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CHAPTER XI

THE MCMURRAY MYSTERY


I

OF the many problems upon which Malcolm Sage was engaged during the early days of the Malcolm Sage Bureau, that concerning the death of Professor James McMurray, the eminent physiologist, was perhaps the most extraordinary. It was possessed of several remarkable features; for one thing the murderer had disappeared, leaving no clue; for another the body when found seemed to have undergone a strange change, many of the professor's sixty-five years appearing to have dropped from him in death as leaves from an autumn tree.

It was one of those strange crimes for which there is no apparent explanation, consequently the strongest weapon the investigator has, that of motive, was absent. As far as could be gathered the dead professor had not an enemy in the world. He was a semi-recluse, with nothing about him to tempt the burglar; yet he had been brutally done to death in his own laboratory, and the murderer had made good his escape without leaving anything likely to prove helpful to the police.

One day as Gladys Norman, like "panting Time," toiled after her work in vain, striving to tap herself up to date with an accumulation of correspondence, the telephone-bell rang for what seemed to her the umpteenth time that morning. She seized the receiver as a dog seizes a rat, listened, murmured a few words in reply, then banged it back upon its rest.

"Oh dear!" she sighed. "I wish they'd let him alone. The poor dear looks tired out." She turned to William Johnson, who had just entered. "Why don't you hurry up and become a man, Innocent," she demanded, "so that you can help the Chief?"

William Johnson looked vague and shuffled his feet. His admiration of Malcolm Sage's secretary rendered him self-conscious in her presence.

"Sir John Dene and Sir Jasper Chambers to see the Chief," he announced, obviously impressed by the social importance of the callers.

"Sure it's not the Shah of Persia and Charlie Chaplin?" she asked wearily as she rose from her table and, walking over to the door marked "Private," passed into Malcolm Sage's room.

Reappearing a moment later she instructed William Johnson to show the visitors in at once.

As the two men passed through Miss Norman's room, they formed a striking contrast, Sir John Dene short, thick-set, alert, with the stamp of the West-End upon all he wore; Sir Jasper Chambers tall, gaunt and dingy, with a forehead like the bulging eaves of an Elizabethan house, and the lower portion of his face a riot of short grizzled grey hair that seemed to know neither coercion nor restraint. His neck appeared intent on thrusting itself as far as possible out of the shabby frock-coat that hung despairingly from his narrow shoulders.

"I wonder," murmured Gladys Norman, as she returned to her typing, "how many geraniums he had to give for those clothes."

"Morning, Mr. Sage," cried Sir John Dene.

Malcolm Sage rose. There was an unwonted cordiality in the way in which he extended his hand.

"This is Sir Jasper Chambers." Sir John Dene turned to his companion. "You'll be able to place him," and he twirled the unlit cheroot between his lips with bewildering rapidity.

Sir Jasper bowed with an old-world courtliness and grace that seemed strangely out of keeping with his lank and unpicturesque bearing. Malcolm Sage, however, held out his hand with the air of one wishing to convey that a friend of Sir John Dene merited special consideration.

He motioned the two men to seats and resumed his own. Both declined the box of cigars he proffered, Sir John Dene preferring the well-chewed cheroot between his lips, whilst Sir Jasper drew a pipe from the tail-pocket of his frock-coat, which with long fleshless fingers he proceeded to fill from a chamois-leather tobacco-pouch.

"I've brought Sir Jasper along," said Sir John Dene. "You've heard about the murder of his friend Professor McMurray. He didn't want to come; but I told him you'd be tickled to death, and that you'd get it all figured out for him in two wags of a chipmunk's tail."

Malcolm Sage looked across at the eminent philanthropist, whose whole attention seemed absorbed in the filling of his well-worn briar.

Sir Jasper's wise charities and great humanitarianism were world-famous. It was Will Blink, the Labour demagogue, who had said that of all the honours conferred during the century, Sir Jasper Chambers' O.M. had alone been earned, the others had been either bought or wangled.

