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Title: The White Pillars Murder
Author: G.K. Chesterton
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1301671h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Apr 2013
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The White Pillars Murder


G.K. Chesterton

First published in English Life, Jan 1925, as
"Dr. Hyde, Detective, and the White Pillars Murder"
Reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Sep 1945

THOSE who have discussed the secret of the success of the great detective, Dr Adrian Hyde, could find no finer example of his remarkable methods than the affair which came to be called 'The White Pillars Mystery'. But that extraordinary man left no personal notes and we owe our record of it to his two young assistants, John Brandon and Walter Weir. Indeed, as will be seen, it was they who could best describe the first investigations in detail, from the outside; and that for a rather remarkable reason. They were both men of exceptional ability; they had fought bravely and even brilliantly in the Great War, they were cultivated, they were capable, they were trustworthy, and they were starving. For such was the reward which England in the hour of victory accorded to the deliverers of the world. It was a long time before they consented in desperation to consider anything so remote from their instincts as employment in a private detective agency. Jack Brandon, who was a dark, compact, resolute, restless youth, with a boyish appetite for detective tales and talk, regarded the notion with a half-fascinated apprehension, but his friend Weir, who was long and fair and languid, a lover of music and metaphysics, with a candid disgust.

'I believe it might be frightfully interesting,' said Brandon. 'Haven't you ever had the detective fever when you couldn't help overhearing somebody say something—"If only he knew what she did to the Archdeacon", or "And then the whole business about Susan and the dog will come out"?'

'Yes,' replied Weir, 'but you only heard snatches because you didn't mean to listen and almost immediately left off listening. If you were a detective, you'd have to crawl under the bed or hide in the dustbin to hear the whole secret, till your dignity was as dirty as your clothes!'

'Isn't it better than stealing,' asked Brandon, gloomily, 'which seems to be the next step?'

'Why, no; I'm not sure that it is!' answered his friend.

Then, after a pause, he added, reflectively, 'Besides, it isn't as if we'd get the sort of work that's relatively decent. We can't claim to know the wretched trade. Clumsy eavesdropping must be worse than the blind spying on the blind. You've not only got to know what is said, but what is meant. There's a lot of difference between listening and hearing. I don't say I'm exactly in a position to fling away a handsome salary offered me by a great criminologist like Dr Adrian Hyde, but, unfortunately, he isn't likely to offer it.'

But Dr Adrian Hyde was an unusual person in more ways than one, and a better judge of applicants than most modern employers. He was a very tall man with a chin so sunk on his chest as to give him, in spite of his height, almost a look of being hunchbacked; but though the face seemed thus fixed as in a frame, the eyes were as active as a bird's, shifting and darting everywhere and observing everything; his long limbs ended in large hands and feet, the former being almost always thrust into his trouser-pockets, and the latter being loaded with more than appropriately large boots. With all his awkward figure he was not without gaiety and a taste for good things, especially good wine and tobacco; his manner was grimly genial and his insight and personal judgement marvellously rapid. Which was how it came about that John Brandon and Waiter Weir were established at comfortable desks in the detective's private office, when Mr Alfred Morse was shown in, bringing with him the problem of White Pillars.

Mr Alfred Morse was a very stolid and serious person with stiffly-brushed brown hair, a heavy brown face and a heavy black suit of mourning of a cut somewhat provincial, or perhaps colonial. His first words were accompanied with an inoffensive but dubious cough and a glance at the two assistants.

'This is rather confidential business.' he said.

'Mr Morse,' said Dr Hyde, with quiet good humour, 'if you were knocked down by a cab and carried to a hospital, your life might be saved by the first surgeon in the land: but you couldn't complain if he let students learn from the operation. These are my two cleverest pupils, and if you want good detectives, you must let them be trained.'

'Oh, very well,' said the visitor, 'perhaps it is not quite so easy to talk of the personal tragedy as if we were alone; but I think I can lay the main facts before you.

'I am the brother of Melchior Morse, whose dreadful death is so generally deplored. I need not tell you about him; he was a public man of more than average public spirit, and I suppose his benefactions and social work are known throughout the world. I had not seen so much of him as I could wish till the last few years; for I have been much abroad; I suppose some would call me the rolling stone of the family, compared with my brother, but I was deeply attached to him, and all the resources of the family estate will be open to anyone ready to avenge his death. You will understand I shall not lightly abandon that duty.

