THE YELLOW MISTLETOE
By Walter S. Masterman
DEATH IN THE TUBE
THE TUBE STATION at Leicester Square, as every Londoner knows, is crowded beyond measure at certain hours of the day, for here two lines, the Piccadilly and the Morden, are served by one station, and there is no escalator to relieve the pressure.
The weary liftman collects and guides masses of human freight into the packed lifts, repeating with the monotony of a muezzin on a minaret—“Pass right down the lift, please—pass right down.”It goes on every day—familiar to all who travel home by tube, but it is necessary to go into these details because an event took place there on a day in February which fortunately is not a familiar occurrence.
Several of the “lift crashers” had noticed a little parson carrying a large bag who hovered on the outskirts of the crowd, trying vainly to force his way in—pathetically futile and strange in this gathering.
He made dives at the lifts, and was whirled round and out again. A massive female in a fur coat elbowed him aside, and he became wedged between two athletic flappers—he seemed to have no knowledge of lift rushing—but ran wildly to the wrong lift and lost his chance.
He was seen to stand still, place his large bag on the ground, and gaze round in a perplexed manner.
Mr. James Browne of Lavinia Villas, Clapham—who afterwards gave evidence—was emphatic about it. “I had just bought my evening paper from the old man at the corner,” he stated. “The parson had the look of a lost dog. It rather amused me at the time.”
The small parson saw a stairway—steps leading down to a cloakroom, and a blessed notice “To the trains.”
Mr. Browne declared he saw a look of relief on the face of the poor man as he lifted his bag and went down out of sight.
Mr. Browne, being large and stout and versed in the game, then joined the “scrum” and shouldered his way to a lift.
The parson vanished from his mind.
The winding stair leads down, in giddy whorls to the platforms far below, and is practically unused: it is just a great pipe fitted with spiral stairs.
Somewhere down those brightly lighted steps the tragedy occurred.
A porter going up the stairs—as was his duty at stated intervals—came upon a bag lying on one of the little platforms which break the monotony of the tedious spiral.
Jenkins, the porter, came from the Rhondda Valley and was full of intelligence. He opined that people do not leave bags on a stairway—wherever else they may leave them. He mounted the steps, rounded the corner, and saw the body of the little clergyman spread-eagled on the stairs head downwards, and the head was twisted at an angle to the body. There was blood on the stairs.
Jenkins ran hard up the steep steps and imparted his information in whispered pantings to the constable on duty.
The officials acted with promptitude—as the papers reported. They closed the stairs at both ends, found a doctor on the spot, sent for the ambulance, and went down to investigate. The constable took out his notebook and pencil.
“Must ’ave slipped—trying to get down too quick,” he guessed.
“Turned giddy, most like,” Jenkins thought. “I do not wonder at all. This going round and round—and carrying a heavy bag too, look you.”
The doctor stood up from the prostrate figure. “Dead,” he said simply. “May be a broken neck—or fracture—can’t say at present. Must have fallen about ten feet, by the marks of blood—that’s where he struck the iron stair. Poor little devil. Better get him away to the hospital.”
The constable closed his note-book with an air of finality, and helped to carry the body upstairs, where a staring crowd greeted their appearance. The body was discreetly covered and conveyed to the ambulance, and life went on as before.
Dr. Smart went with the ambulance to the hospital and saw the body taken to the mortuary. He wanted to see the matter through. Later he went to Scotland Yard, full of importance.
Superintendent Elliott was entertaining his old friend and late chief, Sir Arthur Sinclair, whose dramatic retirement from the Yard was recorded in the tale “2 L.O.” and who was on one of his rare visits to London.
Sinclair had found that Town life bored him as he had feared it would, and, seeing a Martello tower on the South Coast for sale, had retired there with his books and his favourite dog.
He was very far from being an old man, and his colleagues sighed for his subtle brain and queer instincts, and wondered whether he would ever take up active work again.
Elliott had been one of his “young men” and was delighted to get his advice when possible.
The doctor, accompanied by a constable carrying a large bag, was ushered in. “My name is Smart,” the doctor introduced himself. “I’ve just come from St. Michael’s Hospital. There’s been an accident—a fatal accident I am sorry to say, at the Leicester Square Tube Station. A clergyman killed.” He proceeded to give details.
“But why did you come to me?” Elliott asked with irritation.
“Sergeant Stuart thought I had better come with the constable,” he said, placing a small black hand-bag on the table.
“The dead man’s name was Rev. George Shepherd,” he said, addressing Elliott.
Elliott looked up with a start.
“From Derbyshire?” he asked sharply.
“Yes—Skipton, a little village in the Peak district.”
