THE TRAGEDY OF BIRLSTONE
NOW for a moment I will ask leave to remove my own insignificant
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 custom of the old feudal days the Manor House was
converted into an island during the nighta 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
threatening to moulder into a picturesque decay when the Douglases took possession of it.
This family consisted of only two individualsJohn Douglas and his wife. Douglas was
a remarkable man, both in character and in person. In age he may have been about fifty,
with a strong-jawed, rugged face, a grizzling moustache, peculiarly keen gray eyes, and a
wiry, vigorous figure which had lost nothing of the strength and activity 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
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 generosity
and by his democratic manners was increased by a reputation 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 property, 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 appearance, 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 contentment 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 husbands past life, or else, as seemed more
likely, was imperfectly 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 particularly 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 peoples
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 Barkers tall, loose-jointed 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 Douglasforty-five at
the mosta 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 wifea
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
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 murdered. 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 oclock, 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 household 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 barrel
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
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
Nothing has been touched up to now, said Cecil
Barker. Ill answer for that. You see it all exactly as I found it.
When was that? The sergeant had drawn out his
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 downI dont 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
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
But surely I have heard that the drawbridge is kept up
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 upon the wooden sill. Someone has stood there in
You mean that someone waded across the moat?
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. Ive 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. Its 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, thats the question, said Barker.
At what oclock was it raised?
It was nearly six oclock, said Ames, the
Ive heard, said the sergeant, that it
was usually raised at sunset. That would be nearer half-past four than six at this time of
Mrs. Douglas had visitors to tea, said Ames.
I couldnt 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 didthey must have got in across the
bridge before six and been in hiding ever since, until Mr. Douglas came into the room
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. Thats 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
Whats 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.
Whats V. V.? Somebodys initials, maybe. What have you got there, Dr.
It was a good-sized hammer which had been lying on the rug in
front of the fireplacea 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.
Wed 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
oclock 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.
Im 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.
Thats how I read it, said Barker. But,
I say, arent we wasting precious time? Couldnt we start out and scour the
country before the fellow gets away?
The sergeant considered for a moment.
are no trains before six in the morning; so he cant get away by rail. If he goes by
road with his legs all dripping, its odds that someone will notice him. Anyhow, I
cant 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. Whats this mark? he asked. Could this have any
connection with the crime?
The dead mans 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
Its 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 dont profess to know the meaning of it,
said Cecil Barker; but I have seen the mark on Douglas many times this last ten
And so have I, said the butler. Many a time
when the master has rolled up his sleeves I have noticed that very mark. Ive often
wondered what it could be.
Then it has nothing to do with the crime, anyhow,
said the sergeant. But its 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 mans outstretched hand.
Theyve taken his wedding ring! he gasped.
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. Theres the nugget and
theres the snake, but the wedding ring is gone.
Hes right, said Barker.
Do you tell me, said the sergeant, that the
wedding ring was below the other?
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 wont be long now
before he is here to help us. But I expect well have to look to London before we are
through. Anyhow, Im not ashamed to say that it is a deal too thick for the likes of