Peerage Case by
IT was through the merest coincidence that Skin o' my Tooth got mixed
up with this remarkable case, which brought him suddenly into such
great prominence before the public, and was really the foundation-stone
of his subsequent more fortunate career. In those days — it seems very
long ago now — money was often very tight at the Finsbury Square
office; it was spent as soon as earned, for Skin o' my Tooth never
learnt its value, principally, I think, because be never exerted
himself to earn it. The gentle art of self-advertisement was totally
unknown to him, even in its most elementary stages, and had I not made
friends with the sub-editor of the Surrey Post, and got him to insert
that excellent puff, beginning: "Mr. Patrick Mulligan, the most eminent
and learned lawyer on criminal cases, is now in our midst," etc., etc.,
no doubt the Duffield Peerage Case would have drifted into other far
less competent hands, and Heaven only knows what the upshot of it all
would have been.
We bad gone down to Guildford in connection with the Wingfield Will
Case, and finding the sweet little Surrey town peculiarly attractive,
Skin o' my Tooth had decided to stay on for a few days, and, tinder the
pretence that he would feel lonely, he insisted on my remaining with
him. We had spent a week of delightful idleness, and my chief had
devoured a large supply of his favourite French novels, when the murder
of Mr. Sibbald Thursby, a noted solicitor of Guildford, threw the whole
town into a veritable state of uproar. From the very first the wildest
rumours were circulated on the subject of this appalling tragedy, and
it became really difficult to sift the real facts from the innumerable
surmises and embellishments indulged in by, the imaginative reporter of
the Surrey Post. The truth however, as far as I ultimately succeeded in
gathering it for the benefit of my chief, who seemed interested in the
case, was briefly this: —
Mr. Sibbald Thursby had an office where he transacted his business
in Guildford High Street, but he lived in a tiny house just outside the
town, on the Dorking Road; his household consisting of himself and a
man and his wife named Upjohn, who shared the duties of cook, gardener,
maid and man of all works between them. On Friday last the Upjohns went
upstairs to bed as usual at 9.30 o'clock, leaving their master at work
in his study on the ground floor. This room had windows opening out on
to the small garden at the back, and a little conservatory leading to
it. Mr. Thursby always bolted the windows and locked the conservatory
the last thing before going to bed. The Upjohns heard someone knocking
at the front door some ten minutes after they went upstairs, but both
having already got into bed, they seem to have been too lazy to get up.
Whether Mr. Thursby himself let his belated visitor in or not, they
could not say, for they heard nothing, and very soon were both sleeping
the sleep of the just.
But next morning, when Mrs. Upjohn went into the study, she was
horrified to find her master lying on his side across the threshold of
the conservatory door; his clothes — the clothes he was wearing the
night before — were covered with blood, his face was obviously that of
the dead. Upjohn, summoned by his wife's screams, quickly ran into
Guildford for the doctor and the and the police: the former pronounced
life to be extinct, Mr. Thursby's throat having been cut from ear to
ear, obviously with the short, curve-bladed knife found in the
conservatory. There had been no time even for a short struggle for his
life on the part of the unfortunate solictor. According to the theory
immediately formed by the police, he had been attacked with
extraordinary suddenness and fury; practically at the very moment when
he was opening the conservatory door in order to let the assassin in.
The latter must at once have gripped his victim by the throat,
smothering his screams, and only used the knife when the poor man was
already senseless. In failing backwards, Thursby had seized the
portière curtain and dragged it down with him in his fall, otherwise
nothing was disturbed in the room. The windows were found carefully
bolted; the lamp even had been extinguished. The few little articles of
silver and bits of valuable china in the cabinets were left untouched;
the unfortunate man's watch and chain, the loose cash in his pocket,
were found intact; and to the police the crime seemed as purposeless as
it was mysterious.