The McMurray Murder was the sensation of the hour. The newspapers had "stunted" it, and the public, always eager for gruesome sensation, had welcomed it as if it had been a Mary Pickford film.

Four days previously, Professor James McMurray of Gorling, in Essex, had been found dead in his laboratory, his head fearfully battered in by some blunt instrument.

It was the professor's custom, when engaged upon important research work, to retire, sometimes for days at a time, to a laboratory he had built in his own grounds.

Meals were passed through a small wicket, specially constructed for that purpose in the laboratory wall, and the professor's servants had the most explicit instructions on no account to disturb him.

A fortnight previously Professor McMurray had retired to his laboratory to carry out an important series of experiments. He informed his butler that Sir Jasper Chambers, his life-long friend, would visit him on the third day, and that dinner for two was to be supplied in the usual way, through the wicket.

On the evening in question, Sir Jasper Chambers had arrived and stayed until a little past nine. He then left the laboratory and proceeded to the house, where he told the butler that his master was quite well, and that in all probability his researches would occupy him another week.

Eight days later, when the butler took the professor's luncheon down to the laboratory, he noticed that the breakfast-tray had not been removed from the shelf just inside the wicket. Convinced that the professor had been so absorbed in his researches that he had forgotten the meal, the butler placed the luncheon-tray beside that containing the breakfast, thinking it better to leave the earlier meal as a reminder to the professor of his forgetfulness.

At dinner-time the butler was greatly surprised to find that both breakfast and luncheon had remained as he had left them; still, remembering how definite and insistent the professor had been that he was not to be disturbed, the butler had, after consulting with the housekeeper, decided to do nothing for the moment, and contented himself with ringing several times the electric-bell that was the signal of another meal.

An hour later he went once more to the wicket, only to discover that nothing had been touched. Hurrying back to the house with all speed he had conferred with Mrs. Graham, the housekeeper, and, on her insistence, he had telephoned to the police.

Sergeant Crudden of the Essex County Constabulary immediately bicycled over to "The Hollows," Professor McMurray's residence, and, after hearing the butler's story, he had decided to force the door; there are no windows, the laboratory being lighted from above, in order to secure entire privacy.

To the officer's surprise the door yielded readily, having apparently been previously forced. Entering the laboratory he was horrified to discover the body of the professor lying in the centre of the floor, his head literally smashed by a terrible blow that had obviously been delivered from behind.

Acting on the instructions of the police-sergeant, the butler had telephoned the news to the police-station at Strinton, with the result that shortly afterwards Inspector Brewitt arrived with a doctor.

The police had made no statement; but there were some extraordinary rumours current in the neighbourhood. One was to the effect that it was not Professor McMurray's body that had been discovered; but that of a much younger man who bore a striking resemblance to him.

"You have seen the accounts of my friend's terrible end?" enquired Sir Jasper, as he took the box of matches Malcolm Sage handed him and proceeded to light his pipe.

Malcolm Sage nodded. His gaze was fixed upon Sir Jasper's grey worsted socks, which concertinaed up his legs above a pair of strangely-fashioned black shoes.

"He was about to enter upon a series of experiments with a serum he had discovered, his object being to lengthen human life."

Sir Jasper spoke in a gentle, well-modulated voice, in which was a deep note of sadness. He and Professor McMurray had been life-long friends, their intimacy appearing to become strengthened by the passage of years.

"You were the last to see him alive, I understand." Malcolm Sage picked up his fountain-pen and began an elaborate stipple design of a serpent upon the blotting-pad.

"Eight days before he was found I dined with him," said Sir Jasper, his voice a little unsteady.

"What happened?" Malcolm Sage enquired without looking up.

"I arrived at seven o'clock," continued Sir Jasper. "From then until half-past we talked upon things of general interest, after which we dined. Later he told me he was about to enter upon a final series of experiments, the result of which would, in all probability, either be fatal to himself, or mean the lengthening of human life."

