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Title: A Call on the Phone
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1000731h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2010
Date most recently updated: November 2010

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A Call on the Phone


Fred M White

Published in The Queenslander, Saturday, 22 December, 1917.

All day long the stuffy little court house had been crowded with perspiring humanity eager to hear every word of the proceedings against Edgar Warner. True, up to then it was only a preliminary inquiry, but every man there felt that Warner was being tried for his life. Hour after hour the inquest dragged on till the dusk of the summer evening faded into night. Still the listeners sat patiently on, heedless of the flight of time. They were waiting for Warner to give his evidence, as he had expressed the intention of doing. The coroner had another engagement on the morrow, so that he was prepared to sit till midnight if necessary.

The facts were fairly simple. Mr. William Tuson had been found dead in his library. Obviously, he had come to a violent end. A blow on the head from some blunt, heavy instrument had fractured his skull, and, according to the medical evidence, he had died instantly. Tuson was by way of being a money lender, and he had a reputation for hardness and sharp practice in Langford. Warner was a musician and a song writer, and it was generally known that he had some grievance against Tuson over some business matters in which Warner roundly declared that he had been swindled. There had been a violent quarrel and subsequent litigation, followed by a threat on Tuson's part of making Warner a bankrupt. Certainly Warner was in the moneylender's debt--he had failed to meet an acceptance as it became due, and the acceptance, torn in two pieces, had been found in Warner's garden behind some bushes, the suggestion being that Warner had stolen the paper after he had made away with his creditor.

He denied stoutly that he had seen Tuson on the night of the tragedy. Tuson was known to have been alive and well at 11 o'clock in the evening in question, the insinuation being that Warner had called upon him after that hour, when everybody was in bed. Warner stoutly maintained that after supper he had not left his house. He was in the habit of staying up very late composing and playing, his wife and the one maidservant, on the contrary, always retiring early. In consequence of his very late hours, Warner had his own bedroom, so that he could sleep when he pleased. On the night of the tragedy he had been writing from 9 o'clock till half-past 1, when he retired. He declared that he had never been outside the house. But he had no means of verifying this statement. It would have been the easiest matter for him to have been away any length of time without the members of his household being any the wiser. It was on this evidence that Langford had come to the conclusion that Edgar Warner was guilty of the death of William Tuson. He had killed the man in order to obtain possession of that acceptance and thus destroy all evidence that he was in debt to the moneylender.

But there was one more witness to come. It was getting very late when a slim little woman in spectacles stepped up to the tables to give her evidence. Her name was Maud Matty, and her occupation telephone operator at the Langford exchange. She remembered the night of the murder quite well--on that evening she had been on duty in the exchange. About half-past 11 she had had a call from No. 110, who gave the number 166 as the one needed.

"What does this refer to?" the coroner asked.

"No. 110 is Mr. Warner's number, sir," Inspector Hames explained. "No. 166 is the number of Mr. Tuson's telephone. We regard this evidence as being of great importance."

The tired, perspiring audience thrilled. Most of them knew exactly what this meant. On the night of the murder at half-past 11 Warner had called up the dead man--the man subsequently found dead.

"Really!" the coroner exclaimed. "Are you quite sure of this, Miss Matty?"

"Quite certain, sir," the witness said quietly. "I took the call myself. I heard a question asked."

"You listened?" Warner put in eagerly. "You listened to what was passing?"

"Not exactly that. But I could hear. You called up Mr. Tuson and gave your name. You asked Mr. Tuson if you could see him at once for a few moments, and he gave you a reply to the effect that it was very late, but if you came at once he would see you."

The audience swayed with excitement. This was a dramatic surprise that they had not expected. Warner stood up deadly pale and defiant, his angry eyes challenged the witness. But she stood there coolly and collectedly, and evidently quite sure of her ground.

"I am prepared to swear that I never used the telephone all the evening," Warner cried.

"You will be good enough to be quiet," the coroner said. "The witness must not be interrupted. Now, Miss Matty, is there any possible proof of this?"

"I recognised Mr. Warner's voice," the operator proceeded. "In a small exchange like ours we get to know the voices of our subscribers quite well. Mr. Warner has a slot machine and he cannot call without putting in a penny. The call and the pennies are recorded automatically. There were five calls that day altogether, and if necessary, sir, you can come and see for yourself. The instrument cannot make a mistake."