At the inquest, which was held on the following Tuesday, a verdict
of "Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown" was returned,
and the public had perforce to rest satisfied that everything was being
done to throw light upon this tragic and awful affair. But gradually a
rumour, more persistent and positive, and less vague than others, began
to find general credence. The Surrey Post had brought the news that a
lady — a stranger to Guildford — had gone to the police to request the
return of certain papers which had been in the charge of Mr. Sibbald
Thursby, and for which she held a receipt signed by him. Rumour went on
to assert that a search was made for these papers, and that they had
not been found, but that one of the constables, when he was carefully
surveying the room where Mr. Thursby was murdered, had discovered a
handful of ashes of burned papers in the grate. Twenty- four hours
later, the news had spread throughout England like wildfire that the
lady whose papers had so unaccountably disappeared claimed to be the
lawful wife of the Earl of Duffield, and that those papers were of
paramount importance to the legal aspect of her claim and that of her
Skin o' my Tooth had stayed on at Guildford all these days, chiefly
because the case interested him from the very first; with his unerring
instinct in criminal matters, he had scented a mysterious complication,
long before the many rumours anent the lady claimant had taken definite
"I imagine Lord Duffield won't enjoy this washing of all his family
linen in public, which seems to me quite inevitable," he said to me one
morning, when he had read his Surrey Post.
We had just finished the excellent breakfast provided by the Crown
Hotel, and Skin o' my Tooth had suggested the advisability of my
running up to town to get him a batch of French novels, when one of the
waiters came up to our table, with a great air of importance and
mystery, and holding a card upon a salver.
"His Lordship is in his carriage," he murmured with the respect
befitting so important an event, "and desires to have a few minutes'
interview with Mr. Mulligan."
I glanced at the card, which bore the name "The Earl of Duffield,"
while Skin o' my Tooth quietly intimated to the waiter that he would
see his Lordship in the sitting-room.
Lord Duffield was a stout, florid, jovial-looking man of about
fifty, decidedly military and precise in his dress and general bearing,
but at the present moment obviously labouring under a strong emotion
which he was making vigorous efforts to conceal.
"Mr. Mulligan, I believe," he said.
"That is my name," replied Skin o' my Tooth. "To what can I ascribe
the honour of this visit?"
"I read your name in the local papers, Mr. Mulligan, but of course
I had heard of you before, in connection — er — with criminal cases.
The present instance — but," he added, looking somewhat dubiously at my
humble personality, "this gentleman ——?"
"My confidential clerk, Lord Duffield. You need have no fear of
speaking before him."
Satisfied on that point, Lord Duffield sat down, then he said
"It is about this murder of Sibbald Thursby. The turn this affair
has taken forces me to place the matter, as far as I am concerned, into
the hands of a lawyer. Our own family solicitor is too old and has
never had any experience of this sort; whereas you ——"
"I am entirely at your disposal."
"To make the matter clear to you, I shall have to take you back
some thirty years, when I, a young subaltern in a Line regiment
quartered in Simla, had no prospects of ever inheriting this title and
property. When I was barely twenty, I fell in love, like the young fool
I was, with a noted beauty of Simla, a Miss Patricia O'Rourke, whose
reputation already at that time was none too enviable. After a brief
courtship, I married her, in the very teeth of strenuous opposition on
the part of all my friends; and less than six months after my marriage
I had undoubted proofs that Miss O'Rourke was of more evil character
than even Simla had suspected, for at the time she married me she had a
husband still living — a man named Henry Mitchell, as great a
blackguard, I believe, as ever trod the earth.
"Half crazy with grief and the humiliation of it all, I at last
succeeded in obtaining sick leave, and soon sailed for England
determined, if possible, to turn my back for ever on the woman who had
blighted my life, and on the scene of my folly and my shame.
"Well, Mr. Mulligan, I dare say that experience has taught you that
grief at twenty is soon forgotten. Within a year of that saddest period
of my life, my uncle, the late Earl of Duffield, lost his only son, and
I became his heir. He obtained for me an exchange into the Coldstream
Guards, and soon after that I married Miss Angela Hutton, the daughter
of America's great copper king. The following year my uncle died, I
inherited the title and property, and then my son Oswald was born, and
I became a widower.
