"At first there was only talk of a terrible accident, the result of som_nexplicable carelessness which perhaps the evidence at the inquest would hel_o elucidate.
"Medical assistance came too late; the unfortunate woman was indeed dead, frozen to death, inside her own room. Further examination showed that she ha_eceived a severe blow at the back of the head, which must have stunned he_nd caused her to fall, helpless, beside the open window. Temperature at fiv_egrees below zero had done the rest. Detective Inspector Howell discovere_lose to the window a wrought-iron gas bracket, the height of whic_orresponded exactly with the bruise at the back of Mrs. Owen's head.
"Hardly however had a couple of days elapsed when public curiosity was whette_y a few startling headlines, such as the halfpenny evening papers alone kno_ow to concoct.
"'The mysterious death in Percy Street.' 'Is it Suicide or Murder?' 'Thrillin_etails—Strange developments.' 'Sensational Arrest.'
"What had happened was simply this:
"At the inquest a few certainly very curious facts connected with Mrs. Owen'_ife had come to light, and this had led to the apprehension of a young man o_ery respectable parentage on a charge of being concerned in the tragic deat_f the unfortunate caretaker.
"To begin with, it happened that her life, which in an ordinary way shoul_ave been very monotonous and regular, seemed, at any rate latterly, to hav_een more than usually chequered and excited. Every witness who had known he_n the past concurred in the statement that since October last a great chang_ad come over the worthy and honest woman.
"I happen to have a photo of Mrs. Owen as she was before this great chang_ccurred in her quiet and uneventful life, and which led, as far as the poo_oul was concerned, to such disastrous results.
"Here she is to the life," added the funny creature, placing the photo befor_olly—"as respectable, as stodgy, as uninteresting as it is well possible fo_ member of your charming sex to be; not a face, you will admit, to lead an_oungster to temptation or to induce him to commit a crime.
"Nevertheless one day all the tenants of the Rubens Studios were surprised an_hocked to see Mrs. Owen, quiet, respectable Mrs. Owen, sallying forth at si_'clock in the afternoon, attired in an extravagant bonnet and a cloak trimme_ith imitation astrakhan which—slightly open in front—displayed a gold locke_nd chain of astonishing proportions.
"Many were the comments, the hints, the bits of sarcasm levelled at the worth_oman by the frivolous confraternity of the brush.
"The plot thickened when from that day forth a complete change came over th_orthy caretaker of the Rubens Studios. While she appeared day after da_efore the astonished gaze of the tenants and the scandalized looks of th_eighbours, attired in new and extravagant dresses, her work was hopelessl_eglected, and she was always 'out' when wanted.
"There was, of course, much talk and comment in various parts of the Ruben_tudios on the subject of Mrs. Owen's 'dissipations.' The tenants began to pu_wo and two together, and after a very little while the general consensus o_pinion became firmly established that the honest caretaker's demoralisatio_oincided week for week, almost day for day, with young Greenhill'_stablishment in No. 8 Studio.
"Every one had remarked that he stayed much later in the evening than any on_lse, and yet no one presumed that he stayed for purposes of work. Suspicion_oon rose to certainty when Mrs. Owen and Arthur Greenhill were seen by one o_he glass workmen dining together at Gambia's Restaurant in Tottenham Cour_oad.
"The workman, who was having a cup of tea at the counter, noticed particularl_hat when the bill was paid the money came out of Mrs. Owen's purse. Th_inner had been sumptuous—veal cutlets, a cut from the joint, dessert, coffe_nd liqueurs. Finally the pair left the restaurant apparently very gay, youn_reenhill smoking a choice cigar.
"Irregularities such as these were bound sooner or later to come to the ear_nd eyes of Mr. Allman, the landlord of the Rubens Studios; and a month afte_he New Year, without further warning, he gave her a week's notice to quit hi_ouse.
"'Mrs. Owen did not seem the least bit upset when I gave her notice,' Mr.
Allman declared in his evidence at the inquest; 'on the contrary, she told m_hat she had ample means, and had only worked latterly for the sake o_omething to do. She added that she had plenty of friends who would look afte_er, for she had a nice little pile to leave to any one who would know how "t_et the right side of her."'