'The crime occurred, as you probably know, at his country place called "White Pillars", after its rather unique classical architecture; a colonnade in the shape of a crescent, like that at St Peter's, runs halfway round an artificial lake, to which the descent is by a flight of curved stone steps. It is in the lake that my brother's body was found floating in the moonlight; but as his neck was broken, apparently with a blow, he had clearly been killed elsewhere. When the butler found the body, the moon was on the other side of the house and threw the inner crescent of the colonnade and steps into profound shadow. But the butler swears he saw the figure of the fleeing man in dark outline against the moonlight as it turned the corner of the house. He says it was a striking outline, and he would know it again.'

'Those outlines are very vivid sometimes,' said the detective, thoughtfully, 'but of course very difficult to prove. Were there any other traces? Any footprints or fingerprints?'

'There were no fingerprints,' said Morse, gravely, 'and the murderer must have meant to take equal care to leave no footprints. That is why the crime was probably committed on the great flight of stone steps. But they say the cleverest murderer forgets something; and when he threw the body in the lake there must have been a splash, which was not quite dry when it was discovered; and it showed the edge of a pretty clear footprint. I have a copy of the thing here; the original is at home.' He passed a brown slip across to Hyde, who looked at it and nodded. 'The only other thing on the stone steps that might be a clue was a cigar-stump. My brother did not smoke.'

'Well, we will look into those clues more closely in due course.' said Dr Hyde. 'Now tell me something about the house and the people in it.'

Mr Morse shrugged his shoulders, as if the family in question did not impress him.

'There were not many people in it,' he replied, 'putting aside a fairly large staff of servants, headed by the butler, Barton, who has been devoted to my brother for years. The servants all bear a good character; but of course you will consider all that. The other occupants of the house at the time were my brother's wife, a rather silent elderly woman, devoted almost entirely to religion and good works; a niece, of whose prolonged visits the old lady did not perhaps altogether approve, for Miss Barbara Butler is half Irish and rather flighty and excitable; my brothers secretary, Mr Graves, a very silent young man (I confess I could never make out whether he was shy or sly), and my brother's solicitor, Mr Caxton, who is an ordinary snuffy lawyer, and happened to be down there on legal business. They might all be guilty in theory, I suppose, but I'm a practical man, and I don't imagine such things in practice.'

'Yes, I realised you were a practical man when you first came in,' said Dr Hyde, rather drily. 'I realised a few other details as well. Is that all you have to tell me?'

'Yes,' replied Morse, 'I hope I have made myself clear.'

'It is well not to forget anything,' went on Adrian Hyde, gazing at him calmly. 'It is still better not to suppress anything, when confiding in a professional man. You may have heard, perhaps, of a knack I have of noticing things about people. I knew some of the things you told me before you opened your mouth; as that you long lived abroad and had just come up from the country. And it was easy to infer from your own words that you are the heir of your brother's considerable fortune.'

'Well, yes, I am,' replied Alfred Morse, stolidly.

'When you said you were a rolling stone,' went on Adrian Hyde, with the same placid politeness, 'I fear some might say you were a stone which the builders were justified in rejecting. Your adventures abroad have not all been happy. I perceive that you deserted from some foreign navy, and that you were once in prison for robbing a bank. If it comes to an inquiry into your brother's death and your present inheritance—'

'Are you trying to suggest,' cried the other fiercely, 'that appearances are against me?'

'My dear sir,' said Dr Adrian Hyde blandly, 'appearances are most damnably against you. But I don't always go by appearances. It all depends. Good day.'

WHEN the visitor had withdrawn, looking rather black, the impetuous Brandon broke out into admiration of the Master's methods and besieged him with questions.

'Look here,' said the great man, good-humouredly, 'you've no business to be asking how I guessed right. You ought to be guessing at the guesses yourselves. Think it out.'

'The desertion from a foreign navy,' said Weir, slowly, 'might be something to do with those bluish marks on his wrist. Perhaps they were some special tattooing and he'd tried to rub them out.'

'That's better,' said Dr Hyde, 'you're getting on.'

'I know!' cried Brandon, more excitedly, 'I know about the prison! They always say, if you once shave your moustache it never grows the same; perhaps there's something like that about hair that's been cropped in gaol. Yes, I thought so. The only thing I can't imagine, is why you should guess he had robbed a bank.'

'Well, you think that out too,' said Adrian Hyde. 'I think you'll find it's the key to the whole of this riddle. And now I'm going to leave this case to you. I'm going to have a half-holiday.'

As a signal that his own working hours were over, he lit a large and sumptuous cigar, and began pishing and poohing over the newspapers.

'Lord, what rubbish!' he cried. 'My God, what headlines! Look at this about White Pillars: "Whose Was the Hand?" They've murdered even murder with clichés like clubs of wood. Look here, you two fellows had better go down to White Pillars and try to put some sense into them. I'll come down later and clear up the mess.'