"In the meanwhile, Miss O'Rourke, or Mrs. Mitchell, had disappeared
from Simla. No one knew where she had gone to; some of my friends
thought that she was dead.
"I was obliged to tell you all this, Mr. Mulligan," resumed Lord
Duffield after a slight pause, "so that you may better understand my
position at the present moment. Remember that I have been during all
these years under the firm impression that my marriage with Patricia
O'Rourke was an illegal one, and that our son born of that union was
not legitimate. I had what I considered ample proofs that Henry
Mitchell was alive at the time that she married me. When I taxed her
with the crime of bigamy, she not only not deny it, but calmly told me
to go my way if I liked. Now, after thirty years she has once more
appeared upon the arena of my life. Not only that, but she has come
forward with a claim — a strong claim for herelf and her son. She has
obtained affidavits, sworn to by people of unimpeachable position
testifying to the death of Henry Mitchell in Teheran — where he had
settled down in business — three clear days before her marriage to me.
"After thirty years?" commented Skin o' my Tooth in astonishment.
"She went to see Sibbald Thursby, who, as you know, perhaps, was
the most noted lawyer in Guildford. He was a very old and very intimate
friend of mine. She put all the facts before him and showed him all her
papers. He came and told me himself that the affidavits were perfectly
en rèqle, duly signed and witnessed by the British Consul in Teheran;
one had been sworn by Dr. Smollett, a leading English medical man, who
attended on Henry Mitchell in his last illness."
"But why thirty years?"
"Well, it appears that she had all along been morally convinced
that Henry Mitchell had died before our marriage; but she had lost
trace of him for some months, and had been unable to obtain the
necessary proofs to convince me of his death. However, when I left her,
she resolutely set to work to obtain these proofs; but by the time she
had succeeded, some years had elapsed, and she also had lost sight of
me. She did not know that Lieutenant Adrian Payton had become the Earl
of Duffield, you see. A mere accident revealed this fact to her, and,
immediately realising her duty to her son, she then set sail for
"Mr. Thursby, I understand, as a lawyer, thought well of the lady's
"He thought that there could be no two opinions on the subject."
"There usually are, though, in law," said Skin o' my Tooth, with a
"Yes! And you may be sure that I did not mean to allow my son
Oswald to lose his rights and become nameless without a struggle. But
Sibbald Thursby had shown me the affidavits which my wife — I suppose I
must call her that — had given in his charge, and I am bound to confess
that her case seemed remarkably clear. Still, I meant to fight to the
bitter end — then ——"
"Then? And now?"
"Now? Have you forgotten what has happened? Sibbald Thursby has
been murdered, and those same papers have been stolen or destroyed."
"Acccording to you, by whom?" asked Skin o' my Tooth quietly.
"Ah! Heaven only knows! Look at me, Mr. Mulligan. Am I capable of
such a crime? And yet public opinion has already built a veritable
scaffolding of base insinuations against me and my son Oswald. My wife
has gathered round her a veritable army of partisans; the London papers
utter scarcely veiled accusations, and the people of this county cut me
in the street."
"But what about your son, Viscount Dottridge, I mean?"
"What about him, Mr. Mulligan? I tell you there is an infamous
conspiracy against him. He went out on the afternoon preceding Sibbald
Thursby's death to pay a visit to some friends about twenty miles the
other side of Guildford. He was on his bicycle, and rode home late in
the evening. Just outside Guildford his tyre punctured badly; he was
still five miles from Duffield, so he elected to have that puncture
mended in the town sooner than walk his machine home. He left his
bicycle at Rashleigh's, in the High Street, then thought he would kill
time by having a chat with Sibbald Thursby. He went round to "The
Cottage." It was then a little before ten. He knocked at the front
door, but receiving no answer, he went away again and went for a stroll
in the lanes until his machine was mended. He called for it at
Rashleigh's at a quarter past ten; it was then ready, and he rode
"Yes. And ——?"
