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The Valley of Fear

Chapter III
The Tragedy of Birlstone


 Now for a moment I will ask leave to remove my own insignifi-
cant personality and to describe events which occurred before we
arrived upon the scene by the light of knowledge which came to
us afterwards. Only in this way can I make the reader appreciate
the people concerned and the strange setting in which their fate
was cast.
  The village of Birlstone is a small and very ancient cluster of
half-timbered cottages on the northern border of the county of
Sussex. For centuries it had remained unchanged; but within the
last few years its picturesque appearance and situation have
attracted a number of well-to-do residents, whose villas peep out
from the woods around. These woods are locally supposed to be
the extreme fringe of the great Weald forest, which thins away
until it reaches the northern chalk downs. A number of small
shops have come into being to meet the wants of the increased
population; so there seems some prospect that Birlstone may
soon grow from an ancient village into a modern town. It is the
centre for a considerable area of country, since Tunbridge Wells,
the nearest place of importance, is ten or twelve miles to the
eastward, over the borders of Kent.
  About half a mile from the town, standing in an old park
famous for its huge beech trees, is the ancient Manor House of
Birlstone. Part of this venerable building dates back to the time
of the first crusade, when Hugo de Capus built a fortalice in the
centre of the estate, which had been granted to him by the Red
King. This was destroyed by fire in 1543, and some of its
smoke-blackened corner stones were used when, in Jacobean
times, a brick country house rose upon the ruins of the feudal
castle.
  The Manor House, with its many gables and its small diamond-
paned windows, was still much as the builder had left it in the
early seventeenth century. Of the double moats which had guarded
its more warlike predecessor, the outer had been allowed to dry
up, and served the humble function of a kitchen garden. The
inner one was still there, and lay forty feet in breadth, though
now only a few feet in depth, round the whole house. A small
stream fed it and continued beyond it, so that the sheet of water
though turbid, was never ditchlike or unhealthy. The ground
floor windows were within a foot of the surface of the water.
  The only approach to the house was over a drawbridge, the
chains and windlass of which had long been rusted and broken.
The latest tenants of the Manor House had, however, with
characteristic energy, set this right, and the drawbridge was not
only capable of being raised, but actually was raised every
evening and lowered every morning. By thus renewing the cus-
tom of the old feudal days the Manor House was converted into
an island during the night -- a fact which had a very direct
bearing upon the mystery which was soon to engage the attention
of all England.
  The house had been untenanted for some years and was threat-
ening to moulder into a picturesque decay when the Douglases
took possession of it. This family consisted of only two
individuals -- John Douglas and his wife. Douglas was a re-
markable man, both in character and in person. In age he may
have been about fifty, with a strongjawed, rugged face, a
grizzling moustache, peculiarly keen gray eyes, and a wiry,
vigorous figure which had lost nothing of the strength and activ-
ity of youth. He was cheery and genial to all, but somewhat
offhand in his manners, giving the impression that he had seen
life in social strata on some far lower horizon than the county
society of Sussex.
  Yet, though looked at with some curiosity and reserve by his
more cultivated neighbours, he soon acquired a great popularity
among the villagers, subscribing handsomely to all local objects,
and attending their smoking concerts and other functions, where,
having a remarkably rich tenor voice, he was always ready to
oblige with an excellent song. He appeared to have plenty of
money, which was said to have been gained in the California
gold fields, and it was clear from his own talk and that of his
wife that he had spent a part of his life in America.
  The good impression which had been produced by his gener-
osity and by his democratic manners was increased by a reputa-
tion gained for utter indifference to danger. Though a wretched
rider, he turned out at every meet, and took the most amazing
falls in his determination to hold his own with the best. When
the vicarage caught fire he distinguished himself also by the
fearlessness with which he reentered the building to save prop-
erty, after the local fire brigade had given it up as impossible.
Thus it came about that John Douglas of the Manor House had
within five years won himself quite a reputation in Birlstone.