"Nevertheless, in spite of this cheerful interview, Miss Bedford, the tenan_f No. 6 Studio, had stated that when she took her key to the caretaker's roo_t 6.30 that afternoon she found Mrs. Owen in tears. The caretaker refused t_e comforted, nor would she speak of her trouble to Miss Bedford.
"Twenty-four hours later she was found dead.
"The coroner's jury returned an open verdict, and Detective-Inspector Jone_as charged by the police to make some inquiries about young Mr. Greenhill, whose intimacy with the unfortunate woman had been universally commented upon.
"The detective, however, pushed his investigations as far as the Birkbec_ank. There he discovered that after her interview with Mr. Allman, Mrs. Owe_ad withdrawn what money she had on deposit, some £800, the result of twenty- five years' saving and thrift.
"But the immediate result of Detective-Inspector Jones's labours was that Mr.
Arthur Greenhill, lithographer, was brought before the magistrate at Bo_treet on the charge of being concerned in the death of Mrs. Owen, caretake_f the Rubens Studios, Percy Street.
"Now that magisterial inquiry is one of the few interesting ones which I ha_he misfortune to miss," continued the man in the corner, with a nervous shak_f the shoulders. "But you know as well as I do how the attitude of the youn_risoner impressed the magistrate and police so unfavourably that, with ever_ew witness brought forward, his position became more and more unfortunate.
"Yet he was a good-looking, rather coarsely built young fellow, with one o_hose awful Cockney accents which literally make one jump. But he looke_ainfully nervous, stammered at every word spoken, and repeatedly gave answer_ntirely at random.
"His father acted as lawyer for him, a rough-looking elderly man, who had th_ppearance of a common country attorney rather than of a London solicitor.
"The police had built up a fairly strong case against the lithographer.
Medical evidence revealed nothing new: Mrs. Owen had died from exposure, th_low at the back of the head not being sufficiently serious to cause anythin_ut temporary disablement. When the medical officer had been called in, deat_ad intervened for some time; it was quite impossible to say how long, whethe_ne hour or five or twelve.
"The appearance and state of the room, when the unfortunate woman was found b_r. Charles Pitt, were again gone over in minute detail. Mrs. Owen's clothes, which she had worn during the day, were folded neatly on a chair. The key o_er cupboard was in the pocket of her dress. The door had been slightly ajar, but both the windows were wide open; one of them, which had the sash-lin_roken, had been fastened up most scientifically with a piece of rope.
"Mrs. Owen had obviously undressed preparatory to going to bed, and th_agistrate very naturally soon made the remark how untenable the theory of a_ccident must be. No one in their five senses would undress with a temperatur_t below zero, and the windows wide open.
"After these preliminary statements the cashier of the Birkbeck was called an_e related the caretaker's visit at the bank.
"'It was then about one o'clock,' he stated. 'Mrs. Owen called and presented _heque to self for £827, the amount of her balance. She seemed exceedingl_appy and cheerful, and talked about needing plenty of cash, as she was goin_broad to join her nephew, for whom she would in future keep house. I warne_er about being sufficiently careful with so large a sum, and parting from i_njudiciously, as women of her class are very apt to do. She laughingl_eclared that not only was she careful of it in the present, but meant to b_o for the far-off future, for she intended to go that very day to a lawyer'_ffice and to make a will.'
"The cashier's evidence was certainly startling in the extreme, since in th_idow's room no trace of any kind was found of any money; against that, two o_he notes handed over by the bank to Mrs. Owen on that day were cashed b_oung Greenhill on the very morning of her mysterious death. One was handed i_y him to the West End Clothiers Company, in payment for a suit of clothes, and the other he changed at the Post Office in Oxford Street.
"After that all the evidence had of necessity to be gone through again on th_ubject of young Greenhill's intimacy with Mrs. Owen. He listened to it al_ith an air of the most painful nervousness, his cheeks were positively green, his lips seemed dry and parched, for he repeatedly passed his tongue ove_hem, and when Constable E 18 deposed that at 2 a.m. on the morning o_ebruary 2nd he had seen the accused and spoken to him at the corner of Perc_treet and Tottenham Court Road, young Greenhill all but fainted.
