A Mystery of the
by R. Austin
I HAVE occasionally wondered how often Mystery and Romance present
themselves to us ordinary men of affairs only to be passed by without
recognition. More often, I suspect than most of us imagine. The
uncanny tendency of my talented friend John Thorndyke to become
involved in strange, mysterious and abnormal circumstances has almost
become a joke against him. But yet, on reflection, I am disposed to
think that his experiences have not differed essentially from those of
other men, but that his extraordinary powers of observation and rapid
inference have enabled him to detect abnormal elements in what, to
ordinary men, appeared to be quite commonplace occurrences. Certainly
this was so in the singular Roscoff case, in which, if I had been
alone, I should assuredly have seen nothing to merit more than a
It happened that on a certain summer morning -- it was
the fourteenth of August, to be exact -- we were discussing this very
subject as we walked across the golf-links from Sandwich towards the
sea. I was spending a holiday in the old town with my wife, in order
that she might paint the ancient streets, and we had induced Thorndyke
to come down and stay with us for a few days. This was his last
morning, and we had come forth betimes to stroll across the sand-hills
It was a solitary place in those days. When we came off
the sand-hills on to the smooth, sandy beach, there was not a soul in
sight, and our own footprints were the first to mark the firm strip of
sand between high-water mark and the edge of the quiet surf.
We had walked a hundred yards or so when Thorndyke
stopped and looked down at the dry sand above tide-marks and then
along the wet beach.
'Would that be a shrimper?' he cogitated, referring to
some impressions of bare feet in the sand. 'If so, he couldn't have
come from Pegwell, for the River Stour bars the way. But he came out
of the sea and seems to have made straight for the sand-hills.'
'Then he probably was a shrimper,' said I, not deeply
'Yet,'said Thorndyke, 'it was an odd time for a
hrimper to be at work.'
'What was an odd time?' I demanded. 'When was he at
'He came out of the sea at this place,' Thorndyke
replied, glancing at his watch, 'at about half-past eleven last night,
or from that to twelve.'
'Good Lord, Thorndyke!' I exclaimed, 'how on earth do
you know that?'
'But it is obvious, Anstey,' he replied. 'It is now
half-past nine, and it will be high-water at eleven, as we ascertained
before we came out. Now, if you look at those footprints on the sand,
you see that they stop short -- or rather begin -- about two-thirds of
the distance from high-water mark to the edge of the surf. Since they
are visible and distinct, they must have been made after last
high-water. But since they do not extend to the water's edge, they
must have been made when the tide was going out; and the place where
they begin is the place where the edge of the surf was when the
footprints were made. But the place is, as we see, about an hour below
the high-water mark, Therefore, when the man came out of the sea, the
tide had been going down for an hour, roughly. As it is high-water at
eleven this morning, it was high-water at about ten-forty last night;
and as the man came out of the sea about an hour after high-water, he
must have come out at, or about, eleven-forty. Isn't that obvious?'
'Perfectly,' I replied, laughing. 'It is as simple as
sucking eggs when you think it out. But how the deuce do you manage
always to spot these obvious things at a glance? Most men would have
just glanced at those footprints and passed them without a second
'That', he replied, 'is a mere matter of habit; the
habit of trying to extract the significance of simple appearances.
It has become almost automatic with me.'
During our discussion we had been walking forward
slowly, straying on to the edge of the sand-hills. Suddenly, in a
hollow between the hills, my eye lighted upon a heap of clothes,
apparently, to judge by their orderly disposal, those of a bather.
Thorndyke also had observed them and we approached together and looked
down on them curiously.
'Here is another problem for you,' said I. 'Find the
bather. I don't see him anywhere.'
'You won't find him here,' said Thorndyke. 'These
clothes have been out all night. Do you see the little spider's web on
the boots with a few dewdrops still clinging to it? There has been no
dew forming for a good many hours. Let us have a look at the beach.'
We strode out through the loose sand and stiff, reedy
grass to the smooth beach, and here we could plainly see a line of
prints of naked feet leading straight down to the sea, but ending
abruptly about two-thirds of the way to the water's edge.
'This looks like our nocturnal shrimper,' said I. 'He
seems to have gone into the sea here and come out at the other place.
But if they are the same footprints, he must have forgotten to dress
before he went home. It is a quaint affair.'
'It is a most remarkable affair,' Thorndyke agreed;
'and if the footprints are not the same it will be still more
He produced from his pocket a small spring tape-measure
with which he carefully took the lengths of two of the most distinct
footprints and the length of the stride. Then we walked back along the
beach to the other set of tracks, two of which he measured in the same
'Apparently they are the same,' he said, putting away
his tape; 'indeed, they could hardly be otherwise. But the mystery is,
what has become of the man? He couldn't have gone away without his
clothes, unless he is a lunatic, which his proceedings rather suggest.