He paused, gazing straight in front of him, ejecting smoke from his lips in staccatoed puffs. Then he continued:

"He said that he had recently made a will, which was lying with his solicitor, and he gave me certain additional instructions as to the disposal of his property."

"Did he seem quite normal?" enquired Malcolm Sage, adding a pair of formidable fangs to his reptile.

"He was calm and confident. At parting he told me I should be the first to know the result."

"Have you any reason to believe that Professor McMurray had enemies?" Malcolm Sage enquired.

"None," was the reply, uttered in a tone of deep conviction, accompanied by a deliberate wagging of the head.

"He was confident of the success of his experiments?"

"Absolutely."

"And you?"

"I had no means of knowing," was the reply.

"You were his greatest friend and his only confidant?" suggested Malcolm Sage, adding the sixth pair of legs to his creation.

"Yes."

"And you were to be the first to be told of the result of the experiments?"

"Those were his last words to me."

There was a suggestion of emotion in Sir Jasper's otherwise even voice.

"Can you remember his actual words?"

"Yes; I remember them," he replied sadly. "As we shook hands he said, 'Well, Chambers, you will be the first to know the result.'"

Again there was silence, broken at length by Malcolm Sage, who stroked the back of his head with his left hand. His eyes had returned to Sir Jasper's socks.

"Do you think the professor had been successful in his experiments?" he enquired.

"I cannot say." Again Sir Jasper shook his head slowly and deliberately.

"Did you see the body?"

"I did."

"Is there any truth in the rumours that he looked much younger?"

"There was certainly a marked change, a startling change," was the reply.

"But death plays odd tricks with years," suggested Malcolm Sage, who was now feeling the lobe of his left ear as if to assure himself of its presence.

"True," said Sir Jasper, nodding his head as if pondering the matter deeply. "True."

"There was an article in last month's The Present Century by Sir Kelper Jevons entitled 'The Dangers of Longevity.' Did you read it?" enquired Malcolm Sage.

"I did."

"I read it too," broke in Sir John Dene, who had hitherto remained an interested listener, as he sat twirling round between his lips the still unlit cheroot. "A pretty dangerous business it seems to me, this monkeying about with people's glands."

"It called attention to the danger of any interference with Nature's carefully-adjusted balances between life and death," continued Malcolm Sage, who had returned to the serpent which now sported a pair of horns, "and was insistent that the lengthening of human life could result only in harm to the community. Do you happen to know if Professor McMurray had seen this?"

"He had." Sir Jasper leaned forward to knock the ashes from his pipe into the copper tray on Malcolm Sage's table. "We talked of it during dinner that evening. His contention was that science could not be constricted by utilitarianism, and that Nature would adjust her balances to the new conditions."

"But," grumbled Sir John Dene, "it wouldn't be until there had been about the tallest kind of financial panic this little globe of misery has ever seen."

"The article maintained that there would be an intervening period of chaos," remarked Malcolm Sage meditatively, as he opened a drawer and took from it a copy of The Present Century. "I was particularly struck with this passage," he remarked:


"'It is impossible to exaggerate the extreme delicacy of the machinery of modern civilization,' he read. 'Industrialism, the food-supply, existence itself are dependent upon the death-rate. Reduce this materially and it will inevitably lead to an upheaval of a very grave nature. For instance, it would mean an addition of something like a million to the population of the United Kingdom each year, over and above those provided for by the normal excess of births over deaths, and it would be years before Nature could readjust her balances.'"


Malcolm Sage looked across at Sir Jasper, who for some seconds remained silent, apparently deep in thought.

"I think," he said presently, with the air of a man carefully weighing his words, "that McMurray was inclined to under-estimate the extreme delicacy of the machinery of modern civilization. I recall his saying that the arguments in that article would apply only in the very unlikely event of someone meeting with unqualified success. That is to say, by the discovery of a serum that would achieve what the Spaniards hoped of the Fountain of Eternal Youth, an instantaneous transformation from age to youth."

"A sort of Faust stunt," murmured Sir John Dene.

Sir Jasper nodded his head gravely.