"The contention of the police was that the caretaker had been murdered an_obbed during that night before she went to bed, that young Greenhill had don_he murder, seeing that he was the only person known to have been intimat_ith the woman, and that it was, moreover, proved unquestionably that he wa_n the immediate neighbourhood of the Rubens Studios at an extraordinaril_ate hour of the night.
"His own account of himself, and of that same night, could certainly not b_alled very satisfactory. Mrs. Owen was a relative of his late mother's, h_eclared. He himself was a lithographer by trade, with a good deal of time an_eisure on his hands. He certainly had employed some of that time in takin_he old woman to various places of amusement. He had on more than one occasio_uggested that she should give up menial work, and come and live with him, but, unfortunately, she was a great deal imposed upon by her nephew, a man o_he name of Owen, who exploited the good-natured woman in every possible way, and who had on more than one occasion made severe attacks upon her savings a_he Birkbeck Bank.
"Severely cross-examined by the prosecuting counsel about this suppose_elative of Mrs. Owen, Greenhill admitted that he did not know him—had, i_act, never seen him. He knew that his name was Owen and that was all. Hi_hief occupation consisted in sponging on the kind-hearted old woman, but h_nly went to see her in the evenings, when he presumably knew that she woul_e alone, and invariably after all the tenants of the Rubens Studios had lef_or the day.
"I don't know whether at this point it strikes you at all, as it did bot_agistrate and counsel, that there was a direct contradiction in thi_tatement and the one made by the cashier of the Birkbeck on the subject o_is last conversation with Mrs. Owen. 'I am going abroad to join my nephew, for whom I am going to keep house,' was what the unfortunate woman had said.
"Now Greenhill, in spite of his nervousness and at times contradictor_nswers, strictly adhered to his point, that there was a nephew in London, wh_ame frequently to see his aunt.
"Anyway, the sayings of the murdered woman could not be taken as evidence i_aw. Mr. Greenhill senior put the objection, adding: 'There may have been tw_ephews,' which the magistrate and the prosecution were bound to admit.
"With regard to the night immediately preceding Mrs. Owen's death, Greenhil_tated that he had been with her to the theatre, had seen her home, and ha_ad some supper with her in her room. Before he left her, at 2 a.m., she ha_f her own accord made him a present of £10, saying: 'I am a sort of aunt t_ou, Arthur, and if you don't have it, Bill is sure to get it.'
"She had seemed rather worried in the early part of the evening, but later o_he cheered up.
"'Did she speak at all about this nephew of hers or about her money affairs?
asked the magistrate.
"Again the young man hesitated, but said, 'No! she did not mention either Owe_r her money affairs.'
"If I remember rightly," added the man in the corner, "for recollect I was no_resent, the case was here adjourned. But the magistrate would not grant bail.
Greenhill was removed looking more dead than alive—though every one remarke_hat Mr. Greenhill senior looked determined and not the least worried. In th_ourse of his examination on behalf of his son, of the medical officer and on_r two other witnesses, he had very ably tried to confuse them on the subjec_f the hour at which Mrs. Owen was last known to be alive.
"He made a very great point of the fact that the usual morning's work was don_hroughout the house when the inmates arrived. Was it conceivable, he argued, that a woman would do that kind of work overnight, especially as she was goin_o the theatre, and therefore would wish to dress in her smarter clothes? I_ertainly was a very nice point levelled against the prosecution, who promptl_etorted: Just as conceivable as that a woman in those circumstances of lif_hould, having done her work, undress beside an open window at nine o'clock i_he morning with the snow beating into the room.
"Now it seems that Mr. Greenhill senior could produce any amount of witnesse_ho could help to prove a conclusive _alibi_ on behalf of his son, if onl_ome time subsequent to that fatal 2 a.m. the murdered woman had been see_live by some chance passer-by.
"However, he was an able man and an earnest one, and I fancy the magistrat_elt some sympathy for his strenuous endeavours on his son's behalf. H_ranted a week's adjournment, which seemed to satisfy Mr. Greenhil_ompletely.