"And while he stood for a moment irresolute upon Sibbald Thursby's
doorstep, a couple of workmen saw him, and have informed the police of
this fact. If you have read the local paper this morning, Mr. Mulligan,
you will have noticed that they announce 'Sensational Developments in
the Guildford Mystery.' That sensation will be, I take it, that my son
Oswald will be accused of having murdered Sibbald Thursby, in order to
destroy the papers which would have robbed him of his inheritance."
"Of which crime you assert that he is innocent. Pray do not
misunderstand me. Mine is at present an open mind; I have only followed
the case very superficially. Since you have honoured me with your
confidence, I will, of course, go very fully into the matter. Your
position from a legal point of view is secure for the moment. Failing
the proofs that Henry Mitchell was dead at the time of your marriage
with Miss Patricia O'Rourke, your proofs that he only died after the
marriage hold good and make your position unassailable. In that way,
the murderer of Mr. Sibbald Thursby has certainly done you — or,
rather, your son — a good turn, for the lady may perhaps never succeed
in getting her proofs together again. Teheran is such a long way off,
and the creditable English witnesses are probably dead or dispersed by
now. But, of course, there is public opinion, and no doubt you yourself
cannot estimate at the present moment how far it will force your hand."
Lord Duffield groaned.
"At present," he said, "I only seem to care about the danger to my
"Quite so; and if you will allow me, I will now at once see the
detective-inspector in charge of the case, and you may rest assured
that everything that can be done, will be done to throw daylight upon
these unfortunate events."
Lord Duffield seemed as if he would like to prolong the interview.
He looked to me as if he had something on his mind which he could not
bring himself to tell, even to his lawyer. Skin o' my Tooth, with his
keen insight, also noted the struggle, I am sure, for he waited
silently for a moment or two. However, after a brief pause, Lord
Duffield rose, shook hands with my chief, nodded to me, and with a few
parting instructions he finally left the room.
I DON'T suppose that even Lord Duffield realised how very strong
public opinion was already against him in this matter. The lady — small
blame to her — had made it her business to let the whole town know the
full history of her case, and I must my that, as it now stood, it did
not redound to the credit of the noble lord and his son. The
detective-inspector, on whom Skin o' my Tooth called that same
afternoon, was quite convinced that Lord Duffield and his son had
planned and executed the destruction of the documents. The murder, he
admitted, might not have been intended, but merely committed as an act
of self-defence, when the noble thieves had found their friend awake
and alert, instead of in bed, as they had supposed. There was no doubt
that Viscount Dottridge was seen to loiter round "The Cottage" at about
ten o'clock at night. The Upjohns were firm in their statement that
they had heard a noise at the front door at about that time. The theory
of the police was that the young man had then gone round to the garden
and tried conservatory door; Mr. Thursby, hearing a noise, had gone to
see what the noise was, and was probably gripped by the throat before
he could utter a scream.
"Personally, Mr. Mulligan, I have very litle doubt that his
Lordship was in this game, somehow," concluded the detective-inspector
at the end of our interview with him; but I think you will agree with
me that the position is remarkably difficult. What in the world am I to
do? Duty is duty, and there must not be one law for the rich and
another for the poor. The matter can't be hushed up now. Lady Duffield
— I suppose she is that, really — won't allow the matter to rest. As
long as she remains in the country, she will keep public opinion well
stirred up. I wish she could be persuaded to leave the matter alone
now. Even if we succeed in proving a charge of murder against Viscount
Dottridge, it won't give her son any better chance to make good his
claim, will it, sir?"
"Certainly not," replied Skin o' my Tooth; "and you have put the
matter in a nutshell. As you say, it would be far better if the lady
vacated the place and left you a free hand to hush up the scandal or
not, according to the discretion of your chiefs."
It was clear from this interview that the detective-inspector did
not know how to act. Torn between his respect for the title and
position of the Earl of Duffield, and his own sense of duty in view of
the many proofs in favour of Viscount Dottridae's guilt, he was
certainly inclined to wait, at any rate until public opinion literally
forced the hand of his chiefs.
