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Fenchurch Street Mystery

Emmuska Orczy

  Fenchurch Street Mystery

  Fenchurch Street Mystery

  Baroness Orczy

  This page copyright � 2001 Blackmask Online.





  THE man in the corner pushed aside his glass, and leant across the table.

  "Mysteries!" he commented. "There is no such thing as a mystery in connection

  with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its


  Very much astonished Polly Burton looked over the top of her newspaper, and

  fixed a pair of very severe, coldly inquiring brown eyes upon him.

  She had disapproved of the man from the instant when he shuffled across the shop

  and sat down opposite to her, at the same marble-topped table which already held

  her large coffee (3d.), her roll and butter (2d.), and plate of tongue (6d.).

  Now this particular corner, this very same table, that special view of the

  magnificent marble hall�known as the Norfolk Street branch of the A�rated Bread

  Company's dep�ts�were Polly's own corner, table, and view. Here she had partaken

  of eleven pennyworth of luncheon and one pennyworth of daily information ever

  since that glorious never-to-be-forgotten day when she was enrolled on the staff

  of the Evening Observer (we'll call it that, if you please), and became a member

  of that illustrious and world-famed organization known as the British Press.

  She was a personality, was Miss Burton of the Evening Observer. Her cards were

  printed thus:



  Evening Observer

  She had interviewed Miss Ellen Terry and the Bishop of Madagascar, Mr. Seymour

  Hicks and the Chief Commissioner of Police. She had been present at the last

  Marlborough House garden party�in the cloak-room, that is to say, where she

  caught sight of Lady Thingummy's hat, Miss What-you-may-call's sunshade, and of

  various other things modistical or fashionable, all of which were duly described

  under the heading "Royalty and Dress" in the early afternoon edition of the

  Evening Observer.

  (The article itself is signed M. J. B., and is to be found in the files of that

  leading halfpenny-worth.)

  For these reasons�and for various others, too�Polly felt irate with the man in

  the corner, and told him so with her eyes, as plainly as any pair of brown eyes

  can speak.

  She had been reading an article in the Daily Telegraph. The article was

  palpitatingly interesting. Had Polly been commenting audibly upon it? Certain it

  is that the man over there had spoken in direct answer to her thoughts.

  She looked at him and frowned; the next moment she smiled. Miss Burton (of the

  Evening Observer) had a keen sense of humour, which two years' association with

  the British Press had not succeeded in destroying, and the appearance of the man

  was sufficient to tickle the most ultra-morose fancy. Polly thought to herself

  that she had never seen any one so pale, so thin, with such funny light-coloured

  hair, brushed very smoothly across the top of a very obviously bald crown. He

  looked so timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string;

  his long, lean, and trembling fingers tying and untying it into knots of

  wonderful and complicated proportions.

  Having carefully studied every detail of the quaint personality Polly felt more


  "And yet," she remarked kindly but authoritatively, "this article, in an

  otherwise well-informed journal, will tell you that, even within the last year,

  no fewer than six crimes have completely baffled the police, and the

  perpetrators of them are still at large."

  "Pardon me," he said gently, "I never for a moment ventured to suggest that

  there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none

  where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime."

  "Not even in the Fenchurch Street mystery, I suppose," she asked sarcastically.

  "Least of all in the so-called Fenchurch Street mystery," he replied quietly.

  Now the Fenchurch Street mystery, as that extraordinary crime had popularly been

  called, had puzzled�as Polly well knew�the brains of every thinking man and

  woman for the last twelve months. It had puzzled her not inconsiderably; she had

  been interested, fascinated; she had studied the case, formed her own theories,

  thought about it all often and often, had even written one or two letters to the

  Press on the subject�suggesting, arguing, hinting at possibilities and

  probabilities, adducing proofs which other amateur detectives were equally ready

  to refute. The attitude of that timid man in the corner, therefore, was

  peculiarly exasperating, and she retorted with sarcasm destined to completely

  annihilate her self-complacent interlocutor.

  "What a pity it is, in that case, that you do not offer your priceless services

  to our misguided though well-meaning police."

  "Isn't it?" he replied with perfect good-humour. "Well, you know, for one thing

  I doubt if they would accept them; and in the second place my inclinations and

  my duty would�were I to become an active member of the detective force�nearly

  always be in direct conflict. As often as not my sympathies go to the criminal

  who is clever and astute enough to lead our entire police force by the nose.

  "I don't know how much of the case you remember," he went on quietly. "It

  certainly, at first, began even to puzzle me. On the 12th of last December a

  woman, poorly dressed, but with an unmistakable air of having seen better days,

  gave information at Scotland Yard of the disappearance of her husband, William

  Kershaw, of no occupation, and apparently of no fixed abode. She was accompanied

  by a friend�a fat, oily-looking German�and between them they told a tale which

  set the police immediately on the move.