For some minutes the three men sat silent, Sir Jasper gazing straight in front of him, Sir John Dene twirling his cheroot between his lips, his eyes fixed upon the bald dome-like head of Malcolm Sage, whose eyes were still intent upon his horned reptile, which he had adorned with wings. He appeared to be thinking deeply.

"It's up to you, Mr. Sage, to get on the murderer's trail," said Sir John Dene at length, with the air of a man who has no doubt as to the result.

"You wish me to take up the case, Sir John?" enquired Malcolm Sage, looking up suddenly.

"Sure," said Sir John Dene as he rose. "I'll take it as a particular favour if you will. Now I must vamoose. I've got a date in the city." He jerked himself to his feet and extended a hand to Malcolm Sage. Then turning to Sir Jasper, who had also risen, he added, "You leave it to Mr. Sage, Sir Jasper. Before long you won't see him for dust. He's about the livest wire this side of the St. Lawrence," and with this enigmatical assurance, he walked to the door, whilst Malcolm Sage shook hands with Sir Jasper.


Ii

"Johnnie," said Miss Norman, as William Johnson entered her room in response to a peremptory call on the private-telephone, "Inspector Carfon is to honour us with a call during the next few minutes. Give him a chair and a copy of The Sunday at Home, and watch the clues as they peep out of his pockets. Now buzz off."

William Johnson returned to his table in the outer office and the lurid detective story from which Miss Norman's summons had torn him. He was always gratified when an officer from Scotland Yard called; it seemed to bring him a step nearer to the great crook-world of his dreams. William Johnson possessed imagination; but it was the imagination of the films.

A quarter of an hour later he held open the door of Malcolm Sage's private room to admit Inspector Carfon, a tall man, with small features and a large forehead, above which the fair hair had been sadly thinned by the persistent wearing of a helmet in the early days of his career.

"I got your message, Mr. Sage," he began, as he flopped into a chair on the opposite side of Malcolm Sage's table. "This McMurray case is a teaser. I shall be glad to talk it over with you."

"I am acting on behalf of Sir Jasper Chambers," said Malcolm Sage. "It's very kind of you to come round so promptly, Carfon," he added, pushing a box of cigars towards the inspector.

"Not at all, Mr. Sage," said Inspector Carfon as he selected a cigar. "Always glad to do what we can, although we are supposed to be a bit old-fashioned," and he laughed the laugh of a man who can afford to be tolerant.

"I've seen all there is in the papers," said Malcolm Sage. "Are there any additional particulars?"

"There's one thing we haven't told the papers, and it wasn't emphasised at the inquest." The inspector leaned forward impressively.

Malcolm Sage remained immobile, his eyes on his finger-nails.

"The doctor," continued the inspector, "says that the professor had been dead for about forty-eight hours, whereas we know he'd eaten a dinner about twenty-six hours before he was found."

Malcolm Sage looked up slowly. In his eyes there was an alert look that told of keen interest.

"You challenged him?" he queried.

"Ra-ther," was the response, "but he got quite ratty. Said he'd stake his professional reputation and all that sort of thing."

Malcolm Sage meditatively inclined his head several times in succession; his hand felt mechanically for his fountain-pen.

"Then there was another thing that struck me as odd," continued Inspector Carfon, intently examining the end of his cigar. "The professor had evidently been destroying a lot of old correspondence. The paper-basket was full of torn-up letters and envelopes, and the grate was choc-a-bloc with charred paper. That also we kept to ourselves."

"That all?"

"I think so," was the reply. "There's not the vestige of a clue that I can find."

"I see," said Malcolm Sage, looking at a press-cutting lying before him, "that it says there was a remarkable change in the professor's appearance. He seemed to have become rejuvenated."

"The doctor said that sometimes 'death smites with a velvet hand.' He was rather a poetic sort of chap," the inspector added by way of explanation.

"He saw nothing extraordinary in the circumstance?"

"No," was the response. "He seemed to think he was the only one who had ever seen a dead man before. I wouldn't mind betting I've seen as many stiffs as he has, although perhaps he's caused more."