"In the meanwhile the papers had talked of and almost exhausted the subject o_he mystery in Percy Street. There had been, as you no doubt know fro_ersonal experience, innumerable arguments on the puzzling alternatives:—
"A week went by, and then the case against young Greenhill was resumed. O_ourse the court was crowded. It needed no great penetration to remark at onc_hat the prisoner looked more hopeful, and his father quite elated.
"Again a great deal of minor evidence was taken, and then came the turn of th_efence. Mr. Greenhill called Mrs. Hall, confectioner, of Percy Street, opposite the Rubens Studios. She deposed that at 8 o'clock in the morning o_ebruary 2nd, while she was tidying her shop window, she saw the caretaker o_he Studios opposite, as usual, on her knees, her head and body wrapped in _hawl, cleaning her front steps. Her husband also saw Mrs. Owen, and Mrs. Hal_emarked to her husband how thankful she was that her own shop had tile_teps, which did not need scrubbing on so cold a morning.
"Mr. Hall, confectioner, of the same address, corroborated this statement, an_r. Greenhill, with absolute triumph, produced a third witness, Mrs. Martin, of Percy Street, who from her window on the second floor had, at 7.30 a.m., seen the caretaker shaking mats outside her front door. The description thi_itness gave of Mrs. Owen's get-up, with the shawl round her head, coincide_oint by point with that given by Mr. and Mrs. Hall.
"After that Mr. Greenhill's task became an easy one; his son was at hom_aving his breakfast at 8 o'clock that morning—not only himself, but hi_ervants would testify to that.
"The weather had been so bitter that the whole of that day Arthur had no_tirred from his own fireside. Mrs. Owen was murdered after 8 a.m. on tha_ay, since she was seen alive by three people at that hour, therefore his so_ould not have murdered Mrs. Owen. The police must find the crimina_lsewhere, or else bow to the opinion originally expressed by the public tha_rs. Owen had met with a terrible untoward accident, or that perhaps she ma_ave wilfully sought her own death in that extraordinary and tragic fashion.
"Before young Greenhill was finally discharged one or two witnesses were agai_xamined, chief among these being the foreman of the glassworks. He had turne_p at the Rubens Studios at 9 o'clock, and been in business all day. H_verred positively that he did not specially notice any suspicious-lookin_ndividual crossing the hall that day. 'But,' he remarked with a smile, '_on't sit and watch every one who goes up and downstairs. I am too busy fo_hat. The street door is always left open; any one can walk in, up or down, who knows the way.'
"That there was a mystery in connection with Mrs. Owen's death—of that th_olice have remained perfectly convinced; whether young Greenhill held the ke_f that mystery or not they have never found out to this day.
"I could enlighten them as to the cause of the young lithographer's anxiety a_he magisterial inquiry, but, I assure you, I do not care to do the work o_he police for them. Why should I? Greenhill will never suffer from unjus_uspicions. He and his father alone—besides myself—know in what a terribl_ight corner he all but found himself.
"The young man did not reach home till nearly _five_ o'clock that morning. Hi_ast train had gone; he had to walk, lost his way, and wandered abou_ampstead for hours. Think what his position would have been if the worth_onfectioners of Percy Street had not seen Mrs. Owen 'wrapped up in a shawl, on her knees, doing the front steps.'
"Moreover, Mr. Greenhill senior is a solicitor, who has a small office in Joh_treet, Bedford Row. The afternoon before her death Mrs. Owen had been to tha_ffice and had there made a will by which she left all her savings to youn_rthur Greenhill, lithographer. Had that will been in other than paterna_ands, it would have been proved, in the natural course of such things, an_ne other link would have been added to the chain which nearly dragged Arthu_reenhill to the gallows—'the link of a very strong motive.'
"Can you wonder that the young man turned livid, until such time as it wa_roved beyond a doubt that the murdered woman was alive hours after he ha_eached the safe shelter of his home?
"I saw you smile when I used the word 'murdered,'" continued the man in th_orner, growing quite excited now that he was approaching the _dénouement_ o_is story. "I know that the public, after the magistrate had discharged Arthu_reenhill, were quite satisfied to think that the mystery in Percy Street wa_ case of accident—or suicide."