There is just the possibility that he went into the sea again and was
drowned. Shall we walk along towards Shellness and see if we can find
any further traces?'
We walked nearly half a mile along the beach, but the
smooth surface of the sand was everywhere unbroken. At length we
turned to retrace our steps; and at this moment I observed two men
advancing across the sand-hills. By the time we had reached the
mysterious heap of garments they were quite near, and, attracted no
doubt by the intentness with which we were regarding the clothes, they
altered their course to see what we were looking at. As they
approached, I recognized one of them as a barrister named Hallet, a
neighbour of mine in the Temple, whom I had already met in the town,
and we exchanged greetings.
'What is the excitement?' he asked, looking at the heap
of clothes and then glancing along the deserted beach; 'and where is
the owner of the togs? I don't see him anywhere.'
'That is the problem,' said I. 'He seems to have
'Gad!' exclaimed Hallett, 'if he has gone home without
his clothes, he'll create a sensation in the town! What?'
Here the other man, who carried a set of golf clubs,
stooped over the clothes with a look of keen interest.
'I believe I recognize these things, Hallett; in fact,
I am sure I do. That waistcoat, for instance. You must have noticed
that waistcoat. I saw you playing with the chap a couple of days ago.
Tall, clean-shaven, dark fellow. Temporary member, you know. What was
his name? Popoff, or something like that?'
'Roscoff,' said Hallett. 'Yes, by Jove, I believe you
are right. And now I come to think of it, he mentioned to me that he
sometimes came up here for a swim. He said he particularly liked a
paddle by moonlight, and I told him he was a fool to run the risk of
bathing in a lonely place like this, especially at night.'
'Well, that is what he seems to have done,' said
Thorndyke, 'for these clothes have certainly been here all night, as
you can see by that spider's web.'
'Then he has come to grief, poor beggar!' said Hallett;
'probably got carried away by the current. There is a devil of a tide
here on the flood.'
He started to walk towards the beach, and the other
man, dropping his clubs, followed.
'Yes,' said Hallett, 'that is what has happened. You
can see his footprints plainly enough going down to the sea; but there
are no tracks coming back.'
'There are some tracks of bare feet coming out of the
sea farther up the beach,' said I, 'which seem to be his.'
Hallett shook his head. 'They can't be his,' he said,
'for it is obvious that he never did come back. Probably they are the
tracks of some shrimper. The question is, what are we to do! Better
take his things to the dormy-house and then let the police know what
We went back and began to gather up the clothes, each
of us taking one or two articles.
'You were right, Morris,' said Hallett, as he picked up
the shirt. 'Here's his name, "P. Roscoff", and I see it is on the vest
and the shorts, too. And I recognize the stick now not that that
matters, as the clothes are marked.'
On our way across the links to the dormy-house mutual
introductions took place. Morris was a London solicitor, and both he
and Hallett knew Thorndyke by name.
'The coroner will have an expert witness,' Hallett
remarked as we entered the house. 'Rather a waste in a simple case
like this. We had better put the things in here.'
He opened the door of a small room furnished with a
good-sized table and a set of lockers, into one of which he inserted a
'Before we lock them up,' said Thorndyke, 'I suggest
that we make and sign a list of them and of the contents of the
pockets to put with them.'
'Very well,' agreed Hallett. 'You know the ropes in
these cases. I'll write down the descriptions, if you will call them
Thorndyke looked over the collection and first
enumerated the articles: a tweed jacket and trousers, light, knitted
wool waistcoat, black and yellow stripes, blue cotton shirt, net vest
and shorts, marked in ink 'P. Roscoff', brown merino socks, brown
shoes, tweed cap, and a walking-stick -- a mottled Malacca cane with a
horn crooked handle. When Hallett had written down this list,
Thorndyke laid the clothes on the table and began to empty the
pockets, one at a time, dictating the descriptions of the articles to
Hallett while Morris took them from him and laid them on a sheet of
newspaper. In the jacket pockets were a handkerchief, marked 'P.R.'; a
letter-case containing a few stamps, one or two hotel bills and local
tradesmen's receipts, and some visiting cards inscribed 'Mr. Peter
Roscoff, Bell Hotel, Sandwich'; a leather cigarette-case, a 3B pencil
fitted with a point-protector, and a fragment of what Thorndyke
decided to be vine charcoal.
