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The Postmaster's Daughter
by Louis Tracy
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"Why has D. gone?"

Both men paused at that line.

"Detective?" suggested Winter.

"That's how I take it," agreed Furneaux.

Then came a sign: "+10%."

"Elkin's mixture was not 'as before.' It was fortified," grinned Furneaux. "That's the exact increase of nicotine. By the way, I have a sample. We can take care of him on that charge, without a shadow of doubt."

Winter blew softly on the back of his friend's head.

"You're thorough, Charles, thorough!" he murmured. "It's a treat to work with you when you get really busy."

Furneaux ran his thumb across the end of several leaves.

"I can tell you now," he said, "that there's nothing of real value in the earlier notes. So far as I can judge, they refer either to a sort of settlement with his wife or chance phrases used by Doris Martin which might imply that she was heart whole and fancy free. There's not a bally word dealing with the murder, or that can be twisted into the vaguest allusion to it. But here's a plan and section which have a sort of significance. I've seen the place, so recognized it, or thought I did. We must check it, of course. Here you are! You know the footbridge across the river from Bush Walk?"

"Yes."

"The eastern end is supported on a hollow pier of masonry, in which one might tog up unseen. These drawings would be useful as an Aide Memoire on a dark night. A false step, with the river in flood, might be awkward."

"What's that on the opposite page?"

"I give it up—at present."

This somewhat rare display of modesty on Furneaux's part was readily understandable. A series of straight lines and angles conveyed very little hint of their purport; but Winter smiled behind his friend's back.

"I've been prowling about this wretched inn longer than you," he said. "Look outside, to the left."

"Don't need to, now," cackled Furneaux. "It's the profile of a wall, gate, and outhouse along which one could reach the window of the club-room. Would you mind stopping grinning like a Cheshire cat?"

"Anything else?"

"Yes. This one: 'S.M.? 1820.' That beats you, eh?"

"Dished completely."

"Doris Martin, as usual, supplies the answer. An old volume of the Sussex Miscellany, probably that for 1820, contains the full story of Owd Ben. I might have mentioned it to you, but focussed on current events. Siddle has it among his books, which, by the way, are made up largely of scientific and popular criminal records."

"Is that the lot?"

"I'm afraid so. Have a look."

"Just a minute. I want to think."

Winter turned and gazed through the open window. Seldom had a more gracious June decked England with garlands. The hour was then high noon, and a pastoral landscape was drowned in sunshine. The Chief Inspector cut the end off a cigar dreamily but with care.

"Broadmoor—perhaps," he muttered. "But we can't hang him yet, Charles. A couple of knots and a theory won't do for the Assizes. We haven't a solitary witness. Hardly a night but he goes home at 9.30. If only he had killed Grant! But—Adelaide Melhuish!"

In sheer despair he struck a match.

"Well, let's overhaul these duds," said Furneaux savagely. "I'll chance the dinner hour for the return visit. Steynholme folk eat at half past twelve to the tick, and you can hardly get up another horse show."

There was a knock at the door.

"Let me in, quick!" came Peters's voice, and the handle was tried forcibly.

"Go away! I'm busy!" cried Winter.

"This is urgent, devilish urgent," said Peters.

Furneaux snatched up the note-book, and Winter tore off his coat, throwing it over the package which reposed in an armchair. Then the Chief Inspector unlocked the door, blocking the way aggressively.

"Now, I must say—" he began.

But Peters clutched his shoulder with a nervous hand.

"Siddle has just hurried up the street and entered his shop," he hissed.

The journalist had not only kept his eyes open, but excelled in the art of putting two and two together, an arithmetical calculation which, as applied to the affairs of life, is not so readily arrived at as many people imagine.

"Buncoed! He's missed his keys!" shrilled Furneaux.

"Confound the man! He might at least have attended his mother's funeral!" stormed Winter, retrieving his coat.

Thus it happened that Furneaux was the first down the stairs, though the three emerged from the door of the inn on each other's heels. A stout man, in all likelihood a farmer with horses for sale, was mounting the two steps which led to the entrance. His head was down, and his weight forward, so he successfully resisted Furneaux's impact, but Peters and Winter were irresistible, and he tumbled over with a muffled yell.

At that instant Siddle quitted his shop, and headed straight for the post office. In his right hand he carried an automatic pistol. The street was wide. Furneaux, absolutely fearless in the performance of his duty, ran in a curve so as to bar the chemist's path, and it was then that Siddle saw him. The man's face was terrible to behold. His eyes were rolling, his teeth gnashing; he had bitten his tongue and cheeks, and his stertorous breathing ejected from his mouth foam tinged with blood.