Warner had no question to ask. He was utterly taken by surprise at the dramatic evidence; he could see how terribly it told against him. And here was some deadly mechanical contrivance that could not possibly be gainsaid. He could feel the rope about his neck.

"May I say a few words?" he asked when the witness had disappeared. "May I give evidence now?"

"I should strongly advise you not to," the Coroner said significantly. "If you will be advised by me, you will be legally represented at the next hearing. Have you any more witnesses, Inspector?"

"Not to-night, sir," Hames said. "I propose, with your permission, to take an adjournment at this point. Since the last witness came and volunteered her evidence yesterday, I have been making inquiries. I think it would be in the interests of the inquiry, and possibly in the interest of Mr. Warner also, if I asked him a few questions. I should like to know if he is right or left handed."

A general smile followed this apparently inconsequent query. But Hames was perfectly grave. The more astute amongst the spectators began to scent further dramatic complication here.

"I am right-handed," the puzzled Warner said. "I will write a few words if you like. And Inspector Hames knows that I am a right-handed cricketer and fisherman."

"I had forgotten that," Hames smiled. Warner was a local celebrity as a cricketer. "Now will you tell me if you happen to be deaf in the left ear?"

Once more a puzzled murmur ran round the room. Warner shook his head vigorously. He was not deaf in either ear, and he was prepared to undergo any fair test to prove it. With the right ear closed, Warner could follow a whispered conversation some fifteen feet away. Hames smiled with the air of a man who is perfectly satisfied with the condition of things.

"That is more than sufficient for my purpose," he said. "I shall be obliged sir, if you will order an adjournment of the case till Monday morning at 10 o'clock."

It was most exasperating for the audience, of course. They were turned out just in the moment when the case had assumed its most exciting form. And what did Hames mean by asking those extraordinary questions? They could not possibly have anything to do with the inquiry. As they filed out into the coolness of the night they morally condemned Edgar Warner to death. The coroner beckoned Hames to his side as he packed up his papers.

"I suppose you have worked all this out?" he said. "Still, after the evidence offered to-night, I was rather surprised that you did not apply for a warrant. On the girl's testimony, I should certainly have granted one."

"Then you regard Warner as guilty of the crime, sir?" Hames asked.

"Certainly I do. The evidence is absolutely overwhelming. It is all on record, too."

"Yes, I admit that," said Hames thoughtfully. "Now I am bound to confess that until Miss Matty came to me, and volunteered her evidence, I regarded Warner as guilty. Everything pointed that way. The finding of that torn acceptance was almost conclusive. It was after Miss Matty had told her story that I came to the conclusion that Warner had nothing whatever to do with it."

The coroner shrugged his shoulders. He could not follow the logic of it at all. It was strange to him that the most damning piece of evidence on the part of the prisoner should be construed into one of the main planks of the defence. Hames was a very smart officer and worthy of a better place, but he was carrying his modern methods and ingenious deductions too far.

Hames hurried along and caught up Warner as the latter was turning into his gate. The house was close on the roadside, with the hall window flush with the road. To keep out prying eyes, stained glass of sorts had been put in the window, but when the hall gas was fully on a dim outline of the interior could be seen. It was possible to make out the stair carpet and certain objects in the broad window ledge. One of the most conspicuous objects there was the telephone that had caused all the trouble.

"May I come in for a few minutes?" Hames asked.

"If you like," Warner replied, none too graciously. "There is nobody in the house. Directly people began to talk--as they did almost before the breath was out of Tuson's body--I sent my wife to her mother and the maid to her home. I have been doing for myself ever since. I suppose you haven't come for me?"

"No," Hames said. "On the contrary, I am here to assist you if I can."

Warner turned into his study. His hands trembled as he lit the gas.

"I am an innocent man," he cried passionately. "I swear to you in the presence of my Maker that I was not out of the house on the night of the murder. It would be an easy thing, quite the prudent thing, to admit having sent that telephone message and to declare that I changed my mind after. All this flashed across me in court to-night, and I could have done it easily. But I never sent that message. If this is to be my last word on earth, I never sent it, Hames."

"My dear sir, I am perfectly well aware of that," Hames said quietly.

Warner gazed at the speaker, as if doubting his meaning.

"You are one of the very few who regard me as not guilty?" he asked.

