order, “what luck? You don't look depressed.”
“Don't I? Well I ought to. I didn't see Mr. Bryant.”
“You mean that he declined to see you?”
“Not at all. I didn't see him because he and his wife are both in London, and they've been there ever since the beginning of April.”
“But as I couldn't see
I made friends with the concierge who was quite ready to talk. She asked me into her little den and gave me a cup of the muddiest coffee you ever tasted, and I had to drink it too. She wouldn't have done that for you.”
“I told you last night that you were a loss to the State Department at Washington. I suppose that you got the lady to talk?”
“I guess I did. When I told her that I had known Mr. Bryant before his marriage, she became interested and asked what he had been like in those days. Then, little by little, it all came out. The poor fish cannot call his soul his own. âMadame,' she said, âholds the purse strings, and makes him account for every
he spends out of the small weekly allowance she gives him. The fact is.' she said, âshe is madly jealous of him, and if she sees him speaking to another woman, she makes a scene, and she doesn't care who hears what she says!'”
Milsom began to show the keenest interest. “You saw the wife at Pourville. Can you give me a description of her?”
“She was a thin, wasted creature with hollow cheeks and an ill-tempered-looking expression. She looked sourly at me whenever she passed me in the hotel lounge.”
“And they were both in London at the time of the murder,” said Milsom thoughtfully.
“I can see what you're thinking, Mr. Milsom. You're thinking that if that woman had ever got to know that her husband had once been engaged to Naomi, she would have sought her out and done something to herâ¦”
“I was. At any rate it seems worth going into.”
The waiter came to their table with the dishes they had ordered. When he had retired his clients both remained silent while they ate. The thoughts of both were busy.
“I suppose,” said Milsom at last, “that there will be no difficulty in locating this attractive pair when I get back to England.”
“It's a small country. The police ought to be able to do it.”
“Oh, they can do that all right. The question is how they can bring the crime home to them, or rather to one of them. The fact is I'm not sure yet what evidence they have and how it will fit in with the theory that the murder was done by a woman, but what you've told me may turn out to be of the greatest importance.”
Mrs. Sidmore looked at her wrist-watch. “I fear I ought to be going, Mr. Milsom,” she said; “I've a lot of work to do this afternoon. Thank you very much for your hospitality. Say, listen! I'll give you one of my business cards with the telephone number on it, and if you want anything done in Paris that I can do, you'll only have to ring me.”
They exchanged cards and parted with great goodwill on both sides.