THE two young detectives had originally intended to hire a car, but by the end of their journey they were very glad they had decided to travel by train with the common herd. Even as they were in the act of leaving the train, they had a stroke of luck in the matter of that collecting of stray words and whispers which Weir found the least congenial, but Brandon desperately clung to as the most practicable, of all forms of detective enquiry. The steady scream of a steam-whistle, which was covering all the shouted conversation, stopped suddenly in the fashion that makes a shout shrivel into a whisper. But there was one whisper caught in the silence and sounding clear as a bell; a voice that said, 'There were excellent reasons for killing him. I know them, if nobody else does.'

Brandon managed to trace the voice to its origin; a sallow face with a long shaven chin and a rather scornful lower lip. He saw the same face more than once on the remainder of his journey, passing the ticket collector, appearing in a car behind them on the road, haunting him so significantly, that he was not surprised to meet the man eventually in the garden of White Pillars, and to have him presented as Mr Claxton, the solicitor.

'That man evidently knows more than he's told the authorities,' said Brandon to his friend, 'but I can't get anything more out of him.'

'My dear fellow,' cried Weir, 'that's what they're all like. Don't you feel by this time that it's the atmosphere of the whole place? It's not a bit like those delightful detective stories. In a detective story all the people in the house are gaping imbeciles, who can't understand anything, and in the midst stands the brilliant sleuth who understands everything. Here am I standing in the midst, a brilliant sleuth, and I believe, on my soul, I'm the only person in the house who doesn't know all about the crime.'

'There's one other anyhow,' said Brandon, with gloom, 'two brilliant sleuths.'

'Everybody else knows except the detective,' went on Weir; 'everybody knows something, anyhow, if it isn't everything. There's something odd even about old Mrs Morse; she's devoted to charity, yet she doesn't seem to have agreed with her husband's philanthropy. It's as if they'd quarrelled about it. Then there's the secretary, the quiet, good-looking young man, with a square face like Napoleon. He looks as if he would get what he wants, and I've very little doubt that what he wants is that red-haired Irish girl they call Barbara. I think she wants the same thing; but if so there's really no reason for them to hide it. And they are hiding it, or hiding something. Even the butler is secretive. They can't all have been in a conspiracy to kill the old man.'

'Anyhow, it all comes back to what I said first,' observed Brandon. 'If they're in a conspiracy, we can only hope to overhear their talk. It's the only way.'

'It's an excessively beastly way,' said Weir, calmly, 'and we will proceed to follow it.'

THEY were walking slowly round the great semicircle of colonnade that looked inwards upon the lake, that shone like a silver mirror to the moon. It was of the same stretch of clear moonlit nights as that recent one, on which old Morse had died mysteriously in the same spot. They could imagine him as he was in many portraits, a little figure in a skull-cap with a white beard thrust forward, standing on those steps, till a dreadful figure that had no face in their dreams descended the stairway and struck him down. They were standing at one end of the colonnade, full of these visions, when Brandon said suddenly: 'Did you speak?'

'I? No,' replied his friend staring.

'Somebody spoke,' said Brandon, in a low voice, 'yet we seem to be quite alone.'

Then their blood ran cold for an instant. For the wall behind them spoke; and it seemed to say quite plainly, in a rather harsh voice: 'Do you remember exactly what you said?'

Weir stared at the wall for an instant; then he slapped it with his hand with a shaky laugh.

'My God,' he cried, 'what a miracle! And what a satire! We've sold ourselves to the devil as a couple of damned eavesdroppers; and he's put us in the very chamber of eavesdropping—into the ear of Dionysius, the Tyrant. Don't you see this is a whispering gallery, and people at the other end of it are whispering?

'No, they're talking too loud to hear us, I think,' whispered Brandon, 'but we'd better lower our voices. It's Caxton the lawyer, and the young secretary.'

The secretary's unmistakable and vigorous voice sounded along the wall saying: 'I told him I was sick of the whole business; and if I'd known he was such a tyrant, I'd never have had to do with him. I think I told him he ought to be shot. I was sorry enough for it afterwards.'

Then they heard the lawyer's more croaking tones saying, 'Oh, you said that, did you? Well, there seems no more to be said now. We had better go in,' which was followed by echoing feet and then silence.

THE next day Weir attached himself to the lawyer with a peculiar pertinacity and made a new effort to get something more out of that oyster. He was pondering deeply of the very little that he had got, when Brandon rushed up to him with hardly-restrained excitement.

