I cannot pretend to say how it all happened: I can but relate what occurred, leaving those of my friends who are versed in psychic matters to find a plausible explanation for the fact that on that horrible foggy afternoon I chanced to walk into that blameless tea-shop at that particular hour. Now I had not been inside a tea-shop for years and I had practically ceased to think of the Man in the Corner― the weird, spook-like creature with the baggy trousers, the huge horn-rimmed spectacles, and the thin claw-like hands that went on fidgeting, fidgeting, fidgeting, with a piece of string, tying it with nervy deliberation into innumerable and complicated knots.
And yet when I walked into that tea-shop and saw him sitting in the corner by the fire, I was hardly conscious of surprise; but I did not think that he would recognise me. So I sat down at the next table to him, and when I thought that he was most intent on fidgeting with his piece of string, I stole surreptitious glances at him. The last twenty years seemed to have passed him by; he was just the same; his hair was of the same colourless, lank texture and still lay plastered across his bald, pointed cranium, his pale eyes were no paler, his face no more wrinkled, his fingers were just as agile and restless as they had been when I last saw him twenty years ago.
Then all at once he spoke, just as he used to do, in the same cracked voice, with the dry, ironic chuckle.
"One of the most interesting cases it has ever been my good fortune to investigate," he said.
I had not realised that he had seen me, and I gave such a startled jump that I spilt half a cup of tea on my frock. With a long, bony finger he was pointing to a copy of the Express Post which lay beside his plate, and, almost against my will, my eyes wandered to the flaming headline: "The Mystery of the Khaki Tunic." Then I looked up enquiringly at my pixy-like interlocutor. His watery blue eyes contemplated me through his horn-rimmed spectacles and his thin, colourless lips smiled on me with placid benevolence. It never occurred to me to make a conventional little speech about the lapse of time since last we met; for the moment
I had the feeling as if I had seen him the day before yesterday. "You are still interested in criminology then?" I asked.
"More than ever," he replied with a bland smile, "and this case has given me some of the most delightful moments I have ever experienced in connection with my studies. I have watched the police committing one blunder after another, and today when they are completely baffled, and the public has started to write letters to the papers about another undetected crime and another criminal at large. I am having the time of my life."
"Of course you have made up your mind," I retorted with what I felt was withering sarcasm.
"I have arrived at the only possible solution of the mystery," he replied unperturbed, "and you will do the same when I have put the facts clearly and logically before you. As for the police, let 'em flounder," he went on complacently. "For me it has been an exciting drama, to watch from beginning to end. Every one of the characters in it stands out before me like a clear-cut cameo. There was Miss Mary Clarke, a quiet middle-aged woman who rented 'Hardacres,' from Lord Foremeere. She had taken the place soon after the Armistice and ran a poultry farm there on a small scale with the occasional assistance of her brother Arthur, an ex-officer in the East Glebeshires, a young man who had an excellent war record, but who seemed, like so many other young men of his kind, to have fallen into somewhat shiftless and lazy ways since the glorious peace.
"No doubt you know the geography of the place. The halfpenny papers have been full of maps and plans of 'Hardacres.' It is rather a lonely house on the road between Langford and Barchester, about three quarters of a mile from Meere village. Meere Court is another half-mile or so further on, the house hidden by clumps of stately trees, above which can be perceived the towers of Barchester Cathedral.
"Very little seems to have been known about Miss Clarke in the neighbourhood; she seemed to be fairly well-to-do and undoubtedly a cut above the village folk; but, equally obviously, she did not belong to the county set. Nor did she encourage visitors, not even the vicar; she seldom went to church, and neither went to parties nor ever asked anyone to tea; she did most of her shopping herself, in Meere, and sold her poultry and eggs to Mr. Brook, the local dealer, who served all the best houses for miles around. Every morning at seven o'clock a girl from the village named Emily Baker came in to do the housework at 'Hardacres,' and left again after the midday dinner. Once a week regularly Miss Clarke called at Meere Court. Always on a Friday. She walked over in the afternoon, whatever the weather, brought a large basket of eggs with her, and was shown without ever being kept waiting, straight into Lady Foremeere's sitting-room. The interview lasted about ten minutes, sometimes more, and then she would be shown out again.
"Mind you," the funny creature went on glibly, and raising a, long, pointed finger to emphasise his words, "no one seems to have thought that there was anything mysterious about Miss Clarke. The fact that 'she kept 'erself to 'erself' was not in itself a sign of anything odd about her. People, especially women, in outlying country districts, often lead very self-centred lonely lives; they arouse a certain amount of curiosity when they first arrive in the neighbourhood, but after a while gossip dies out, if it is not fed, and the hermit's estrangements from village life is tacitly accepted.