"I am certain of it," Hames said. "Mind you, I thought so at one time. I thought so until, curiously enough, the most damning evidence of all was tendered against you. Then I began to ask questions. I was about your house last night for an hour or more. I saw something, a little thing, that gave me an idea. That is why I asked you those questions to-night. If you had been deaf in your left ear I should have regarded you as guilty. As it is, I know that you are quite innocent."

"Oh, I give it up," Warner cried impatiently. "The thing is too wildly farcical for me. What on earth has my normal faculty of hearing got to do with it?"

Hames passed the question. All that would come quite plain in due course, he said. Meanwhile he wanted to know if Warner had used his telephone lately?

"As a matter of fact, I haven't," Warner explained. "It hasn't been used since the night of the murder--and not by me then, despite what the--girl from the exchange said. We had no occasion to call anybody, and by 11 o'clock in the day after the murder, my wife and my servant had left the house. I have not spoken to anybody over the line since. I am a poor man, as you know, and I look at a penny twice before I put it in the slot. It would have been different if that blackguard Tuson had not robbed me. I have discharged that bill that was picked up over and over again by music that I gave to Tuson for a song. He detained an opera of mine to which he was not in the least entitled. That rascal was the ruin of me. But that has nothing to do with it whatever. Why are you so anxious to know all about the telephone?"

Hames led the way out into the hall. The telephone stood in an angle on the broad window-ledge with the latticed panes behind it. The receiver hung over on the right hook.

"Now look at that," Hames said, as he pointed at the fact. "Why does the receiver hang on the right-hand hook? It should hang on the left. If you were left-handed it would hang that way, of course--in fact, it would be impossible to replace it in any other way. The obvious way is to ring with the right hand and put the receiver to the left ear. If you are deaf in the left ear you would reverse the receiver. Now, you are not deaf in the left ear and yet the receiver is reversed. I noticed this as I was prowling about the house last night--you can see the instrument quite plainly when your hall gas is lit. Now, you may say that this is a ridiculous detail. As a matter of fact, it is very important--for you. Miss Matty's evidence, which is going to hang you in the opinion of Langford, is going to save you in mine. What a remarkably lucky thing it is that you are not deaf in the left ear!"

And more than that Hames refused to say. For the present he was going entirely on theory, and even the most ingenious theories are apt to be misleading.

"Of your innocence I am assured," he said. "I am going to prove it before long, but I must do this thing in my own time and in my own way. I have a lot still to do to-night, but before I go let me give you one word of advice. Don't touch your telephone. On no account send a message."

Warner gave the desired assurance, and Hames went his way. For the next hour or so he remained closeted with his detective staff. Being on the outskirts of a large seaport, Langford contained a floating population of undesirables in the lodging-houses and in the public houses, and it was as to the doings of these that Hames was interested. He wanted to know if any of them had been flash of money lately. It was in the course of the next morning that Hames sifted a mass of information on this point and began to see his way to act. He took the train as far as Sandmouth, and presently entered the office of the telephone company and asked to see the manager.

"I'm Inspector Hames from Langford," he said. "I will take it for granted that you know something as to the mysterious murder of Mr. Tuson, sir? Or shall I explain?"

"No occasion at all," the manager said. "I read all the evidence. As the case turns upon a telephone call, I was naturally interested. You'll find that they won't shake the evidence of our operator yonder."

"I shall be greatly disappointed if they do," Hames said gravely. "I know that that particular call went through. But it doesn't in the least follow that it was sent by Warner personally."

"Then who else would have sent it? The thing couldn't have been done without Warner's knowledge. He was in the house all the evening, according to his statement. It is a small house, too."

"A small house with the study within a few feet of the hall," Hames agreed. "I have a pretty sound theory of what really did happen, but I want to test it, of course. Now, the house next to Warner's is empty. Could you rig me up a temporary instrument there and connect it with Warner's house in such a way that I should get the call if anybody used Warner's telephone. Suppose he gave a call himself. I want your operator at the exchange to see that I get the message whoever it is sent to. And I want to be in a position to know if anybody uses Warner's instrument. Can you do that?"

The manager nodded thoughtfully. That would not be at all a difficult matter, he explained. If anybody in Warner's house called the exchange, the extension, to the next house would enable a listener to hear all that was going on. To switch the caller in Warner's house on to the temporary instrument next door was merely a matter of drilling the operator at the exchange. The manager promised that the business should have his immediate and careful attention. The necessary work should be done in the course of the day. It was getting dark when Hames finished some work at his office, after which he proceeded to write out a telegram as follows:--

"Pilmer, 17, Harrow-terrace. Trouble over old matter. Can't show up just yet. Matter blow over probably. Give me call telephone 1753 about 11 o'clock to-night. Same old game. House empty."