But in the meanwhile, Skin o' my Tooth had announced to me his
intention of seeing the lady who seemed to be the real centre of the
many tragic events of the past few days.
We walked round to the "Duffield Arms," where we understood that
she was staying, and two minutes later we were shown into the private
sitting- room which she occupied at the hotel.
I must say that I looked with some interest at the woman round whom
such exciting events seemed to have gathered. Though she must have been
nearly fifty years of age certainly, there was even now a wonderful
amount of fascination about her entire personality, and a power of
magic in her blue eyes. Her son, whom she introduced to us as Viscount
Dottridge, was with her when we came into the room, and it was quite
impossible not to be struck immediately with the distinct resemblance
which he bore to his father. Legally or not, this young man was
undoubtedly the son of the Earl of Duffield — Nature had taken special
care to prove that fact, at any rate; and my sympathies immediately
went out to him and to his beautiful mother, for there was no doubt
that Luck had treated them very roughly.
She received my chief very graciously, and, bidding him be seated,
she listened with a smile to what I may term the presentation of his
"I am Lord Duffield's legal adviser in this matter," he said; "but
I think I may safely say that I am the friend of both parties. Whilst I
serve my client to the best of my ability, I have every desire —
believe me - - to be of service to you and to your son."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I have been a fool, Mr. Mulligan," she said. "I ought never to
have parted with those papers. Now I fear that no one can help me."
"Surely you are wrong. There is no reason why the lost papers
should not be replaced. It certainly may take some years and ——"
"Money," she interrupted impatiently, "which I have not got. Those
who murdered Mr. Thursby and stole the papers knew what they were
about. They have left me absolutely helpless; and even if the
perpetrator of the dastardly outrage were punished with the full rigour
of the law, I should still see my son ousted from his rights."
"Would you mind telling me the exact contents of the papers you
considered most valuable to the furtherance of your cause?"
I thought she looked at him a little suspiciously then; but
evidently reassured by his genial smile, she said —
"There were two sworn statements made — one by a Dr. Smollett, who
was a well-known English doctor in Teheran, the other by an English
nurse named Dawson; both these persons were with Henry Mitchell at the
time of his death, and remembered all the circumstances connected with
it. Dr. Smollett is dead now. As for the nurse, I have lost sight of
her for ten years; it is very doubtful if I could ever trace her."
"But surely these statements were made before the resident British
Consul at Teheran?"
"Oh, yes! of course they were. Sir William Courteen was Consul at
the time. He subsequently became Governor of the Gold Coast, and died,
if you remember, some three years ago."
"Fate has indeed dealt harshly with you," murmured Skin o' my Tooth
with genuine sympathy.
"To tell you the truth, it never struck me at first that Lord
Duffield would contest my just rights. When I understood that Mr.
Thursby was a personal friend of my husband's, I left my papers in his
hands, thinking that no doubt he would show them to Lord Duffield, who,
feeling the unimpeachable justice of my claim, would resign himself to
the inevitable and give willingly to my son, and his, what, after all,
is his due."
"That being a very unlikely contingency now, Lady Duffield, might I
ask you what you intend to do?"
"Failing my rights, Mr. Mulligan, which I suppose from what you say
will now never be granted to me, I can always fall back on that barren
enjoyment — revenge. Yes, revenge!" she added with sudden vehemence.
"He would deprive me of my position and leave my son nameless? I tell
you, Mr. Mulligan, that with Heaven's help I will so rouse public
feeling against him that, when his son has been hanged for the murder
of Sibbald Thursby, he in his turn will have to flee this country as a
pariah and an outcast, for no honest man henceforth will shake him by
She had spoken with so much vindictive fury that I felt a cold
shiver creeping down my back. Skin o'my Tooth, smiling blandly, was
obviously smitten by the fire of her magnificent blue eyes.
"I think," he said, "you will reconsider your very severe mandate."
