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CHAPTER XV
A MYSTERY OF THE THAMES

It was the name, Purley Lock, which had fastened my attention. "Horrible Discovery near Purley Lock!" the headline announced. I read on, rapidly, but thoughtfully. Two boys from Great Marlow had, it seemed, been wandering beside the river bank, between that village and Purley Lock. Straying along a small backwater, leading out from a larger one, they had noticed a peculiar object caught among a number of reeds. One of the boys had curiously poked at it with his stick, bringing it nearer to the shore, when it appeared to be a heavy, almost formless, mass sewn up in a rough sack. The boys, being frightened, had run home with their story, and a member of the local police force, going to the spot, had found the children's suspicions confirmed. The unclothed body of a man, partially consumed by fire and lacking the head, as well as otherwise mutilated in a seemingly aimless way, had been doubled up and sewn in the sack. Weights had evidently been attached to the horrible bundle, but had in some manner become detached. So far no clue whatever, either as to the identity of the murdered man, or that of the murderer, had been brought to light. The body had been in the water for some days, but might still have been recognisable had the head not been removed.

The horror of my dream on Christmas Eve came back to me as I read. No doubt there had been many river mysteries and "shocking discoveries" in the Thames, and perhaps I had read of them, dismissing them from my mind with the alacrity with which one does rid one's thoughts of such sordid tragedies, when they do not happen to concern oneself or one's acquaintances. But this tragedy I could not so dismiss.

I could even picture the very spot where the boys must have seen the sack caught among the dry and rattling reeds. "A small backwater leading out of a larger one, between Great Marlow and Purley Lock." The larger one was doubtless that on which Carson Wildred's house was situated; the smaller one–a mere alley of water, leading away under a drooping tangle of willow and chestnut branches–one had to pass in walking from Purley to the House by the Lock. I was sure, as I recalled the place in memory, that the scene of the discovered mystery could have been no other than this.

Having read to the end, I folded up the paper and put it away in a pocket of my greatcoat for future reference. Then I began walking slowly on towards the Savoy Hotel.

Had it not been for the odd chance which had induced two boys to stroll, in the middle of winter, along the bank of an insignificant outlet of a Thames backwater, what a fine place, I told myself, this would have been for the concealment of a crime! Even without the weights, which had probably become detached from the sack by tangling among the roots under the surface of the water, the body might have been expected to remain hidden for months–at least, till the coming of the spring.

Then, as I so reflected, my mind turned to darker thoughts. Had a crime been committed by the inhabitants of the House by the Lock, what a convenient hiding-place would that adjacent waterway have been! I had no reason to fancy that such a crime had been done, and yet–my thoughts went back to the day on which I paid my somewhat memorable visit to Wildred and Farnham.

Suddenly came the recollection of the awful cry I had heard as I waited in the curious octagonal room, looking at the covered portrait of Karine. The sound had been explained, but there had been a certain flurry and clumsiness in the explanation, I had thought, even then.

I remembered the smoke and sparks which had so mysteriously risen from the tower, and the heat of the octagonal room adjoining it. All this, too, had been accounted for. I had not cared at the time to invent romances to fit into the strange appearances, which I had assured myself were doubtless strange only in appearance; but now I could not help dwelling upon them with an almost morbid persistency that would not be set aside.

I thought of the woman's face which had for an instant gazed at me through the narrow window beside the door. I reminded myself of the surprise on the features of the decorous male factotum when he had learned that I was not the man expected by his master, and I went over word for word, as nearly as I could, each sentence whispered by Wildred and his servant in the hall.

What if there were some ghastly connection between the apparent mystery in the House by the Lock and the half-charred, headless body found to-day in the Thames!

I was ready to accuse my own enmity towards Wildred, and my vague suspicions of him, also my merciless desire to fasten some stigma upon the man, of being potent factors in these mental suggestions of mine.

But I could not banish them even if I would. Continually throughout the remainder of the evening and night I pieced together various theories, all more or less defective, and next morning the desire was strong within me to go and see the headless corpse.

There were at least twenty chances to one against my being able to identify it, or finding in the pitiful remains of a tragedy any clue such as I sought. But strange fancies steeped my brain with their potent fumes, and I knew that I should not be able to rest until, at least, I had absolutely proved myself mistaken.

Permission to view the body at the mortuary was easily obtained at the local police station, when I had given my name, and mentioned that I had come for purposes of identification.

Fortunately for my self-control, I had looked upon many a gruesome sight during my somewhat chequered career, though scarcely one more hideous than this which I had deliberately sought.

It would be worse than useless to enter into a detailed description of what my eyes turned from with loathing. There was only one possible way of identification, however, that of finding some mark upon the partially charred body, or something lacking which might be suggestive of a theory.

I had a theory, which as yet I had scarcely dared dwell upon in my own mind, so wild, so improbable did it appear at any other time than dead of night, when all strange things seem possible. But now, as I judged what the height and size of the body must have been, and let my glance travel almost fearfully to the left hand, I saw that which tended in a ghastly manner to confirm it. All the four fingers were missing, having been cut off between the second joint and knuckles.

Harvey Farnham had worn the ring given to Karine Cunningham by Wildred on the little finger of the left hand; and in the light of this discovery my dream of Christmas Eve came back to me as a prophetic vision.