Then as Malcolm Sage made no comment, the inspector proceeded.

"What I want to know is what was the professor doing while the door was being broken open?"

"There were no signs of a struggle?" enquired Malcolm Sage, drawing a cottage upon his thumbnail.

"None. He seems to have been attacked unexpectedly from behind."

"Was there anything missing?"

"We're not absolutely sure. The professor's gold watch can't be found; but the butler is not certain that he had it on him."

For some time there was silence. Malcolm Sage appeared to be pondering over the additional facts he had just heard.

"What do you want me to do, Mr. Sage?" enquired the inspector at length.

"I was wondering whether you would run down with me this afternoon to Gorling."

"I'd be delighted," was the hearty response. "Somehow or other I feel it's not an ordinary murder. There's something behind it all."

"What makes you think that?" Malcolm Sage looked up sharply.

"Frankly, I can't say, Mr. Sage," he confessed a little shamefacedly, "it's just a feeling I have."

"The laboratory has been locked up?"

"Yes; and I've sealed the door. Nothing has been touched."

Malcolm Sage nodded his head approvingly and, for fully five minutes, continued to gaze down at his hands spread out on the table before him.

"Thank you, Carfon. Be here at half-past two."

"The funeral's to-day, by the way," said the inspector as he rose and, with a genial "good morning," left the room.

For the next hour Malcolm Sage was engaged in reading the newspaper accounts of the McMurray Mystery, which he had already caused to be pasted up in the current press-cutting book; he gathered little more from them, however, than he already knew.

That afternoon, accompanied by Inspector Carfon, Malcolm Sage motored down to "The Hollows," which lies at the easternmost end of the village of Gorling.

The inspector stopped the car just as it entered the drive. The two men alighted and, turning sharply to the right, walked across the lawn towards an ugly red-brick building, screened from the house by a belt of trees. Malcolm Sage had expressed a wish to see the laboratory first.

It was a strange-looking structure, some fifty feet long by about twenty feet wide, with a door on the further side. In the red-brick wall nearer the house there was nothing to break the monotony except the small wicket through which the professor's meals were passed.

Malcolm Sage twice walked deliberately round the building. In the meantime the inspector had removed the seal from the padlock and opened the door.

"Did you photograph the position of the body?" enquired Malcolm Sage, as they entered.

"I hadn't a photographer handy," said the inspector apologetically, as he closed the door behind him; "but I managed to get a man to photograph the wound."

"Put yourself in the position of the body," said Malcolm Sage.

The inspector walked to the centre of the room, near a highly-polished table, dropped on to the floor and, after a moment's pause, turned and lay on his left side, with right arm outstretched.

From just inside the door Malcolm Sage looked about him. At the left extremity a second door gave access to another apartment, which the professor used as a bedroom.

A little to the right of the door, on the opposite side, stood the fireplace. This was full of ashes, apparently the charred remains of a quantity of paper that had been burnt. On the hearth were several partially-charred envelopes, and the paper-basket contained a number of torn-up letters.

"That will do, Carfon," said Malcolm Sage, as he walked over to the fireplace and, dropping on one knee, carefully examined the ashes, touching them here and there with the poker.

He picked up something that glittered and held it out to the inspector who scrambled to his feet, and stood looking down with keen professional interest.

"Piece of a test tube," remarked Malcolm Sage, as he placed the small piece of glass upon the table.

"Moses' aunt!" gasped the inspector. "I missed that, though I saw a lot of bits of glass. I thought it was an electric bulb."

"Somebody had ground it to powder with his heel, all except this piece. Looks as if there might have been more than one," he added more to himself than to the inspector.

"These are not letters," he continued without looking up.

"Not letters?"

"The paper is all of the same quality. By the way, has anyone disturbed it?" He indicated the grate.

"No one," was the reply.

Malcolm Sage rose to his feet. For some minutes he stood looking down at the fireplace, stroking the back of his head, deep in thought.