"On the other hand Miss Clarke's brother Arthur was exceedingly gregarious. He was a crack tennis player and an excellent dancer, and these two accomplishments procured him the entree into the best houses in the county― houses which, before the war, when people were more fastidious in the choice of their guests, would no doubt have not been quite so freely opened to him.
"It was common gossip that Arthur was deeply in love with April St. Jude, Lord Foremeere's beautiful daughter by a previous marriage, but public opinion was unanimous in the assertion that there never could be any question of marriage between an extemporary gentleman without money or property of any kind and the society beauty who had been courted by some of the smartest and richest men in London.
"Nor did Arthur Clarke enjoy the best of reputations in the neighbourhood: he was over fond of betting and loafing about the public-houses of Barchester. People said that he might help his sister in the farm more than he did, seeing that he did not appear to have a sixpence of his own, and that she gave him bed and board; but as he was very good looking and could make himself very agreeable if he chose, the women at any rate smiled at his misdeeds and were content to call Arthur 'rather wild, but not really a bad boy.'
"Then came the tragedy.
"On the twenty-eighth of December last, when Emily Baker came to work as usual, she was rather surprised not to see or hear Miss Clarke moving about the place. As a rule she was out in the yard by the time Emily arrived; the chickens would have had their hot mash and the empty pans would have been left for Emily to wash up. But this morning nothing. In the girl's own words, there was a creepy kind of lonely feeling about the house. She knew that Mr. Clarke was not at home. The day before the servants at Meere Court had their annual Christmas party, and Mr. Clarke had been asked to help with the tree and to entertain the children. He had announced his intention of putting up afterwards at the Deanery Hotel for the night, a thing he was rather fond of doing whenever he was asked out to parties, and did not know what time he might be able to get away.
"Emily when she arrived had found the front door on the latch as usual, therefore― she reflected― Miss Clarke must have been downstairs and drawn the bolts; but where could she be now? Never, never would she have gone out before feeding her chickens, on such a cold morning too!
"At this point Emily gave up reflecting and proceeded to action. She went up to her mistress's room. It was empty and the bed had not been slept in. Genuinely alarmed now, she ran down again, her next objective being the parlour. The door was, as usual, locked on the outside, but, contrary to precedent, the key was not in the lock; thinking it had dropped out, the girl searched for it, but in vain, and at one moment when she moved the small mat which stood before the door of the locked room she at once became aware of an overpowering smell of gas.
"This proved the death-blow to Emily's fortitude; she took to her heels and ran out of the house and down the road toward the village, nor did she halt until she came to the local police station, where she gave as coherent an account as she could of the terrible state of things at 'Hardacres.'
"You will remember that when the police broke open the door of the parlour the first thing they saw was the body of Miss Clarke lying full length on the floor. The poor woman was quite dead, suffocated by the poisonous fumes of gas which was fully turned on in the old-fashioned chandelier above her head. The one window had been carefully latched, and the thick curtains closely drawn together; the chimney had been stuffed up with newspaper and paper had been thrust into every aperture so as to exclude the slightest possible breath of air. There was a wad of it in the keyhole, and the mat on the landing outside had been carefully arranged against the door with the same sinister object.
"It was clearly a deliberate case of murder; the news spread like wildfire and soon the entire neighbourhood was gloating over a sensation the like of which had not come its way for generations past."
"The London evening papers got hold of the story for their noonday edition," the Man in the Corner went on after a slight pause, "and I, with my passion for the enigmatical and the perplexing, made up my mind then and there to probe the mystery on my own account, because I knew well enough that this was just the sort of case which would send the county police blundering all over the wrong track.
"I arrived at Barchester on the Tuesday in time for the inquest, but nothing of much importance transpired that day. Medical evidence went to prove that the deceased had first been struck on the back of the head by some heavy instrument, a weighted stick or something of the sort, which had no doubt stunned her; but she actually died of poisoning by gas which she had inhaled in large quantities while she was half-conscious. The medical officer went on to say that Miss Clarke must have been dead twelve hours or more when he was called in by the police at about eight o'clock in the morning. After this a couple of neighbours testified to having seen Miss Clarke at her front door at about half-past five the previous evening. It was a very dark night, if you remember, and a thick Scotch mist was falling. When the neighbours went by, Miss Clarke had apparently just introduced a visitor into her house, the gas was alight in the small hall and they had vaguely perceived the outline of a man or woman, they could not swear which, in a huge coat, standing for a moment immediately behind Miss Clarke; the neighbours also heard Miss Clarke's voice speaking to her visitor, but what she said they could not distinguish. The weather was so atrocious that everyone who was abroad that night hurried along without taking much notice of what went on around.