"Surely, if my client realised that you had certain undoubted claim
upon him — I only speak without prejudice; but you have a son, and
revenge, though sweet, might not prove very useful in his career."
"I never looked upon it in that light," she said coldly, and rising
from her chair, as if she wished to end the interview.
"You would not care to name a figure?" suggested Skin o' my Tooth
insinuatingly — "without prejudice ——"
For the first time during the interview she turned to her son and
seemed to consult him with a look, but he shook his head very
"Not now," she said to Skin o' my Tooth, and then, with a charming
smile, she intimated that she wished the interview to cease.
"You will, in any case, always find me at your service," concluded
my chief blandly, as we finally took our leave.
AS the days wore on, the mystery the Guildford tragedy seemed to
deepen more and more. We had another interview with Lord Duffield, at
which his son — the only son he would acknowledge — was present, and I
must say that seeing those two men, typical of the English,
counry-bred, but high-born gentlemen, it was almost impossible to
conceive that they could lend their hand to the dastardly murder of an
old friend. Skin o' my Tooth had received overtures on the part of the
claimants, who seemed to have finally realised that revenge was but
sorry pleasure, and expressed themselves ready to accept a monetary
compromise in return for their permanent residence out of England.
To my intense astonishment Lord Duffield fell in readily with this
arrangement, which, after all, was nothing but a bribe, and first gave
me the idea that perhaps he and his son had something on their
conscience. It is quite certain that a constrained feeling seemed to
exist between father and son. Undoubtedly I often caught Lord Dottridge
casting furtive glances at his father, and once or twice Lord Duffield
looked long and searchingly at his son, then sighed and turned his head
I don't pretend to any deep insight into human nature, but it
certainly struck me that these two men had begun almost to suspect one
another. And no wonder! Who else but they had any interest in
destroying the papers which would have made good the cause of the
claimants? And I had seen the detective- inspector that morning, and
knew that the police, forced into it by public opinion, egged on by the
claimants, and convinced that they held sufficient proofs, had at last
decided to apply for a warrant for the arrest of Viscount Dottridge.
That same afternoon Skin o' my Tooth at last obtained leave to go
over "The Cottage." The police — who always resent outside interference
in such matters — had so far on some pretext or other, always refused
permission. But my chief was on his mettle. Lord Duffield had promised
him £10,000 if he succeeded in elucidating the mystery and in averting
the disgrace which threatened him and his son. To-day, at last, Skin o'
my Tooth was able, not only to make a vigorous effort towards obtaining
that substantial reward, but also to indulge his passion for ferreting
out the mysteries which lurk around a crime. I don't think I ever
remember seeing his weird faculties more fully in evidence than over
the elucidation of the Guildford tragedy — that faculty which literally
made him feel the criminal before he held any clue to his guilt.
The late Mr. Sibbald Thursby had been buried the day after the
inquest, but in his house everything had been left just as it was the
night of the appalling tragedy. The Upjohns had gone, refusing to sleep
another night in a place where so terrible a murder had been committed,
and as we let ourselves in by the front door our footsteps echoed
weirdly within the deserted house. We were accompanied by two
constables who, however, took but little interest in Skin o' my Tooth's
wild ramblings through the tiny garden, the conservatory, and the
study. It seemed as if he expected the ground to give him the final key
to the mystery, of which he already had studied the lock; he was
walking along with his eyes glued to the floor, his hands buried in the
capacious pockets of his ill-fitting coat, and every now and then I
could hear him muttering to himself —
"There must be a bit, only a bit — there always is."
Then at last he seemed to have found what he wanted, for he darted
forward towards a fine large palm, all dead and dry now for want of
water, which stood in an ornamental pot close to the grate. Inside the
pot, and covered with dust and mud, there glimmered a piece of paper.
Skin o' my Tooth seized it as if it had been a most precious piece of
jewellery; then furtively he thrust it in his pocket, and signed to me
to hold my tongue, as the constables had just come into the room.
After this short episode, Skin o' my Tooth expressed himself
satisfied with all he had seen, and together we returned to the hotel.