"Ha!" he screamed in a falsetto of fury, "not yet, little man, not yet!"

With that he raised the pistol, and fired point-blank at the detective. Furneaux ducked, and seized a small stone, being otherwise quite unarmed. He threw it with unerring aim, and, as was determined subsequently, struck the hand holding the weapon. Possibly, almost by a miracle, the blow caused a faulty pressure, because the action jammed, though the pistol itself was most accurate and deadly in its properties.

By this time Winter, sweeping Peters aside, was within ten feet of the maniac, who turned and ran into the shop. The door, a solid one, fitted with a spring lock, slammed in the Chief Inspector's face, and resisted a mighty effort to burst it open. A few yards away stood an empty, two-wheeled cart, uptilted, and Winter demanded the help of a few men who had gathered on seeing or hearing the hubbub.

"I call on you in the King's name!" he shouted. "We must force that door! Then stand clear, all of you!"

He raced to the cart, and, when his object was perceived, willing hands assisted in converting the heavy vehicle into a battering-ram. The gradient of the hill favored the attack, which was made at an acute angle, and the first assault smashed the lock. There were a couple of seconds' delay while the cart was backed out, and the detectives rushed in, Furneaux leading, because Winter gave his great physical strength to the shafts. But the Chief Inspector grabbed his tiny friend by the collar as the latter darted around the counter and into the dispensary in the rear.

"Two of us can't go abreast, and you'll only get hurt," he said, speaking with a calmness that was majestic in the circumstances.

"The nicotine is gone!" yelped Furneaux; both saw that the safe stood open.

Behind the dispensary was a small passage, whence the stairs mounted, and a door led to the kitchen. That door was closed now, though it was open when Furneaux ransacked the house. Therefore, they made that way at once. No ordinary lock could resist Winter's shoulder, and he soon mastered this barrier. But the kitchen was empty—the outer door locked but unbolted. Since it is practically impossible for the strongest man to pull a door open, the two made for the window, and tore at screws and catch with eager fingers. Furneaux, light and nimble-footed, scrambled through first, so it was he who found Siddle lying in the orchard beyond the wall of the yard. The unhappy wretch had swallowed nearly the whole remaining contents of the bottle of nicotine, or enough to poison a score of robust men. He presented a lamentable and distressing spectacle. Some of the more venturesome passers-by, who had crowded after the detectives and Peters, could not bear to look on, and slunk away in horror.

Furneaux soon brought an emetic, which failed to act. Siddle breathed his last while the glass was at his lips.

In that moment of crisis only three men did not lose their heads. Winter cleared away the gapers, while Furneaux remained with the body. P.C. Robinson came up the hill at a run, and was sent for a stretcher, bringing from Hobbs's shop the very one on which the ill-fated Adelaide Melhuish was carried from the river bank.

But where was Peters? In the post office, writing the first of a series of thrilling dispatches to a London evening newspaper. What journalist ever had a more sensational murder-case to supply "copy"? And when was "special correspondent" ever better primed for the task? He wrote on, and on, till the telegraphist cried halt. Then he hied him to London by train, and began the more ambitious "story" for next morning. What he did not know he guessed correctly. A fagged but triumphant man was Jimmie Peters when he "blew in" to the Savage Club at 1 A.M. to seek sustenance and a whiskey and soda before going home.

Furneaux was white and shaken when Winter escorted the stretcher-bearers to the orchard.

"Poor devil!" he said, as the men lifted the body. "Foredoomed from birth! We can eradicate these diseases from cattle. Why not from men!"

The villagers could not understand him. Already, in some mysterious way, the word had gone around that Siddle had murdered the actress, and taken his own life to avoid arrest, after shooting at the detective who was hot on his trail.

Not until Peters's articles came back to Steynholme did the public at large realize that the chemist undoubtedly meant to kill Doris Martin. He was going straight to the post office when the way was barred by Furneaux. The bullet which missed the latter actually pierced the zinc plate of the letter-box, and scored a furrow, inches long, in an oak counter which it struck laterally.

The village did not recover its poise for hours. Grant and Hart, to whom Bates brought the news about one o'clock, rose from an untasted luncheon and hurried to the high-street. Knots of people stared at Grant, some sheepishly, others with frank relief, because all who knew him liked him. One man, a retired ironmonger and an impulsive fellow, came forward and wrung his hand heartily. A few prominent residents followed suit. Grant was greatly embarrassed, but managed to endure these awkward if well-meant congratulations. There could be no mistaking their intent. He had been tried for murder at the bar of public opinion, and was now formally acquitted.