  "It appears that on the 10th of December, at about three o'clock in the

  afternoon, Karl M�ller, the German, called on his friend, William Kershaw, for

  the purpose of collecting a small debt�some ten pounds or so�which the latter

  owed him. On arriving at the squalid lodging in Charlotte Street, Fitzroy

  Square, he found William Kershaw in a wild state of excitement, and his wife in

  tears. M�ller attempted to state the object of his visit, but Kershaw, with wild

  gestures, waved him aside, and�in his own words�flabbergasted him by asking him

  point-blank for another loan of two pounds, which sum, he declared, would be the

  means of a speedy fortune for himself and the friend who would help him in his


  "After a quarter of an hour spent in obscure hints, Kershaw, finding the

  cautious German obdurate, decided to let him into the secret plan, which, he

  averred, would place thousands into their hands."
  Instinctively Polly had put down her paper; the mild stranger, with his nervous

  air and timid, watery eyes, had a peculiar way of telling his tale, which

  somehow fascinated her.

  "I don't know," he resumed, "if you remember the story which the German told to

  the police, and which was corroborated in every detail by the wife or widow.

  Briefly it was this: Some thirty years previously, Kershaw, then twenty years of

  age, and a medical student at one of the London hospitals, had a chum named

  Barker, with whom he roomed, together with another.

  "The latter, so it appears, brought home one evening a very considerable sum of

  money, which he had won on the turf, and the following morning he was found

  murdered in his bed. Kershaw, fortunately for himself, was able to prove a

  conclusive alibi; he had spent the night on duty at the hospital; as for Barker,

  he had disappeared, that is to say, as far as the police were concerned, but not

  as far as the watchful eyes of his friend Kershaw were able to spy�at least, so

  the latter said. Barker very cleverly contrived to get away out of the country,

  and, after sundry vicissitudes, finally settled down at Vladivostok, in Eastern

  Siberia, where, under the assumed name of Smethurst, he built up an enormous

  fortune by trading in furs.

  "Now, mind you, every one knows Smethurst, the Siberian millionaire. Kershaw's

  story that he had once been called Barker, and had committed a murder thirty

  years ago, was never proved, was it? I am merely telling you what Kershaw said

  to his friend the German and to his wife on that memorable afternoon of December

  the 10th.

  "According to him Smethurst had made one gigantic mistake in his clever

  career�he had on four occasions written to his late friend, William Kershaw. Two

  of these letters had no bearing on the case, since they were written more than

  twenty-five years ago, and Kershaw, moreover, had lost them�so he said�long ago.

  According to him, however, the first of these letters was written when

  Smethurst, alias Barker, had spent all the money he had obtained from the crime,

  and found himself destitute in New York.

  "Kershaw, then in fairly prosperous circumstances, sent him a �10 note for the

  sake of old times. The second, when the tables had turned, and Kershaw had begun

  to go downhill, Smethurst, as he then already called himself, sent his whilom

  friend �50. After that, as M�ller gathered, Kershaw had made sundry demands on

  Smethurst's ever-increasing purse, and had accompanied these demands by various

  threats, which, considering the distant country in which the millionaire lived,

  were worse than futile.

  "But now the climax had come, and Kershaw, after a final moment of hesitation,

  handed over to his German friend the two last letters purporting to have been

  written by Smethurst, and which, if you remember, played such an important part

  in the mysterious story of this extraordinary crime. I have a copy of both these

  letters here," added the man in the corner, as he took out a piece of paper from

  a very worn-out pocket-book, and, unfolding it very deliberately, he began to


  "'SIR,�Your preposterous demands for money are wholly unwarrantable. I have

  already helped you quite as much as you deserve. However, for the sake of old

  times, and because you once helped me when I was in a terrible difficulty, I am

  willing to once more let you impose upon my good nature. A friend of mine here,

  a Russian merchant, to whom I have sold my business, starts in a few days for an

  extended tour to many European and Asiatic ports in his yacht, and has invited

  me to accompany him as far as England. Being tired of foreign parts, and

  desirous of seeing the old country once again after thirty years absence, I have

  decided to accept his invitation I don t know when we may actually be in Europe,

  but I promise you that as soon as we touch a suitable port I will write to you

  again, making an appointment for you to see me in London. But remember that if

  your demands are too preposterous I will not for a moment listen to them, and

  that I am the last man in the world to submit to persistent and unwarrantable


  "'I am, sir,

  "'Yours truly,


  "The second letter was dated from Southampton," continued the old man in the

  corner calmly, "and, curiously enough, was the only letter which Kershaw

  professed to have received from Smethurst of which he had kept the envelope, and

  which was dated. It was quite brief," he added, referring once more to his piece

  of paper.

  "'DEAR SIR,�Referring to my letter of a few weeks ago, I wish to inform you that

  the Tsarskoe Selo will touch at Tilbury on Tuesday next, the 10th. I shall land

  there, and immediately go up to London by the first train I can get. If you

  like, you may meet me at Fenchurch Street Station, in the first-class

  waiting-room in the late afternoon. Since I surmise that after thirty years'

  absence my face may not be familiar to you, I may as well tell you that you will

  recognize me by a heavy Astrakhan fur coat, which I shall wear, together with a

  cap of the same. You may then introduce yourself to me and I will personally

  listen to what you may have to say.