'That lot is not very illuminating,' remarked Morris,
peering into the pockets of the letter-case. 'No letter or anything
indicating his permanent address. However, that isn't our concern.' He
laid aside the letter-case, and picking up a pocket-knife that
Thorndyke had just taken from the trousers pocket, examined it
curiously. 'Queer knife, that,' he remarked. 'Steel blade -- mighty
sharp, too -- nail file and an ivory blade. Silly arrangement, it
seems. A paperknife is more convenient carried loose, and you don't
want a handle to it.'
'Perhaps it was meant for a fruit-knife,' suggested
Hallett, adding it to the list and glancing at a little heap of silver
coins that Thorndyke had just laid down. 'I wonder', he added, 'what
has made that money turn so black. Looks! as if he had been taking
some medicine containing sulphur. What do you think, doctor?'
'It is quite a probable explanation,' replied
Thorndyke, 'though we haven't the means of testing it. But you notice
that this vesta-box from the other pocket is quite bright, which is
rather against your theory.'
He held out a little silver box bearing the engraved
monogram 'P.R.', the burnished surface of which contrasted strongly
with the dull brownish-black of the coins. Hallett looked at it with
an affirmative grunt, and having entered it in his list and added a
bunch of keys and a watch from the waistcoat pocket, laid down his
'That's the lot, is it?' said he, rising and beginning
to gather up the clothes. 'My word! Look at the sand on the table!
Isn't it astonishing how saturated with sand one's clothes become
after a day on the links here? When I undress at night, the bathroom
floor is like the bottom of a bird-cage. Shall I put the things in the
'I think', said Thorndyke, 'that, as I may have to give
evidence, I should like to look them over before you put them away.'
Hallett grinned. 'There's going to be some expert
evidence after all,' he said. 'Well, fire away, and let me know when
you have finished. I am going to smoke a cigarette outside.'
With this, he and Morris sauntered out, and I thought
it best to go with them, though I was a little curious as to my
colleague's object in examining these derelicts. However, my curiosity
was not entirely baulked, for my friends went no farther than the
little garden that surrounded the house, and from the place where we
stood I was able to look in through the window and observe Thorndyke's
Very methodical they were. First he laid on the table a
sheet of newspaper and on this deposited the jacket, which he examined
carefully all over, picking some small object off the inside near the
front, and giving special attention to a thick smear of paint which I
had noticed on the left cuff. Then, with his spring tape he measured
the sleeves and other principal dimensions. Finally, holding the
jacket upside down, he beat it gently with his stick, causing a shower
of sand to fall on the paper. He then laid the jacket aside, and,
taking from his pocket one or two seed envelopes (which I believe he
always carried), very carefully shot the sand from the paper into one
of them and wrote a few words on it -- presumably the source of the
sand -- and similarly disposing of the small object that he had picked
off the surface.
This rather odd procedure was repeated with the other
garments -- a fresh sheet of newspaper being used for each and with
the socks, shoes, and cap. The latter he examined minutely, especially
as to the inside, from which he picked out two or three small objects,
which I could not see, but assumed to be hairs. Even the walking-stick
was inspected and measured, and the articles from the pockets
scrutinized afresh, particularly the curious pocket-knife, the ivory
blade of which he examined on both sides through his lens.
Hallett and Morris glanced in at him from time to time
with indulgent smiles, and the former remarked:
'I like the hopeful enthusiasm of the real pukka
expert, and the way he refuses to admit the existence of the ordinary
and commonplace. I wonder what he has found out from those things. But
here he is. Well, doctor, what's the verdict? Was it temporary
insanity or misadventure?'
Thorndyke shook his head. 'The inquiry is adjourned
pending the production of fresh evidence,' he replied, adding: 'I have
folded the clothes up and put all the effects together in a paper
parcel, excepting the stick.'
When Hallett had deposited the derelicts in the locker,
he came out and looked across the links with an air of indecision.
'I suppose,' said he, 'we ought to notify the police.
I'll do that. When do you think the body is likely to wash up, and
'It is impossible to say,' replied Thorndyke. 'The set
of the current is towards the Thames, but the body might wash up
anywhere along the coast. A case is recorded of a bather drowned off
Brighton whose body came up six weeks later at Walton-on-the-Naze. But
that was quite exceptional. I shall send the coroner and the Chief
Constable a note with my address, and I should think you had better do
the same. And that is all that we can do, until we get the summons for
the inquest, if there ever is one.'