Even Fred Elkin, ignorant as yet of his own peril, yielded to the influences of the moment and bustled through the crowd.

"Mr. Grant," he cried outspokenly, "I ask your pardon. I seem to have made a d—d fool of myself!"

"Easier done than said," chimed in Hart. "But, among all this bell-ringing, can anyone tell what has actually happened? Where's Peters?"

"In the post office."

The two went in, and found the journalist scribbling against time. Hart coolly grabbed a few slips of manuscript, and commenced reading. Grant looked about for Doris. She was not visible, but Mr. Martin, pallid and nervous, nodded toward the sitting-room. The younger man, taking the gesture as a tacit invitation, entered the room.

Doris was sitting there, crying bitterly. Poor girl! She had seen that portion of the drama which was enacted in the street, and the shock of it was still poignant. She looked up and met her lover's eyes. Neither uttered a word, but Grant did a very wise thing. He caught her by the shoulders, raised her to her feet, and, after kissing her squarely on the lips, gave her a comforting hug.

"It will be all right now, Doris," he whispered tenderly. "Such thunderstorms clear the air."

An eminent novelist might have found many more ornate ways of avowing his sentiments, but never a more satisfactory one. At any rate, it served, so what more need be said?

Certain rills of evidence accumulated into a fair-sized stream before night fell. P.C. Robinson, for instance, scored a point by ascertaining that Peggy Smith had seen Furneaux dropping from the bedroom window of the chemist's shop. She was some hundreds of yards away, and could not be positive that some man, perhaps a glazier, had not been there legitimately effecting repairs. Still, when she met Siddle hurrying from the station, she told him of the incident.

"He never even thanked me," she said, "but broke into a run. The look in his eyes was awful."

The girl had, in fact, confirmed his worst fears, and her neighborly solicitude had merely hastened the end.

Again, the railway officials showed that Siddle had returned from Victoria instead of taking train to the asylum. Furneaux had guessed aright. The discovery that his keys had been left behind drove the man into a panic of fright.

It took nearly three weeks before the unhappy business was finally disposed of. A Treasury solicitor was given the chance of his career by the medico-legal disquisition which cleared up an extraordinary record. The annals of the disease which predisposed Theodore Siddle to crime went back many years. He was a fairly wealthy man by inheritance, and adopted the profession of chemistry as a hobby. One fact stood out boldly. He was aware of his hereditary taint, and had settled down in Steynholme believing that a quiet life, free from care or the distractions of a town, would enable him to overcome it. Probably, the lawyer held, the man owned two distinct individualities, and the baser instincts gradually overpowered the humane ones.

Of course, the whole history of those trying days had to come out in open court, and the postmaster's daughter was given a descriptive and pictorial boom which many an actress envied. Peters was restored to grace when he showed plainly that his articles had kept the fickle barometer of public opinion at "set fair," in so far as Grant and Doris were concerned.

"But," as Hart drawled during a dinner of reconciliation, "you needn't have been so infernally personal about my hat."

Grant and Doris were married before the year was out. Mr. Martin retired on a pension, and the young couple decided that they could never dissociate The Hollies from the tragic memories bound up with its ghost-window and lawn. So the place was sold, and Steynholme knows "the postmaster's daughter" no more. Winter and Furneaux week-ended with them recently at a pretty little nook in Dorset. Hart, just home from the Balkans, traveled from town with the detectives, and Doris, a radiant young matron, was as flippant as the best of them.

One evening, when the men were sitting late in the smoking-room, the talk turned on the now half-forgotten drama in which the hapless Adelaide Melhuish played her last role.

"I met Peters in the Savage Club the other night," said Hart, filling the negro-head pipe with care while he talked, "and he was chortling about his 'psychological study,' as he called it, of that unfortunate chemist. He still clings to the theory that your wife was the intended victim, Grant. Do you agree with him?"