  His wife, too, was popular with those who had made her
acquaintance; though, after the English fashion, the callers upon
a stranger who settled in the county without introductions were
few and far between. This mattered the less to her, as she was
retiring by disposition, and very much absorbed, to all appear-
ance, in her husband and her domestic duties. It was known that
she was an English lady who had met Mr. Douglas in London,
he being at that time a widower. She was a beautiful woman,
tall, dark, and slender, some twenty years younger than her
husband, a disparity which seemed in no wise to mar the content-
ment of their family life.
  It was remarked sometimes, however, by those who knew
them best, that the confidence between the two did not appear to
be complete, since the wife was either very reticent about her
husband's past life, or else, as seemed more likely, was imper-
fectly informed about it. It had also been noted and commented
upon by a few observant people that there were signs sometimes
of some nerve-strain upon the part of Mrs. Douglas, and that she
would display acute uneasiness if her absent husband should ever
be patticularly late in his return. On a quiet countryside, where
all gossip is welcome, this weakness of the lady of the Manor
House did not pass without remark, and it bulked larger upon
people's memory when the events arose which gave it a very
special significance.
  There was yet another individual whose residence under that
roof was, it is true, only an intermittent one, but whose presence
at the time of the strange happenings which will now be narrated
brought his name prominently before the public. This was Cecil
James Barker, of Hales Lodge, Hampstead.
  Cecil Barker's tall, loosejointed figure was a familiar one in
the main street of Birlstone village; for he was a frequent and
welcome visitor at the Manor House. He was the more noticed as
being the only friend of the past unknown life of Mr. Douglas
who was ever seen in his new English surroundings. Barker was
himself an undoubted Englishman; but by his remarks it was
clear that he had first known Douglas in America and had there
lived on intimate terms with him. He appeared to be a man of
considerable wealth, and was reputed to be a bachelor.
  In age he was rather younger than Douglas -- forty-five at the
most -- a tall, straight, broad-chested fellow with a clean-shaved,
prize-fighter face, thick, strong, black eyebrows, and a pair of
masterful black eyes which might, even without the aid of his
very capable hands, clear a way for him through a hostile crowd.
He neither rode nor shot, but spent his days in wandering round
the old village with his pipe in his mouth, or in driving with his
host, or in his absence with his hostess, over the beautiful
countryside. "An easy-going, free-handed gentleman," said Ames,
the butler. "But, my word! I had rather not be the man that
crossed him!" He was cordial and intimate with Douglas, and he
was no less friendly with his wife -- a friendship which more than
once seemed to cause some irritation to the husband, so that even
the servants were able to perceive his annoyance. Such was the
third person who was one of the family when the catastrophe
occurred.
  As to the other denizens of the old building, it will suffice out
of a large household to mention the prim, respectable, and
capable Ames, and Mrs. Allen, a buxom and cheerful person,
who relieved the lady of some of her household cares. The other
six servants in the house bear no relation to the events of the
night of January 6th.
  It was at eleven forty-five that the first alarm reached the small
local police station, in charge of Sergeant Wilson of the Sussex
Constabulary. Cecil Barker, much excited, had rushed up to the
door and pealed furiously upon the bell. A terrible tragedy had
occurred at the Manor House, and John Douglas had been mur-
dered. That was the breathless burden of his message. He had
hurried back to the house, followed within a few minutes by the
police sergeant, who arrived at the scene of the crime a little
after twelve o'clock, after taking prompt steps to warn the
county authorities that something serious was afoot.
  On reaching the Manor House, the sergeant had found the
drawbridge down, the windows lighted up, and the whole house-
hold in a state of wild confusion and alarm. The white-faced
servants were huddling together in the hall, with the frightened
butler wringing his hands in the doorway. Only Cecil Barker
seemed to be master of himself and his emotions; he had opened
the door which was nearest to the entrance and he had beckoned
to the sergeant to follow him. At that moment there arrived Dr.
Wood, a brisk and capable general practitioner from the village.
The three men entered the fatal room together, while the horror-
stricken butler followed at their heels, closing the door behind
him to shut out the terrible scene from the maid servants.