To this we all agreed; and as the morning was now spent
we walked back together across the links to the town, where we
encountered my wife returning homeward with her sketching kit. This
Thorndyke and I took possession of and having parted from Hallett and
Morris opposite the Barbican, we made our way to our lodgings in quest
of lunch. Naturally, the events of the morning were related to my wife
and discussed by us all, but I noted that Thorndyke made no reference
to his inspection of the clothes, and accordingly I said nothing about
the matter before my wife; and no opportunity of opening the subject
occurred until the evening, when I accompanied him to the station.
Then, as we paced the platform while waiting for his train, I put my
'By the way, did you extract any information from those
garments? I saw you going through them very thoroughly.'
'I got a suggestion from them,' he replied, 'but it is
such an odd one that I hardly like to mention it. Taking the
appearances at their face value, the suggestion was that the clothes
were not all those of the same man. There seemed to be traces of two
men, one of whom appeared to belong to this district, while the other
would seem to have been associated with the eastern coast of Thanet
between Ramsgate and Margate, and by preference, on the scale of
probabilities, to Dumpton or Broadstairs.'
'How on earth did you arrive at the localities?' I
'Principally,' he replied, 'by the peculiarities of the
sand which fell from the garments and which was not the same in all of
them. You see, Anstey,' he continued, 'sand is analogous to dust. Both
consist of minute fragments detached from larger masses; and just as,
by examining microscopically the dust of a room, you can ascertain the
colour and material of the carpets, curtains, furniture coverings, and
other textiles, detached particles of which form the dust of that
room, so, by examining sand, you can judge of the character of the
cliffs, rocks, and other large masses that occur in the locality,
fragments of which become ground off by the surf and incorporated in
the sand of the beach. Some of the sand from these clothes is very
characteristic and will probably be still more so when I examine it
under the microscope.'
'But', I objected, 'isn't there a fallacy in that line
of reasoning? Might not one man have worn the different garments at
different times and in different places?'
'That is certainly a possibility that has to be borne
in mind,' he replied. 'But here comes my train. We shall have to
adjourn this discussion until you come back to the mill.'
As a matter of fact, the discussion was never resumed,
for, by the time that I came back to 'the mill', the affair had faded
from my mind, and the accumulations of grist monopolized my attention;
and it is probable that it would have passed into complete oblivion
but for the circumstance of its being revived in a very singular
manner, which was as follows.
One afternoon about the middle of October my old
friend, Mr. Brodribb, a well-known solicitor, called to give me some
verbal instructions. When he had finished our business, he said:
'I've got a client waiting outside, whom I am taking up
to introduce to Thorndyke. You'd better come along with us.'
'What is the nature of your client's case?' I asked.
'Hanged if I know,' chuckled Brodribb. 'He won't say.
That's why I am taking him to our friend. I've never seen Thorndyke
stumped yet, but I think this case will put the lid on him. Are you
'I am, most emphatically,' said I, 'if your client
'He's not going to be asked,' said Brodribb. 'He'll
think you are part of the show. Here he is.'
In my outer office we found a gentlemanly, middle-aged
man to whom Brodribb introduced me, and whom he hustled down the
stairs and up King's Bench Walk to Thorndyke's chambers. There we
found my colleague earnestly studying a will with the aid of a
watchmaker's eye-glass, and Brodribb opened the proceedings without
'I've brought a client of mine, Mr. Capes, to see you)
Thorndyke. He has a little problem that he wants you to solve.'
Thorndyke bowed to the client and then asked:
'What is the nature of the problem?'
'Ah!' said Brodribb, with a mischievous twinkle,
'that's what you've got to find out. Mr. Capes is a somewhat reticent
Thorndyke cast a quick look at the client and from him
to the solicitor. It was not the first time that old Brodribb's high
spirits had overflowed in the form of a 'leg-pull', though Thorndyke
had no more whole-hearted admirer than the shrewd, facetious old
Mr. Capes smiled a deprecating smile. 'It isn't quite
so bad as that,' he said. 'But I really can't give you much
information. It isn't mine to give. I am afraid of telling someone
else's secrets, if I say very much.'
'Of course you mustn't do that,' said Thorndyke. 'But,
I suppose you can indicate in general terms the nature of your
difficulty and the kind of help you want from us.'
'I think I can,' Mr. Capes replied. 'At any rate, I
will try. My difficulty is that a certain person with whom I wish to
communicate has disappeared in what appears to me to be a rather
remarkable manner. When I last heard from him, he was staying at a
certain seaside resort and he stated in his letter that he was
returning on the following day to his rooms in London. A few days
later, I called at his rooms and found that he had not yet returned.