"No," replied Polly, "there could be no question of suicide, for two ver_istinct reasons."
He looked at her with some degree of astonishment. She supposed that he wa_mazed at her venturing to form an opinion of her own.
"And may I ask what, in your opinion, these reasons are?" he asked ver_arcastically.
"To begin with, the question of money," she said—"has any more of it bee_raced so far?"
"Not another £5 note," he said with a chuckle; "they were all cashed in Pari_uring the Exhibition, and you have no conception how easy a thing that is t_o, at any of the hotels or smaller _agents de change_."
"That nephew was a clever blackguard," she commented.
"You believe, then, in the existence of that nephew?"
"Why should I doubt it? Some one must have existed who was sufficientl_amiliar with the house to go about in it in the middle of the day withou_ttracting any one's attention."
"In the middle of the day?" he said with a chuckle.
"Any time after 8.30 in the morning."
"So you, too, believe in the 'caretaker, wrapped up in a shawl,' cleaning he_ront steps?" he queried.
"It never struck you, in spite of the training your intercourse with me mus_ave given you, that the person who carefully did all the work in the Ruben_tudios, laid the fires and carried up the coals, merely did it in order t_ain time; in order that the bitter frost might really and effectually do it_ork, and Mrs. Owen be not missed until she was truly dead."
"But—" suggested Polly again.
"It never struck you that one of the greatest secrets of successful crime i_o lead the police astray with regard to the time when the crime wa_ommitted. That was, if you remember, the great point in the Regent's Par_urder.
"In this case the 'nephew,' since we admit his existence, would—even if h_ere ever found, which is doubtful—be able to prove as good an _alibi_ a_oung Greenhill."
"But I don't understand—"
"How the murder was committed?" he said eagerly. "Surely you can see it al_or yourself, since you admit the 'nephew'—a scamp, perhaps—who sponges on th_ood-natured woman. He terrorises and threatens her, so much so that sh_ancies her money is no longer safe even in the Birkbeck Bank. Women of tha_lass are apt at times to mistrust the Bank of England. Anyway, she withdraw_er money. Who knows what she meant to do with it in the immediate future?
"In any case, she wishes to secure it after her death to a young man whom sh_ikes, and who has known how to win her good graces. That afternoon the nephe_egs, entreats for more money; they have a row; the poor woman is in tears, and is only temporarily consoled by a pleasant visit at the theatre.
"At 2 o'clock in the morning young Greenhill parts from her. Two minutes late_he nephew knocks at the door. He comes with a plausible tale of having misse_is last train, and asks for a 'shake down' somewhere in the house. The good- natured woman suggests a sofa in one of the studios, and then quietly prepare_o go to bed. The rest is very simple and elementary. The nephew sneaks int_is aunt's room, finds her standing in her nightgown; he demands money wit_hreats of violence; terrified, she staggers, knocks her head against the ga_racket, and falls on the floor stunned, while the nephew seeks for her key_nd takes possession of the £800. You will admit that the subsequent _mise e_cène_ —is worthy of a genius.
"No struggle, not the usual hideous accessories round a crime. Only the ope_indows, the bitter north-easterly gale, and the heavily falling snow—tw_ilent accomplices, as silent as the dead.
"After that the murderer, with perfect presence of mind, busies himself in th_ouse, doing the work which will ensure that Mrs. Owen shall not be missed, a_ny rate, for some time. He dusts and tidies; some few hours later he eve_lips on his aunt's skirt and bodice, wraps his head in a shawl, and boldl_llows those neighbours who are astir to see what they believe to be Mrs.
Owen. Then he goes back to her room, resumes his normal appearance and quietl_eaves the house."
"He may have been seen."
"He undoubtedly _was_ seen by two or three people, but no one thought anythin_f seeing a man leave the house at that hour. It was very cold, the snow wa_alling thickly, and as he wore a muffler round the lower part of his face, those who saw him would not undertake to know him again."
"That man was never seen nor heard of again?" Polly asked.
"He has disappeared off the face of the earth. The police are searching fo_im, and perhaps some day they will find him—then society will be rid of on_f the most ingenious men of the age."