Once alone in the privacy of our sitting-room, he took the dirty
piece of treasure from his pocket, carefully knocked the dust out of
it, and then spread it out smoothly before him on the table.
"You mayn't think it, Muggins," he said, but this piece of dirty
paper is worth an earldom and a good many other things besides,
including the life of a man, who without this wee scrap would very
probably have ended on the gallows. It is also worth £10,000 to me."
Eagerly I looked over his shoulder. The scrap of paper was about
the size of my hand, and had obviously been torn off another larger
sheet. The words I could decipher were: " . . . ry Mitchell . . .
anuary 22nd, 1871 . . . my presence," and lower down, what was
evidently a signature written in a different hand, " . . . nor Dawson."
"And what is it, sir?" I asked.
"What an ass you are, Muggins!" he said impatiently. "Can't you see
that this is all that is left of one of the affidavits which proved
that Henry Mitchell died on the 22nd of January, 1871, or three days
before Adrian Payton married Patricia O'Rourke? The sianature is that
of the nurse Dawson, who swore this particular affidavit."
"But it's no use in this state, is it, sir?"
"Oh, yes, Muggins. An affidavit is always useful, even in this
condition. You look out a train for me. Early to-morrow morning I am
going up to town with this scrap of paper."
He would not tell me anything more then, and the next morning he
went up to town and stayed away all day. I saw the detective-inspector
in the afternoon, who told me that the warrant for the arrest of Lord
Dottridge was actually out, but that he had had a wire in the morning
from Scotland Yard "to await further instruebions."
"I fancy," he added with a grin, "that Mr. Mulligan has not
deserved his nickname this time. He can't get Lord Dottridge out of
this hole, not even by the skin of his teeth."
In the evening, however, Skin o' my Tooth came home, dead tired and
triumphant. I met him at the station, and together we immediately
proceeded to the police-station.
"I have been waiting to see you, Mr. Mulligan," said the inspector.
"We cannot delay any longer, and to-night we must execute the warrant
against Lord Dottridge."
"You can throw that warrant into the fire, inspector," replied Skin
o' my Tooth quietly, "and to-morrow you can apply for another. You'll
have to be pretty quick, too, as I fancy your game smells a rat already
and may yet slip through your fingers;"
"What do you mean?"
"Only this. When you kindly allowed me to view the scene of the
interesting murder case you have had on hand, it was my good fortune to
come across this interesting document."
And Skin o' my Tooth once more carefully unfolded that dirty scrap
of paper on which he had set such store.
What in the world is this?" asked the inspector.
"That is the very question put to me under the same circumstances
by my clerk, Mr. Alexander Stanislaus Mullins. The paper, inspector, is
all that is left of one of the affidavits which were to prove the
legality of certain claims made by a charming lady and her son. You
will notice the signature, ' . . . nor Dawson.' I may tell you that the
lady in question had lost sight since ten years of nurse Dawson, who
attended upon her husband in his last illness. This illness occurred
thirty years ago. We have no official knowledge as to when this
affidavit was filed, beyond the fact that it was more than years ago;
but if you will examine very carefully the paper on which it was
written, you will notice a remarkably interesting fact."
And Skin o' my Tooth held up that dirty scrap of paper against the
lamp, allowing the light to show through it. In the extreme corner, the
water-mark, "C. Sons," became clearly visible.
"Looking through the list of English paper-makers," continued my
chief, quietly pointing at this with his thick finger, "I came across
the name of Clitheroe and Sons, of 29, Tooley Street, London. This
afternoon I interviewed the manager of that firm, who informed me that
the lettering of the water-mark in this particular bit of paper
indicated that it was manufactured by Clitheroe and Sons in 1899."
"I don't understand," gasped the inspector, staring with all his
might first at the dirty bit of paper and then at the unwieldy, bulky
figure of Skin o' my Tooth, as he quietly revealed the key to the
mystery which had so long puzzled the astute detective.
"Yet it is very simple," he said, with one of his bland smiles.