But his luggage, which he had sent on independently, had arrived on
the day which he had mentioned. So it is evident that he must have
left his seaside lodgings. But from that day to this I have had no
communication from him, and he has never returned to his rooms nor
written to his landlady.'
'About how long ago was this?' Thorndyke asked.
'It is just about two months since I heard from him.'
'You don't wish to give the name of the seaside resort
where he was staying.'
'I think I had better not,' answered Mr. Capes. 'There
are circumstances -- they don't concern me, but they do concern him
very much -- which seem to make it necessary for me to say as little
'And there is nothing further that you can tell us?'
'I am afraid not, excepting that, if I could get into
communication with him, I could tell him of something very much to his
advantage and which might prevent him from doing something which it
would be much better that he should not do.'
Thorndyke cogitated profoundly while Brodribb watched
him with undisguised enjoyment. Presently my colleague looked up and
addressed our secretive client.
'Did you ever play the game of "Clump", Mr. Capes?
It is a somewhat legal form of game in which one player asks questions
of the others, who are required to answer "yes" or "no" in the proper
'I know the game,' said Capes, looking a little
puzzled, 'but ----'
'Shall we try a round or two?' asked Thorndyke, with an
unmoved countenance. 'You don't wish to make any statements, but if I
ask you certain specific questions, will you answer "yes or no"?'
Mr. Capes reflected awhile. At length he said:
'I am afraid I can't commit myself to a promise. Still,
if you like to ask a question or two, I will answer them if I can.'
'Very well,' said Thorndyke, 'then, as a start,
supposing I suggest that the date of the letter that you received was
the thirteenth of August? What do you say? Yes or no?'
Mr. Capes sat bolt upright and stared at Thorndyke
'How on earth did you guess that?' he exclaimed in an
astonished tone. 'It's most extraordinary! But you are right. It was
dated the thirteenth.'
'Then,' said Thorndyke, 'as we have fixed the time we
will have a try at the place. What do you say if I suggest that the
seaside resort was in the neighbourhood of Broadstairs?'
Mr. Capes was positively thunderstruck. As he sat
gazing at Thorndyke he looked like amazement personified.
'But,' he exclaimed, 'you can't be guessing! You know!
You know that he was at Broadstairs. And yet, how could you? I haven't
even hinted at who he is.'
'I have a certain man in my mind,' said Thorndyke, 'who
may have disappeared from Broadstairs. Shall I suggest a few personal
Mr. Capes nodded eagerly and Thorndyke continued:
'If I suggest, for instance, that he was an artist -- a
painter in oil' -- Capes nodded again -- 'that he was somewhat
fastidious as to his pigments?'
'Yes,' said Capes. 'Unnecessarily so in my opinion, and
I am an artist myself. What else?'
'That he worked with his palette in his right hand and
held his brush with his left?'
'Yes, yes,' exclaimed Capes, half-rising from his
chair; 'and what was he like?'
'By gum,' murmured Brodribb, 'we haven't stumped him
Evidently we had not, for he proceeded:
'As to his physical characteristics, I suggest that he
was a shortish man -- about five feet seven -- rather stout, fair
hair, slightly bald and wearing a rather large and ragged moustache.'
Mr. Capes was astounded -- and so was I, for that
matter -- and for some moments there was a silence, broken only by old
Brodribb, who sat chuckling softly and rubbing his hands. At length
Mr. Capes said:
'You have described him exactly, but I needn't tell you
that. What I do not understand at all is how you knew that I was
referring to this particular man, seeing that I mentioned no name. By
the way, sir, may I ask when you saw him last?'
'I have no reason to suppose,' replied Thorndyke, 'that
I have ever seen him at all'; an answer that reduced Mr. Capes to a
state of stupefaction and brought our old friend Brodribb to the verge
of apoplexy. 'This man,' Thorndyke continued, 'is a purely
hypothetical individual whom I have described from certain traces left
by him. I have reason to believe that he left Broadstairs on the
fourteenth of August and I have certain opinions as to what became of
him thereafter. But a few more details would be useful, and I shall
continue my interrogation. Now this man sent his luggage on
separately. That suggests a possible intention of breaking his journey
to London. What do you say?'
'I don't know,' replied Capes, 'but I think it
'I suggest that he broke his journey for the purpose of
holding an interview with some other person.'
'I cannot say,' answered Capes, 'but if he did break
his journey it would probably be for that purpose.'
'And supposing that interview to have taken place,
would it be likely to be an amicable interview?'