"Evidence of a more or less formal character followed and the inquest was then adjourned until the Friday, everyone going away with the feeling that sensational developments were already in the air.
"And the developments came tumbling in thick and fast, To begin with, it appears that Arthur Clarke, when first questioned by the police, had made a somewhat lame statement.
'"I was asked,' he said, 'to help with the servants' Christmas party at Meere Court. I walked over to Barchester at about three o'clock in the afternoon, with my suitcase, as I was going to spend the night at the Deanery Hotel. I went on to Meere Court soon after half-past three, and stayed until past seven, after which I walked back to the Deanery, had some dinner and went early to bed. I never knew that anything had happened to my sister until the police telephoned to me soon after eight o'clock the next morning. And,' he added, 'that's all about it.'
"But it certainly was not 'all about it', because several of the servants at Meere Court who were asked at what time Mr. Clarke went away that night, said that he must have gone very soon after five o'clock. They all finished their tea about that time, and then the gramophone was set going for dancing; they were quite sure that they had not seen Mr. Clarke after that. On the other hand Miss St. Jude said that the servants were mistaken: they were far too deeply engrossed in their own amusements to be at all reliable in their statements. As a matter of fact Mr. Clarke went away, as he said, at about seven o'clock; she herself had danced with him most of the time, and said good night to him in the hall at a few minutes after seven.
"Here was a neat little complication, do you see? A direct conflict of evidence at the very outset of this mysterious case. Can you wonder that amateur detectives already shrugged their shoulders and raised their eyebrows, declaring that the Honourable April St. Jude was obviously in love with Arthur Clarke and was trying to shield him, well knowing that he had something to hide.
"Of course the police themselves were very reticent, but even they could not stop people from gossiping. And gossip, I can assure you, had enough and to spare to feed on. At first, of course, the crime had seemed entirely motiveless. The deceased had not an enemy or, as far as that goes, many acquaintances in the world. In the drawer of the desk, in the parlour, the sum of twenty pounds odd in notes and cash was found, and in a little box by the side of the money poor Mary Clarke's little bits of jewellery. But twenty-four hours later no one could remain in doubt as to the assassin's purpose. You will remember that on the day following the adjourned inquest there had arrived from the depths of Yorkshire an old sister of the deceased, a respectable spinster, to whom Arthur himself, it seems, had communicated the terrible news. She had come to Barchester for the funeral. This elder Miss Clarke, Euphemia by name, though she could not say much that was informative, did at any rate throw light upon one dark passage in her sister's history.
"'For the past four years,' she told the police, 'my sister had an allowance of £4 a week from a member of the aristocracy. I did not know much about her affairs, but I do know that she had a packet of letters on which she set great store. What these letters were I have not the slightest idea, nor do I know what Mary ultimately did with them. On one occasion, before she was actually settled at "Hardacres," she met me in London and asked me to take care of this packet for her, and she told me then that they were very valuable. I also know that she and my brother Arthur had most heated arguments together on the subject of these letters. Arthur was always wanting her to give them up to him and she always refused. On one occasion she told me that she could, if she wanted, sell that packet of letters for five thousand pounds. "Why on earth don't you?" I asked her. But she replied: "Oh, Arthur would only get the money out of me. It's better as it is."'
"This story, as you may well imagine, gave food enough for gossip; at once a romance was woven of blackmail and drama of love and passion, whilst the name of a certain great lady in the neighbourhood, to whom Miss Clarke had been in the habit of paying mysterious weekly visits, was already on everybody's lips.
"And then the climax came. By evening it had transpired that in Arthur Clarke's room at 'Hardacres' the police had found an old khaki tunic stuffed away at the bottom of a drawer, and in the pocket of the tunic the key of the locked parlour door. It was an officer's tunic, which had at some time had its buttons and badges taken off; its right sleeve was so torn that it was nearly out of its arm hole; the cuff was all crumpled as if it had been crushed in a damp, hot hand, and there was a small piece of the cloth torn clean out of it. And― I will leave you to guess the importance of this fact― in the tightly-clenched hand of the murdered woman was found the small piece of khaki cloth which corresponded to a hair's breadth with the missing bit in the sleeve of the tunic.
"After that the man in the street shook his head and declared that Arthur Clarke was as good as hung already."