"Rubbish!" cried Furneaux, before his host could answer. "At best, Peters is only a clever ass. Siddle never had the remotest notion of killing Miss Doris Martin, as Mrs. Grant was then. We shall never know for certain just what happened, but there are elements in the affair which give ground for reasonable guesswork. The first thing that impressed Winter and me—at least, I suppose I really evolved the idea, though my bulky friend elaborated it" (whereat Winter smiled forgivingly, and beheaded a fresh Havana) "was the complete noiselessness of the crime. Here we had Mr. Grant startled by the face at the window, and actually searching outside the house for the ghostly visitant, while Miss Doris was gazing at The Hollies from the other side of the river, and not a sound was heard, though it was a summer's night, without a breath of wind, and at an hour when the splash of a fish leaping in the stream would have created a commotion. Now, Miss Melhuish was an active and well-built young woman, an actress, too, and therefore likely to meet an emergency without instant collapse. Yet she allows herself to be struck dead or insensible without cry or struggle! How do you account for it?"

"Go on, Charles; don't be theatrical," jeered Winter. "You've got the story pat. Even that simile of the jumping fish is mine."

"True," agreed Furneaux. "I only brought it in as a sop. But, to continue, as the tub-thumper says. Isn't it permissible to assume that Siddle accompanied the lady, either by prior arrangement or by contriving a meeting which looked like mere chance? We know that she went to his shop. We know, too, that he was clever and unscrupulous, and any allusion to Grant would stir his wits to the uttermost. He would see instantly how interested Miss Melhuish was in the owner of The Hollies, while she, a smart Londoner, would recognize in Siddle an informant worth all the rest of the babblers in Steynholme. At any rate, no matter how the thing was brought about, it is self-evident that Siddle brought his intended victim into the grounds, and told her of the small uncovered window through which she could peer at Grant after Miss Doris had gone. He showed her which path to use, and undoubtedly waited for her, and stayed her flight when Grant rose from his chair. She was close to him, and wholly unafraid, finding in him an ally. They were purposely hidden, in the gloom of dense foliage, and remained there until Grant had closed the window again. Then, and not till then, did the murderer strike, probably stifling her with his free hand. He had the implement in his pocket. The rope was secreted among the bushes. He could carry through the whole wretched crime in little more than a minute. And his psychology went far deeper than Peters gave him credit for. He had weighed up the situation to a nicety. No matter who found the body, Mr. Grant was saddled with a responsibility which might well prove disastrous, and was almost sure to affect his relations with the Martin household. For instance, nothing short of a miracle could have stopped Robinson from arresting him on a charge of murder."

"You, then, are a miracle?" put in Hart, pointing the pipe at the little man.

"To the person of ordinary intelligence—yes."

"After that," said Winter, "there is nothing more to be said. Let's see who secures the pocket marvel as a partner at auction."

* * * * *

As a fitting end to the strange story of wayward love and maniacal frenzy which found an unusual habitat in a secluded hamlet like Steynholme, a small vignette of its normal life may be etched in. The trope is germane to the scene.

On a wet afternoon in October Hobbs and Elkin had adjourned to the Hare and Hounds. Tomlin was reading a newspaper spread on the bar counter. He was alone. The day was Friday, and the last "commercial" of the week had departed by the mid-day train.

"Wot's yer tonic?" demanded the butcher.

"A glass of beer," threw Elkin over his shoulder. He had walked to the window, and was gazing moodily at the sign of the "plumber and decorator" who had taken Siddle's shop. The village could not really support an out-and-out chemist, so a local grocer had elected to stock patent medicines as a side line.

Tomlin made play with a beer-pump.

"Where's yer own?" inquired Hobbs hospitably.

Elkin came and drank. After an interlude, Tomlin ran a finger down a column of the newspaper.

"By the way, Fred, didn't you tell me about that funny little chap, Furno, the 'tec, buyin' some pictures of yours?" he said.

"I did. Had him there, anyhow," chuckled Elkin.

"How much did you stick 'im for?"

"Three guineas."

"They can't ha' bin this lot, then, though I've a notion it wur the same name, 'Aylesbury Steeplechase.'"

"What are you talking about?"

"This."

Tomlin turned the paper, and Elkin read:

At their monthly art sale on Wednesday Messrs. Brown, Jenkins and Brown disposed of an almost unique set of colored prints, by F. Smyth, dated 1841. The series of six represented various phases of the long defunct Aylesbury Steeplechase, "The Start," "The Brook," "The In-and-Out," and so on to "The Finish." It is understood that this notable series, produced during the best period of the art, and at the very zenith of Smyth's fame, were acquired recently by a Sussex amateur at a low price. Bidding began at fifty guineas, and rose quickly to one hundred and twenty, at which figure Messrs. Carnioli and Bruschi became the owners.

Elkin read the paragraph twice, until the words burnt into his brain.

"No," he said thickly. "They're not mine. No such luck!"

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