Hames consigned the message to one of his subordinates with certain definite instructions.

"Send the message off," he said. "And hang about near Harrow-terrace till the thing is delivered. As soon as that is done take two or three men down to 17, Dock Row; and arrest the man and his wife that you find there. See that this is done secretly and that nobody spots what you are doing. It is imperative that there shall be no fuss or curiosity aroused. That's about all, I think."

The telegram was despatched and delivered, and the arrests subsequently made to Hames's entire satisfaction. With a feeling in his mind that everything was going smoothly, he returned about 11 o'clock to the empty house next to the one occupied by Warner. He let himself quietly in by the door, and located the temporary instrument that had been placed there by the obliging manager of the telephone company. With the absolute assurance that he would get an important message presently, he sat down and waited. Within a few minutes after the hour the little bell rippled out.

"Your number 1753?" a husky voice asked.

"That's right. That you, Charlie? What's' up, old man? Your telegram gave me a rare fright."

"We're being watched," Hames responded in the same muffled tone. "Eh? Yes, I've got the very deuce of a cold tonight. You calling me from the old spot, I suppose? That's good! The cops have found out that the old man had a lot of brass in his desk, and it's missing. Don't you get splashing it about for a day or two. I'm lying low in Sandmouth for a little while keeping my eyes open. Can't stay any longer now, old man. Give me a call same way same time to-morrow night. So long."

At eleven o'clock the following night Hames was seated in Warner's study. The house was supposed to be empty, but as a matter of fact Warner had not left it. There were no lights anywhere. As the clock in the hall struck the hour of eleven Hames moved from the study into the hall, followed by Warner. Hames took up his place close to the telephone and waited. A few minutes later the window was opened from the outside very gently and quietly, and a hand fumbled for the bell-handle. Hames pounced upon it like lightning, and held it in a grip like a vice. A volley of curses broke out of the darkness, there was a sound as of violently scuffling feet. Lanterns flashed about outside.

"Put up the gas," Hames shouted. "The fellow is safe in the hands of my men outside. Bring him in, Parker. Ah, I think your name is Pilmer, late of Harrow-terrace. Well, my man, you are arrested on the charge of murdering Mr. Tuson and with subsequently robbing him of L143/4/9. You need not say anything unless you like, but your friend Charlie is in custody, and so is his wife. Rather foolish for poor Charlie to buy his wife a diamond ring in Langford, wasn't it?"

The discomfited ruffian cursed aloud, but Hames waved him aside. "Take him away," he said. "I'll follow presently. I want a few words with Mr. Warner first."

"How on earth did you manage it all?" Warner asked.

"Well, you see," Hames explained. "It was all that transfer of the telephone receiver from the right to the left-hand hook. The thing first struck me as untidy. I noticed it as I was prowling about your house. The telephone is so plain from the road when the gas is lit. Then it suddenly struck me that anybody could use that phone from outside by opening the old catch on the window. And anybody using it from the outside, unless they were left-handed, would have to turn the handle with the left hand, and hold the receiver with the right. As they were working the telephone from the wrong side, so to speak, there was no other way. And that's how the receiver came to be hanging on the wrong hook. Mind you, the thing is quite easily done by standing well back from the window with the flex at full stretch; in that case you would hear nothing. The penny was dropped in the slot quietly, and there you are. Those ruffians had planned what to do--they would easily know that you were at daggers drawn with Tuson, and that's why they called up on your phone imitating your voice. By that means they learnt everything they wanted to know. They killed the old man and robbed him; they found that bill of yours and left it where it would be detected and used as evidence against you. It did not take long to fix on the guilty parties, especially when I found two suspects who were spending money freely. I arrested one lot and tricked the other to come to the telephone to speak to me. He thought that he was talking to his pal, but he was merely talking to me from your house to next door, per the exchange. I got him to try on the same game to-night, so that I could catch him red-handed. He tumbled into the trap, and he has enabled me to prove my case up to the hilt. If I were you, in future I would not keep my telephone in so tempting and conspicuous a place."

Warner hung on to Hames's hand almost affectionately.

"I can't thank you," he said. "But all the same I am going to take your advice."


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