  The dead man lay on his back, sprawling with outstretched
limbs in the centre of the room. He was clad only in a pink
dressing gown, which covered his night clothes. There were
carpet slippers on his bare feet. The doctor knelt beside him and
held down the hand lamp which had stood on the table. One
glance at the victim was enough to show the healer that his
presence could be dispensed with. The man had been horribly
injured. Lying across his chest was a curious weapon, a shotgun
with the batrel sawed off a foot in front of the triggers. It was
clear that this had been fired at close range and that he had
received the whole charge in the face, blowing his head almost
to pieces. The triggers had been wired together, so as to make
the simultaneous discharge more destructive.
  The country policeman was unnerved and troubled by the
tremendous responsibility which had come so suddenly upon
him. "We will touch nothing until my superiors arrive," he said
in a hushed voice, staring in horror at the dreadful head.
  "Nothing has been touched up to now," said Cecil Barker.
"I'll answer for that. You see it all exactly as I found it."
  "When was that?" The sergeant had drawn out his notebook.
  "It was just half-past eleven. I had not begun to undress, and I
was sitting by the fire in my bedroom when I heard the report. It
was not very loud -- it seemed to be muffled. I rushed down -- I
don't suppose it was thirty seconds before I was in the room."
  "Was the door open?"
  "Yes, it was open. Poor Douglas was lying as you see him.
His bedroom candle was burning on the table. It was I who lit
the lamp some minutes afterward."
  "Did you see no one?"
  "No. I heard Mrs. Douglas coming down the stair behind me,
and I rushed out to prevent her from seeing this dreadful sight.
Mrs. Allen, the housekeeper, came and took her away. Ames
had arrived, and we ran back into the room once more."
  "But surely I have heard that the drawbridge is kept up all
night.~
  "Yes, it was up until I lowered it."
  "Then how could any murderer have got away? It is out of the
question! Mr. Douglas must have shot himself."
  "That was our first idea. But see!" Barker drew aside the
curtain, and showed that the long, diamond-paned window was
open to its full extent. "And look at this!" He held the lamp
down and illuminated a smudge of blood like the mark of a
boot-sole upn the wooden sill. "Someone has stood there in
getting out."
  "You mean that someone waded across the moat?"
  "Exactly!"
  "Then if you were in the room within half a minute of the
crime, he must have been in the water at that very moment."
  "I have not a doubt of it. I wish to heaven that I had rushed to
the window! But the curtain screened it, as you can see, and so it
never occurred to me. Then I heard the step of Mrs. Douglas,
and I could not let her enter the room. It would have been too
horrible."
  "Horrible enough!" said the doctor, looking at the shattered
head and the terrible marks which surrounded it. "I've never
seen such injuries since the Birlstone railway smash."
  "But, I say," remarked the police sergeant, whose slow,
bucolic common sense was still pondering the open window.
"It's all very well your saying that a man escaped by wading this
moat, but what I ask you is, how did he ever get into the house
at all if the bridge was up?"
  "Ah, that's the question," said Barker.
  "At what o'clock was it raised?"
  "It was nearly six o'clock," said Ames, the butler.
  "I've heard," said the sergeant, "that it was usually raised at
sunset. That would be nearer half-past four than six at this time
of year."
  "Mrs. Douglas had visitors to tea," said Ames. "I couldn't
raise it until they went. Then I wound it up myself."
  "Then it comes to this," said the sergeant: "If anyone came
from outside -- if they did -- they must have got in across the
bridge before six and been in hiding ever since, until Mr.
Douglas came into the room after eleven."
  "That is so! Mr. Douglas went round the house every night
the last thing before he turned in to see that the lights were right.
That brought him in here. The man was waiting and shot him.
Then he got away through the window and left his gun behind
him. That's how I read it; for nothing else will fit the facts."
  The sergeant picked up a card which lay beside the dead man
on the floor. The initials V. V. and under them the number 341
were rudely scrawled in ink upon it.
  "What's this?" he asked, holding it up.