Presently he picked up the poker, a massive steel affair, and proceeded to examine the fire-end with great minuteness.

"It was done with the other end," said the inspector. "He must have wiped it afterwards. There was no sign of blood or hair."

Malcolm Sage ignored the remark, and continued to regard the business-end of the poker. Walking over to the door, he examined the fastenings. Having taken a general survey, he next proceeded to a detailed scrutiny of everything the place contained. From the fireplace he picked up what looked like a cinder and placed it in a small box, which he put in his pocket.

The polished surface of the table he subjected to a careful examination, borrowing the inspector's magnifying-glass for the purpose. On hands and knees he crawled round the table, still using the magnifying-glass upon the linoleum, with which the floor was covered. From time to time he would pick up some apparently minute object and transfer it to another small box. At length he rose to his feet as if satisfied.

"The professor did not smoke?" he queried.

"No; but the murderer did," was the rather brusque reply. Inspector Carfon was finding the role of audience trying, alike to his nerves and to his temper.

"Obviously," was Malcolm Sage's dry retort. "He also left his pipe behind and had to return for it. It was rather a foul pipe, too," he added.

"Left his pipe behind!" cried the inspector, his irritation dropping from him like a garment. "How on earth——!" In his surprise he left the sentence unfinished.

"Here," Malcolm Sage indicated a dark stain on the highly-polished table, "and here," he pointed to a few flecks of ash some four or five inches distant, "are indications that a pipe has remained for some considerable time, long enough for the nicotine to drain through the stem; it was a very foul pipe, Carfon."

"But mightn't that have trickled out in a few minutes, or while the man was here?" objected Inspector Carfon.

"With a wet smoker the saliva might have drained back," said Malcolm Sage, his eyes upon the stain, "but this is nicotine from higher up the stem, which would take time to flow out. As to leaving it on the table, what inveterate smoker would allow a pipe to lie on a table for any length of time unless he left it behind him? The man smoked like a chimney; look at the tobacco ash in the fireplace."

The inspector stared at Malcolm Sage, chagrin in his look.

"Now that photograph, Carfon," said Malcolm Sage.

Taking a letter-case from his breast-pocket, Inspector Carfon drew out a photograph folded in half. This he handed to Malcolm Sage, who, after a keen glance at the grim and gruesome picture, put it in his pocket.

"I thought so," he murmured.

"Thought what, Mr. Sage?" enquired the inspector eagerly.

"Left-handed." When keenly interested Malcolm Sage was more than usually economical in words.

"Clean through the left side of the occipital bone," Malcolm Sage continued. "No right-handed man could have delivered such a blow. That confirms the poker."

The inspector stared.

"The sockets of the bolts, and that of the lock, have been loosened from the inside with the poker," explained Malcolm Sage in a matter-of-fact tone. "The marks upon the poker suggest a left-handed man. The wound in the head proves it."

"Then the forced door was a blind?" gasped the inspector.

"The murderer was let in by the professor himself, who was subsequently attacked from behind as he stood with his back to the fireplace. You are sure the grate has not been touched?" He suddenly raised his eyes in keen interrogation.

Inspector Carfon shook his head. He had not yet recovered from his surprise.

"Someone has stirred the ashes about so as to break up the charred leaves into small pieces to make identification impossible. This man has a brain," he added.

The inspector gave vent to a prolonged whistle. "I knew there was something funny about the whole business," he said as if in self-defence.

Malcolm Sage had seated himself at the table, his long thin fingers outspread before him. Suddenly he gave utterance to an exclamation of annoyance.

The inspector bent eagerly forward.

"The pipe," he murmured. "I was wrong. He put it down because he was absorbed in something, probably the papers he burnt."

"Then you think the murderer burnt the papers?" enquired the inspector in surprise.

"Who else?" asked Malcolm Sage, rising. "Now we'll see the butler."

Whilst the inspector was locking and re-sealing the door, Malcolm Sage walked round the building several times in widening circles, examining the ground carefully; but there had been no rain for several weeks, and nothing upon its surface suggested a footprint.