The doctor took from the hand-bag the contents of the dead man’s pockets. There was a book on Greek mythology, evidently purchased from a second-hand shop near the station, a railway time-table, a pipe well used, and an old faded tobacco-pouch once worked with the college arms of Lady Margaret College, Cambridge, and the usual odds and ends which a man of careful habits carries with him on a journey.
A worn pocket-book contained letters, mostly illiterate scrawls from parishioners, asking for monetary assistance, a return-half of a tourist ticket, and money in notes.
The doctor handed one letter to Elliott saying, “That’s what made him come.”
“Ah—I see. That’s my letter making an appointment.” He handed it to Sinclair to read, and dived into a drawer in his desk, searching for something.
The letter was an official note from Elliott making an appointment with Mr. Shepherd at 5.30 at Scotland Yard.
“You wrote and asked him to come?” Sinclair said.
“Yes, he asked for an appointment—a rather unusual letter—I will show it to you. It was a private matter, so I made a late appointment when I would be free.”
“I thought that letter would be important,” the doctor said smugly, evidently delighted at finding himself mixed up in the affair.
Sinclair had read Elliott’s letter through carefully. He spoke with deliberation. “I don’t think we need detain Dr. Smart further—he will, of course, be wanted at the inquest, I expect he is very busy.”
“Oh—Yes, I am rather,” the doctor was rather nettled.
“It was very kind of you to come,” Sinclair added, with one of his rare smiles.
The doctor looked at Elliott for his dismissal.
“This is Sir Arthur Sinclair—you have probably heard of him before,” Elliott said with an expansive wave of his hand.
Sinclair held out his hand. “I am only on a visit here, and not acting officially,” he said. Smart felt he needed no more instructions and took his departure.
“You wanted to get rid of him?” Elliott asked.
“Yes,” Sinclair said. “We can discuss this matter better alone.
“Here is the letter I received from Shepherd.” Elliott handed it to his friend, who laid it on the table unread.
“I think we should see the contents of the bag first,” Sinclair said quietly, and Elliott agreed, knowing his old chief.
“Just put them on the table, constable.”
The man had been standing by the door, but at the mention of Sinclair’s name he had stared open-mouthed at the great detective.
He pulled himself up with a start, and laid out the contents; just a change of clothes—shirts and things. There was something pitiful in the display of old worn clothes and a flannel shirt for which the owner would never again have need. There were also a lot of old books.
The constable saluted and went out at a nod from Sinclair, who lit his pipe and smoked in silence.
At last he took up the letter and examined it closely. It was written in the beautiful handwriting only found with Greek scholars, and read as follows:
THE VICARAGE, SKIPTON, DERBYSHIRE.
To THE SUPERINTENDENT, SCOTLAND YARD.
You will, I trust, pardon me for troubling you on a matter which has caused me very grave anxiety; I fear it is one which may have serious consequences.
It would be unwise to state more than this in a letter but I should be greatly obliged if you would grant me the favour of an interview. I would come to London, and can assure you I shall not be wasting your time with an idle tale.
I have taken this decision with reluctance, as it will involve bringing up ghosts from the past which I had hoped were forever buried, but I have a son and daughter to consider.
For myself, I am in God’s hands—and could face the worst. Apologising for the trouble I am giving you, I beg to remain,
Yours very truly,
“What do you make of it, Elliott?”
Sinclair’s face had taken on a grim look his colleagues at the Yard used to know so well.
“He seems pretty frightened about something.”
There was a look almost of contempt on the face of Sinclair. “No, he wasn’t frightened, it’s the letter of a brave man—and a courteous gentleman.”
“Did you notice that he had stopped the letter after the words ‘idle tale’—the ink has dried naturally, the rest has been blotted. He uses the Greek ‘e’ and several times a ‘gamma’ for a ‘y’.”
“You think he was interrupted?”
“Perhaps—I should rather say he would shut himself up to write such a letter. No—I should say he meant to finish at that point.”
“Poor fellow—he evidently did not know London,” Elliott said, “and had probably never been on a ‘tube’ in his life. He must have tripped up on those infernal stairs, I know the place well . . . fractured his skull most probably . . .”
Elliott ran on, but suddenly realised his companion was not listening, and lapsed into silence.
“You should have gone down there,” Sinclair rapped out, and Elliott became confused.
“Really I did not see that it was of such importance. We can’t conduct everyone who wants to come to London,” he added stiffly.
“What was he doing with all those old books, I wonder?” Sinclair asked—quite irrelevantly.
“Wanted to sell them to pay his fare most likely.” Elliott was getting sulky.
“I hardly think so—a man of that type would make any sacrifice rather than get rid of his books. No, it’s not that.”
“I wish you’d speak out plainly—do you suspect suicide—or murder—it’s too fantastic. In a crowded tube station. Of course, the stairs are deserted, but there’s a man in charge of the cloak-room there, and porters go up and down. Besides, everything points to a fall—there’s no wound—the doctor told us . . .”