  Barker looked at it with curiosity. "I never noticed it before,"
he said. "The murderer must have left it behind him."
  "V. V. -- 341. I can make no sense of that."
  The sergeant kept turning it over in his big fingers. "What's
V. V.? Somebody's initials, maybe. What have you got there,
Dr. Wood?"
  It was a good-sized hammer which had been lying on the rug
in front of the fireplace -- a substantial, workmanlike hammer.
Cecil Barker pointed to a box of brass-headed nails upon the
mantelpiece.
  "Mr. Douglas was altering the pictures yesterday," he said.
"I saw him myself, standing upon that chair and fixing the big
picture above it. That accounts for the hammer."
  "We'd best put it back on the rug where we found it," said
the sergeant, scratching his puzzled head in his perplexity. "It
will want the best brains in the force to get to the bottom of this
thing. It will be a London job before it is finished." He raised
the hand lamp and walked slowly round the room. "Hullo!" he
cried, excitedly, drawing the window curtain to one side. "What
o'clock were those curtains drawn?"
  "When the lamps were lit," said the butler. "It would be
shortly after four."
  "Someone had been hiding here, sure enough." He held down
the light, and the marks of muddy boots were very visible in the
corner. "I'm bound to say this bears out your theory, Mr.
Barker. It looks as if the man got into the house after four when
the curtains were drawn and before six when the bridge was
raised. He slipped into this room, because it was the first that he
saw. There was no other place where he could hide, so he
popped in behind this curtain. That all seems clear enough. It is
likely that his main idea was to burgle the house; but Mr.
Douglas chanced to come upon him, so he murdered him and
escaped."
  "That's how I read it," said Barker. "But, I say, aren't we
wasting precious time? Couldn't we start out and scour the
country before the fellow gets away?"
  The sergeant considered for a moment.
  "There are no trains before six in the morning; so he can't get
away by rail. If he goes by road with his legs all dripping, it's
odds that someone will notice him. Anyhow, I can't leave here
myself until I am relieved. But I think none of you should go
until we see more clearly how we all stand."
  The doctor had taken the lamp and was narrowly scrutinizing
the body. "What's this mark?" he asked. "Could this have any
connection with the crime?"
  The dead man's right arm was thrust out from his dressing
gown, and exposed as high as the elbow. About halfway up the
forearm was a curious brown design, a triangle inside a circle,
standing out in vivid relief upon the lard-coloured skin.
  "It's not tattooed," said the doctor, peering through his glasses.
"I never saw anything like it. The man has been branded at
some time as they brand cattle. What is the meaning of this?"
  "I don't profess to know the meaning of it," said Cecil
Barker; "but I have seen the mark on Douglas many times this
last ten years."
  "And so have I," said the butler. "Many a time when the
master has rolled up his sleeves I have noticed that very mark.
I've often wondered what it could be."
  "Then it has nothing to do with the crime, anyhow," said the
sergeant. "But it's a rum thing all the same. Everything about
this case is rum. Well, what is it now?"
  The butler had given an exclamation of astonishment and was
pointing at the dead man's outstretched hand.
  "They've taken his wedding ring!" he gasped.
  "What!"
  "Yes, indeed. Master always wore his plain gold wedding ring
on the little finger of his left hand. That ring with the rough
nugget on it was above it, and the twisted snake ring on the third
finger. There's the nugget and there's the snake, but the wedding
ring is gone."
  "He's right," said Barker.
  "Do you tell me," said the sergeant, "that the wedding ring
was below the other?"
  "Always!"
  "Then the murderer, or whoever it was, first took off this ring
you call the nugget ring, then the wedding ring, and afterwards
put the nugget ring back again."
  "That is so!"
  The worthy country policeman shook his head. "Seems to me
the sooner we get London on to this case the better," said he.
"White Mason is a smart man. No local job has ever been too
much for White Mason. It won't be long now before he is here
to help us. But I expect we'll have to look to London before we
are through. Anyhow, I'm not ashamed to say that it is a deal too
thick for the likes of me."
 
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