"Personally, I had suspected it all along, from the moment that I first
saw Lord Duffield and his son, and realised that they had — if I may so
express it — not the brains to carry out so daring, a crime
successfully. Had that very amiable, but not otherwise brilliant, young
man committed that murder, believe me, he would have left plenty of
evidence of his guilt. The the fact that you yourself, in spite of your
acumen, had been unable to really bring the crime home to him, showed
me that a cleverer head than his, and a subtler mind, had been at work:
but until you favoured me with a permission to view "The Cottage," I
had not a single indication on which to work. When I first saw the
lady, I realised that hers might have been the head; my instinct told
me that her son's was the hand; but there seemed such a total lack of
motive, the whole theory seemed so topsy-turvy, that I hesitated even
to follow it up. Then you courteously allowed me to view the scene on
which the crime itself was committed. At once the fact struck me very
forcibly that whoever had come on that fateful night to steal the
affidavits knew where to lay his hand on them. Nothing in the room or
in the desk had been disturbed, and yet obviously the murderer would
turn down lamp as low as possible immediately his nefarious deed was
done, lest the light from windows should reveal his presence. Then,
again, you know, no doubt as well as I do, how seldom it is that a
murderer does not leave a single trace or clue behind him. That is most
fortunate in the cause of justice, otherwise many crimes would remain
unpunished. I reckoned in this instance that a man after committing
what I presupposed would be his first crime, would necessarily have his
nerves very much on the jar. His hand, presumably, would shake, and in
tearing up the papers by the very much subdued light of the lamp, and
in the presence, of his victim lying dead on the door it is impossible,
I say, that some scrap should not have escaped his trembling hands —
you know how paper flutters — and lodged itself momentarily out of
sight, ready to reappear as a damning witness against him."
The inspector was silent. I could see that he was hanging
breathless upon Skin o' my Tooth's lips. And I, too, saw it all now
before me, even before my chief gave us the final explanation of his
"In ascertaining the fact that this paper was manufactured two
years ago, whilst purporting to have been written on and signed more
than ten years previously, it became clear to me that the affidavits
setting forth Miss Patricia O'Rourke's, alias Mrs. Henry Mitchell's,
claim were a pack of forgeries. From this conclusion to the
understanding of her clever plan was but a quick mental problen. After
all, it was simple enough. Having forged the documents, she entrusted
them to Sibbald Thursby. Then her son chose his opportunity, the best
he could find, to steal and destroy them. After that she hoped so to
rouse public indignation against Lord Duffield by openly accusing him
of the theft that he would either throw up the sponge altogether and
recognise her rights, or at worst pay her a handsome compensation to
clear out of the country and leave him alone. Remember, she all but
succeeded. You yourself suggested this alternative as the simplest
solution of the difficulty, and Lord Duffield was quite ready to fall
in with these views."
"But as it is," suggested the inspector at last, "do you think we
shall be able to bring the crime home to these people? They seem to
have been very clever."
"You could bring the accusation of forgery and fraud undoubtedly
home to her. You might succeed in proving the murder against her son,
but I don't think that you will get a chance of doing either."
"I think you will find your birds flown already."
"That would be tantamount to an acknowledgment of guilt, and then
we could overtake them wherever they may have fled."
"It certainly is an acknowledgment of guilt, as you say," concluded
Skin o' my Tooth, rising from his chair and stretching his great, loose
limbs; "but personally, I do not think that you will overtake them if
they have succeeded in making good their escape."
Skin o' my Tooth's prophecy proved to be correct. The
detective-inspector, I think, has remained convinced to this day that
my esteemed employer was not altogether innocent in the matter of the
escape of Mrs. Henry Mitchell and her son from the clutches of the law.
They had left for London that very evening, and thence had gone to
Dover, where all trace of them had ostensibly vanished. I believe that
their lucky escape from justice cost Lord Duffield a pretty penny, but,
of course, he felt that enough family dirty linen had been washed in
public, and he was willing to pay a good sum to save even an
illegitimate son from the gallows.