He stopped, with Sinclair’s cold blue eyes, which told nothing, staring straight at him. “We’ll get some more information at the inquest, it’s no good speculating,” Elliott concluded.
Sinclair rose and passed round the desk to examine the clothes.
“Hullo,” he exclaimed. He unwound a pair of pyjamas which had been carefully wrapped round some object, disclosing a small framed portrait in water-colours.
The face that looked at them from the portrait was that of a woman, young and beautiful to perfection with a fragile exotic beauty. The hair was coiled over the head in a queer fashion and was clear corn-gold. The dress was that of perhaps twenty-five years ago. The eyes were deep blue and the features perfect—too perfect if such a word can be used. They had a calm, lofty aspect, and the curve of the lips denoted pride, and some temper. The face was one made for admiration rather than for love.
Sinclair studied the portrait long and earnestly, and then turned it over. On the back was written in the faded handwriting of the dead man, “My darling wife. The Lord gave—”
“He did not finish the text—strange,” Sinclair muttered.
“One would expect—‘The Lord hath taken away’—it’s usual,” said Sinclair musingly.
“Perhaps she wasn’t dead at the time?” Elliott said as though indulging a child—he knew Sinclair’s fanciful imagination from old days.
“Then why put it at all? No, there’s more in it than that.”
“Well, I suppose we shall get all the information we want at the inquest,” Elliott said again. He hated riddles.
Sinclair went to the books on the table and turned them over carefully while the other watched him with an amused smile.
Suddenly Sinclair’s attention was riveted. He picked up three large volumes tattered and worn. The pages were heavily marked with notes in the parson’s neat handwriting.
Sinclair laid them before Elliott. “Let me commend these books to your attention—you might do worse than read them.
The Superintendent looked at the title—and then at Sinclair blankly. “You’re a queer customer—is it a joke?” he asked.
He never read the books and destiny worked out a strange plot which might otherwise never have occurred.
Among the other books was a clergy list. Sinclair turned the pages. “Let’s see what Crockford has to say about him,” he said, sitting down again.
“Humph—quite a lot. Distinguished career at Cambridge— double first and fellowship—then lecturer in Greek. Wrote some books, it seems—a large parish. Married twice—first wife dies leaving one son. Married again—Diana Woods—one daughter. Then retired to a tiny living in Derbyshire—buried alive. Been there ever since. A strange record.”
“It seems quite ordinary to me,” Elliott laughed.
Sinclair picked up the portrait. “This was the second wife.”
“Why on earth—?”
“Oh, there’s no doubt—the date of the marriage fixes that.”
“But there’s no date on the portrait—”
“The year of his second marriage is the same year as his retirement to Derbyshire.” Sinclair spoke with complete conviction.
“Let’s get to practical matters,”—Elliott spoke crossly—“we must wire to the son at the vicarage. He must be about twenty-three, by the date of his birth. We don’t want them to see the account in the papers, poor souls, without warning, and he will have to come to London.”
He took a telegraph form from a drawer. Sinclair stopped him.
“No—don’t wire—I am going there myself—I will break the news.”
Elliott dropped his pen and stared at Sinclair.
“I have nothing to do—and—I am interested.”
“Well—if I hadn’t had experience of your practical side, and your successful cases, I should say you were more qualified for a writer of fiction than a detective—I wonder what you have in your mind.”
Sinclair smiled, and rose to go. “I shall probably bring young Shepherd with me—and—one thing more, Elliott. I want you to do me a favour,” his manner had suddenly become grave. “Don’t put in that letter of Shepherd’s at the inquest. There is no need, it can simply be stated that he wrote asking for an appointment, and your letter shows that he made it—or tried to.”
“I’ll do that with pleasure—though I’m hanged if I see what you’re after . . .”
“Remember his letter—the ghosts of the past—and his son and daughter to consider. Don’t give the powers of Evil a chance.”
In spite of his trained practical mind, something in Sinclair’s manner affected the other, and he shuddered. Was his old chief getting senile and a little mad—or had he seen something— something dark and horrible hidden from his eyes.
Was he turning a simple accident into a grim mystery?
The two men were facing each other. The light was on, but the window was uncovered and across the River the sky-signs were twinkling and changing colour. The County Hall, a huge dim humped mass, was in darkness except where scattered lights showed here and there that clerks were working late.
Below them the Embankment spread away towards Waterloo Bridge, a vista of lights on high standards, beneath which the trams moved like giant glow-worms in a never-ending stream—stopping and starting and crossing each other in the dark.
Sinclair stepped out into the darkness where the twin buildings of “Yard” rose up above him, sardonic and forbidding.
In Parliament Street men were selling papers containing a short account of the accident. It was not a great matter in the eyes of the news editors.
The darkness swallowed him up.
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