  "'Yours faithfully,


  "It was this last letter which had caused William Kershaw's excitement and his

  wife's tears In the German's own words, he was walking up and down the room like

  a wild beast, gesticulating wildly, and muttering sundry exclamations. Mrs.

  Kershaw, however, was full of apprehension. She mistrusted the man from foreign

  parts�who, according to her husband's story, had already one crime upon his

  conscience�who might, she feared, risk another, in order to be rid of a

  dangerous enemy. Woman-like, she thought the scheme a dishonourable one, for the

  law, she knew, is severe on the blackmailer.

  "The assignation might be a cunning trap, in any case it wag a curious one; why,

  she argued, did not Smethurst elect to see Kershaw at his hotel the following

  day? A thousand whys and wherefores made her anxious, but the fat German had

  been won over by Kershaw's visions of untold gold, held tantalizingly before his

  eyes. He had lent the necessary �2, with which his friend intended to tidy

  himself up a bit before he went to meet his friend the millionaire. Half an hour

  afterwards Kershaw had left his lodgings, and that was the last the unfortunate

  woman saw of her husband, or M�ller, the German, of his friend.

  "Anxiously his wife waited that night, but he did not return; the next day she

  seems to have spent in making purposeless and futile inquiries about the

  neighbourhood of Fenchurch Street; and on the 12th she went to Scotland Yard,

  gave what particulars she knew, and placed in the hands of the police the two

  letters written by Smethurst."


  THE man in the corner had finished his glass of milk. His watery blue eyes

  looked across at Miss Polly Burton's eager little face, from which all traces of

  severity had now been
chased away by an obvious and intense excitement.

  "It was only on the 31st," he resumed after a while, "that a body, decomposed

  past all recognition, was found by two lightermen in the bottom of a disused

  barge. She had been moored at one time at the foot of one of those dark flights

  of steps which lead down between tall warehouses to the river in the East End of

  London. I have a photograph of the place here," he added, selecting one out of

  his pocket, and placing it before Polly.

  "The actual barge, you see, had already been removed when I took this snapshot,

  but you will realize what a perfect place this alley is for the purpose of one

  man cutting another's throat in comfort, and without fear of detection. The

  body, as I said, was decomposed beyond all recognition; it had probably been

  there eleven days, but sundry articles, such as a silver ring and a tie pin,

  were recognizable, and were identified by Mrs. Kershaw as belonging to her


  "She, of course, was loud in denouncing Smethurst, and the police had no doubt a

  very strong case against him, for two days after the discovery of the body in

  the barge, the Siberian millionaire, as he was already popularly called by

  enterprising interviewers, was arrested in his luxurious suite of rooms at the

  Hotel Cecil.

  "To confess the truth, at this point I was not a little puzzled. Mrs. Kershaw's

  story and Smethurst's letters had both found their way into the papers, and

  following my usual method�mind you, I am only an amateur, I try to reason out a

  case for the love of the thing�I sought about for a motive for the crime, which

  the police declared Smethurst had committed. To effectually get rid of a

  dangerous blackmailer was the generally accepted theory. Well! did it ever

  strike you how paltry that motive really was?"

  Miss Polly had to confess, however, that it had never struck her in that light.

  "Surely a man who had succeeded in building up an immense fortune by his own

  individual efforts, was not the sort of fool to believe that he had anything to

  fear from a man like Kershaw. He must have known that Kershaw held no damning

  proof~ against him�not enough to hang him, anyway. Have you ever s~en

  Smethurst?" he added, as he once more fumbled in his pocket-book.

  Polly replied that she had seen Smethurst's picture in the illustrated papers at

  the time. Then he added, placing a small photograph before her:

  "What strikes you most about the face?"

  "Well, I think its strange, astonished expression, due to the total absence of

  eyebrows, and the funny foreign cut of the hair."

  "So close that it almost looks as if it had been shaved. Exactly. That is what

  struck me most when I elbowed my way into the court that morning and first

  caught sight of the millionaire in the dock. He was a tall, soldierly-looking

  man, upright in stature, his face very bronzed and tanned. He wore neither

  moustache nor beard, his hair was cropped quite close to his head, like a

  Frenchman's; but, of course, what was so very remarkable about him was that

  total absence of eyebrows and even eyelashes, which gave the face such a

  peculiar appearance�as you say, a perpetually astonished look.

  "He seemed, however, wonderfully calm; he had been accommodated with a chair in

  the dock�being a millionaire�and chatted pleasantly with his lawyer, Sir Arthur

  Inglewood, in the intervals between the calling of the several witnesses for the

  prosecution; whilst during the examination of these witnesses he sat quite

  placidly, with his head shaded by his hand.

  "M�ller and Mrs. Kershaw repeated the story which they had already told to the

  police. I think you said that you were not able, owing to pressure of work, to

  go to the court that day, and hear the case, so perhaps you have no recollection

  of Mrs. Kershaw. No? Ah, well! Here is a snapshot I managed to get of her once.

  That is her. Exactly as she stood in the box�over-dressed�in elaborate crape,

  with a bonnet which once had contained pink roses, and to which a remnant of