'I am afraid not. I suspect that my -- er --
acquaintance might have made certain proposals which would have been
unacceptable, but which he might have been able to enforce. However,
that is only surmise,' Capes added hastily. 'I really know nothing
more than I have told you, except the missing man's name, and that I
would rather not mention.'
'It is not material,' said Thorndyke, 'at least, not at
present. If it should become essential, I will let you know.'
'M--yes,' said Mr. Capes. 'But you were saying that you
had certain opinions as to what has become of this person.'
'Yes,' Thorndyke replied; 'speculative opinions. But
they will have to be verified. If they turn out to be correct -- or
incorrect either -- I will let you know in the course of a few days.
Has Mr. Brodribb your address?'
'He has; but you had better have it, too.'
He produced his card, and, after an ineffectual effort
to extract a statement from Thorndyke, took his departure.
The third act of this singular drama opened in the same
setting as the first, for the following Sunday morning found my
colleague and me following the path from Sandwich to the sea. But we
were not alone this time. At our side marched Major Robertson, the
eminent dog trainer, and behind him trotted one of his superlatively
We came out on the shore at the same point as on the
former occasion, and turning towards Shellness, walked along the
smooth sand with a careful eye on the not very distinctive landmarks.
At length Thorndyke halted.
'This is the place,' said he. 'I fixed it in my mind by
that distant tree, which coincides with the chimney of that cottage on
the marshes. The clothes lay in that hollow between the two big
We advanced to the spot, but, as a hollow is useless as
a landmark, Thorndyke ascended the nearest sand-hill and stuck his
stick in the summit and tied his handkerchief to the handle.
'That,' he said, 'will serve as a centre which we can
keep in sight, and if we describe a series of gradually widening
concentric circles round it, we shall cover the whole ground
'How far do you propose to go?' asked the major.
We must be guided by the appearance of the ground,'
replied Thorndyke. 'But the circumstances suggest that if there is
anything buried, it can't be very far from where the clothes were
laid. And it is pretty certain to be in a hollow.'
The major nodded; and when he had attached a long leash
to the dog's collar, we started, at first skirting the base of the
sand-hill, and then, guided by our own footmarks in the loose sand,
gradually increasing the distance from the high mound, above which
Thorndyke's handkerchief fluttered in the light breeze. Thus we
continued, walking slowly, keeping close to the previously made circle
of footprints and watching the dog; who certainly did a vast amount of
sniffing, but appeared to let his mind run unduly on the subject of
In this way half an hour was consumed, and I was
beginning to wonder whether we were going after all to draw a blank,
when the dog's demeanour underwent a sudden change. At the moment we
were crossing a range of high sand-hills, covered with stiff, reedy
grass and stunted gorse, and before us lay a deep hollow, naked of
vegetation and presenting a bare, smooth surface of the characteristic
greyish-yellow sand. On the side of the hill the dog checked, and,
with upraised muzzle, began to sniff the air with a curiously
suspicious expression, clearly unconnected with the rabbit question.
On this, the major unfastened the leash, and the dog, left to his own
devices, put his nose to the ground and began rapidly to cast to and
fro, zig-zagging down the side of the hill and growing every moment
more excited. In the same sinuous manner he proceeded across the
hollow until he reached a spot near the middle; and here he came to a
sudden stop and began to scratch up the sand with furious eagerness.
'It's a find, sure enough!' exclaimed the major, nearly
as excited as his pupil; and, as he spoke, he ran down the hillside,
followed by me and Thorndyke, who, as he reached the bottom, drew from
his 'poacher's pocket' a large fern-trowel in a leather sheath. It was
not a very efficient digging implement, but it threw up the loose sand faster than the
scratchings of the dog.
It was easy ground to excavate. Working at the spot
that the dog had located, Thorndyke had soon hollowed out a small
cavity some eighteen inches deep. Into the bottom of this he thrust
the pointed blade of the big trowel. Then he paused and looked round
at the major and me, who were craning eagerly over the little pit.
'There is something there,' said he. 'Feel the handle
of the trowel.'
I grasped the wooden handle, and, working it gently up
and down, was aware of a definite but somewhat soft resistance. The
major verified my observation, and then Thorndyke resumed his digging,
widening the pit and working with increased caution. Ten minutes' more
careful excavation brought into view a recognizable shape -- a
shoulder and upper arm; and following the lines of this, further
diggings disclosed the form of a head and shoulders plainly
discernable though still shrouded in sand. Finally, with the point of
the trowel and a borrowed handkerchief -- mine -- the adhering sand
was cleared away; and then, from the bottom of the deep, funnel-shaped
hole, there looked up at us, with a most weird and horrible effect,
the discoloured face of a man.
In that face, the passing weeks had wrought inevitable
changes, on which I need not dwell. But the features were easily
recognizable, and I could see at once that the man corresponded
completely with Thorndyke's description. The cheeks were full; the
hair on the temples was of a pale, yellowish brown; a straggling, fair
moustache covered the mouth; and, when the sand had been sufficiently
cleared away, I could see a small, tonsure-like bald patch near the
back of the crown. But I could see something more than this. On the
left temple, just behind the eyebrow, was a ragged, shapeless wound
such as might have been made by a hammer.
'That turns into certainty what we have already
surmised,' said Thorndyke, gently pressing the scalp around the wound.
'It must have killed him instantly. The skull is smashed in like an
egg-shell. And this is undoubtedly the weapon,' he added, drawing out
of the sand beside the body a big, hexagon-headed screw-bolt, 'very
prudently buried with the body. And that is all that really concerns
us. We can leave the police to finish the disinterment; but you
notice, Anstey, that the corpse is nude with the exception of the vest
and probably the pants. The shirt has disappeared. Which is exactly
what we should have expected.'
Slowly, but with the feeling of something accomplished,
we took our way back to the town, having collected Thorndyke's stick
on the way. Presently, the major left us, to look up a friend at the
club house on the links. As soon as we were alone, I put in a demand
for an elucidation.
'I see the general trend of your investigations,' said
I 'but I can't imagine how they yielded so much detail; as to the
personal appearance of this man, for instance.'
'The evidence in this case,' he replied, 'was analogous
to circumstantial evidence. It depended on the cumulative effect of a
number of facts, each separately inconclusive, but all pointing to the
same conclusion. Shall I run over the data in their order and in
accordance with their connections?'
I gave an emphatic affirmative, and he continued:
'We begin, naturally, with the first fact, which is, of
course, the most interesting and important; the fact which arrests
attention, which shows that something has to be explained and possibly
suggests a line of inquiry. You remember that I measured the
footprints in the sand for comparison with the other footprints. Then
I had the dimensions of the feet of the presumed bather. But as soon
as I looked at the shoes which purported to be those of that bather, I
felt a conviction that his feet would never go into them.
'Now, that was a very striking fact -- if it really was
a fact -- and it came on top of another fact hardly less striking,
The bather had gone into the sea; and at a considerable distance he
had unquestionably come out again. Then, could be no possible doubt.
In foot-measurement an, length of stride the two sets of tracks were
indentical; and there were no other tracks. That man had come ashore
and he had remained ashore. But yet he had not put on his clothes. He
couldn't have gone away naked; but obviously he was not there. As a
criminal lawyer, you must admit that there was prima fade evidence of
something very abnormal and probably criminal.
On our way to the dormy-house, I carried the stick in
the same hand as my own and noted that it was very little shorter.
Therefore it was a tall man's stick. Apparently, then, the stick did
not belong to the shoes, but to the man who had made the footprints.
Then, when we came to the dormy-house, another striking fact presented
itself. You remember that Hallett commented on the quantity of sand
that fell from the clothes on to the table. I am astonished that he
did not notice the very peculiar character of that sand. It was
perfectly unlike the sand which would fall from his own clothes. The
sand on the sand-hills is dune sand -- wind-borne sand, or, as the
legal term has it, æolian sand; and it is perfectly
characteristic. As it has been carried by the wind, it is necessarily
fine. The grains are small; and as the action of the wind sorts them
out, they are extremely uniform in size. Moreover, by being
continually blown about and rubbed together, they become rounded by
mutual attrition. And then dune sand is nearly pure sand, composed of
grains of silica unmixed with other substances.
'Beach sand is quite different. Much of it is
half-formed, freshly broken down silica and is often very coarse; and,
as I pointed out at the time, it is mixed with all sorts of foreign
substances derived from masses in the neighbourhood. This particular
sand was loaded with black and white particles, of which the white
were mostly chalk, and the black particles of coal. Now there is very
little chalk in the Shellness sand, as there are no cliffs quite near,
and chalk rapidly disappears from sand by reason of its softness; and
there is no coal.'
'Where does the coal come from?' I asked.
'Principally from the Goodwins,' he replied. 'It is
derived from the cargoes of colliers whose wrecks are embedded in
those sands, and from the bunkers of wrecked steamers. This coal sinks
down through the seventy odd feet of sand and at last works out at the
bottom, where it drifts slowly across the floor of the sea in a north-
westerly direction until some easterly gale throws it up on the Thanet
shore between Ramsgate and Foreness Point. Most of it comes up at
Dumpton and Broadstairs, there you may see the poor people, in the
winter, gathering coal pebbles to feed their fires.
'This sand, then, almost certainly came from the Thanet
coast; but the missing man, Roscoff, had been staying in Sandwich,
playing golf on the sand-hills. This was another striking discrepancy,
and it made me decide to examine the clothes exhaustively, garment by
garment. I did so; and this is what I found.
'The jacket, trousers, socks and shoes were those of a
shortish, rather stout man, as shown by measurements, and the cap was
his, since it was made of the same cloth as the jacket and trousers.
'The waistcoat, shirt, underclothes and stick were
those of a tall man.
'The garments, socks and shoes of the short man were
charged with Thanet beach sand, and contained no dune sand, excepting
the cap, which might have fallen off on the sand-hills.
'The waistcoat was saturated with dune sand and
contained no beach sand, and a little dune sand was obtained from the
shirt and under-garments. That is to say, that the short man's clothes
contained beach sand only, while the tall man's clothes contained only
'The short man's clothes were all unmarked; the tall
man's clothes were either marked or conspicuously recognizable, as the
waistcoat and also the stick.
'The garments of the short man which had been left were
those that could not have been worn by a tall man without attracting
instant attention and the shoes could not have been put on at all;
whereas the garments of the short man which had disappeared -- the
waistcoat, shirt and underclothes -- were those that could have been
worn by a tall man without attracting attention. The obvious
suggestion was that the tall man had gone off in the short man's shirt
and waistcoat but otherwise in his own clothes.
'And now as to the personal characteristics of the
short man. From the cap I obtained five hairs. They were all blond,
and two of them were of the peculiar, atrophic, "point of exclamation"
type that grow at the margin of a bald area. Therefore he was a fair
man and partially bald. On the inside of the jacket, clinging to the
rough tweed, I found a single long, thin, fair moustache hair, which
suggested a long, soft moustache. The edge of the left cuff was
thickly marked with oil-paint-not a single smear, but an accumulation
such as a painter picks up when he reaches with his brush hand across
a loaded palette. The suggestion -- not very conclusive -- was that he
was an oil-painter and left-handed. But there was strong confirmation.
There was an artist's pencil -- 3B -- and a stump of vine charcoal
such as an oil-painter might carry. The silver coins in his pocket
were blackened with sulphide as they would be if a piece of artist's
soft, vulcanized rubber has been in the pocket with them. And there
was the pocket-knife. It contained a sharp steel pencil-blade, a
charcoal file and an ivory palette-blade; and that palette-blade had
been used by a left-handed man.'
'How did you arrive at that?' I asked.
'By the bevels worn at the edges,' he replied. 'An old
palette-knife used by a right-handed man shows a bevel of wear on the
under side of the left-hand edge and the upper side of the right-hand
edge; in the case of a left handed man the wear shows on the under
side of the right hand edge and the upper side of the left-hand edge.
This being an ivory blade, showed the wear very distinctly and proved
conclusively that the user was left-handed; and as an ivory
palette-knife is used only by fastidiously careful painters for such
pigments as the cadmiums, which might be discoloured by a steel blade,
one was justified in assuing that he was somewhat fastidious as to his
As I listened to Thorndyke's exposition I was
profoundly impressed. His conclusions, which had sounded like mere
speculative guesses, were, I now realized, based upon an analysis of
the evidence as careful and as impartial as the summing up of a judge.
And these conclusions he had drawn instantaneously from the
appearances of things that had been before my eyes all the time and
from which I had learned nothing.
'What do you suppose is the meaning of the affair?' I
asked presently. 'What was the motive of the murder?'
'We can only guess,' he replied. 'But, interpreting
Capes' hints, I should suspect that our artist friend was a
blackmailer; that he had come over here to squeeze Roscoff -- perhaps
not for the first time -- and that his victim lured him out on the
sand-hills for a private talk and then took the only effective means
of ridding himself of his persecutor. That is my view of the case;
but, of course, it is only surmise.'
Surmise as it was, however, it turned out to be
literally correct. At the inquest Capes had to tell all that he knew,
which was uncommonly little, though no one was able to add to it. The
murdered man, Joseph Bertrand, had fastened on Roscoff and made a
regular income by blackmailing him. That much Capes knew; and he knew
that the victim had been in prison and that that was the secret. But
who Roscoff was and what was his real name -- for Roscoff was
apparently a nom de guerre -- he had no idea. So he could not help the
police. The murderer had got clear away and there was no hint as to
where to look for him; and so far as I know, nothing has ever been
heard of him since.