'I've been at that place again,' he cried. 'I suppose you'll say I've sunk lower in the pit of slime, and perhaps I have, but it's got to be done. I've been listening to the young people this time, and I believe I begin to see something; though heaven knows, it's not what I want to see. The secretary and the girl are in love all right, or have been; and when love is loose pretty dreadful things can happen. They were talking about getting married, of course, at least she was, and what do you think she said? "He made an excuse of my being under age." So it's pretty clear the old man opposed the match. No doubt that was what the secretary meant by talking about his tyranny.'

'And what did the secretary say when the girl said that?'

'That's the queer thing,' answered Brandon, 'rather an ugly thing, I begin to fancy. The young man only answered, rather sulkily, I thought: "Well, he was within his rights there; and perhaps it was for the best." She broke out in protest "How can you say such a thing?" and certainly it was a strange thing for a lover to say.'

'What are you driving at?' asked his friend.

'Do you know anything about women?' asked Brandon. 'Suppose the old man was not only trying to break off the engagement but succeeding in breaking it up. Suppose the young man was weakening and beginning to wonder whether she was worth losing his job for. The woman might have waited any time or eloped any time. But if she thought she was in danger of losing him altogether, don't you think she might have turned on the tempter with the fury of despair? I fear we have got a glimpse of a very heart-rending tragedy. Don't you believe it, too?'

Walter Weir unfolded his long limbs and got slowly to his feet, filling a pipe and looking at his friend with a sort of quizzical melancholy.

'No, I don't believe it,' he said, 'but that's because I'm such an unbeliever. You see, I don't believe in all this eavesdropping business; I don't think we shine at it. Or, rather, I think you shine too much at it and dazzle yourself blind. I don't believe in all this detective romance about deducing everything from a trifle. I don't believe in your little glimpse of a great tragedy. It would be a great tragedy no doubt, and does you credit as literature or a symbol of life; you can build imaginative things of that sort on a trifle. You can build everything on the trifle except the truth. But in the present practical issue, I don't believe there's a word of truth in it. I don't believe the old man was opposed to the engagement; I don't believe the young man was backing out of it; I believe the young people are perfectly happy and ready to be married tomorrow. I don't believe anybody in this house had any motive to kill Morse or has any notion of how he was killed. In spite of what I said, the poor shabby old sleuth enjoys his own again. I believe I am the only person who knows the truth; and it only came to me in a flash a few minutes ago.'

'Why, how do you mean?' asked the other.

'It came to me in a final flash,' said Weir, 'when you repeated those words of the girl: "He made the excuse that I was under age".'

After a few puffs of his pipe, he resumed reflectively: 'One queer thing is, that the error of the eavesdropper often comes from a thing being too clear. We're so sure that people mean what we mean, that we can't believe they mean what they say. Didn't I once tell you that it's one thing to listen and another to hear? And sometimes the voice talks too plain. For instance, when young Graves, the secretary, said that he was sick of the business, he meant it literally, and not metaphorically. He meant he was sick of Morse's trade, because it was tyrannical.'

'Morse's trade? What trade?' asked Brandon, staring.

'Our saintly old philanthropist was a money-lender,' replied Weir, 'and as great a rascal as his rascally brother. That is the great central fact that explains everything. That is what the girl meant by talking about being under age. She wasn't talking about her love-affair at all, but about some small loan she'd tried to get from the old man and which he refused because she was a minor. Her fiancé made the very sensible comment that perhaps it was all for the best; meaning that she had escaped the net of a usurer. And her momentary protest was only a spirited young lady's lawful privilege of insisting on her lover agreeing with all the silly things she says. That is an example of the error of the eavesdropper, or the fallacy of detection by trifles. But, as I say, it's the money-lending business that's the clue to everything in this house. That's what all of them, even the secretary and solicitor, out of a sort of family pride, are trying to hush up and hide from detectives and newspapers. But the old man's murder was much more likely to get it into the newspapers. They had no motive to murder him, and they didn't murder him.'

'Then who did?' demanded Brandon.

'Ah,' replied his friend, but with less than his usual languor in the ejaculation and something a little like a hissing intake of the breath. He had seated himself once more, with his elbows on his knees, but the other was surprised to realise something rigid about his new attitude; almost like a creature crouching for a spring. He still spoke quite drily, however, and merely said: 'In order to answer that, I fancy we must go back to the first talk that we overheard, before we came to the house; the very first of all.'

'Oh, I see,' said Brandon, a light dawning on his Face. 'You mean what we heard the solicitor say in the train.'

'No,' replied Weir, in the same motionless manner, 'that was only another illustration touching the secret trade. Of course his solicitor knew he was a money-lender; and knew that any such money-lender has a crowd of victims, who might kill him. It's quite true he was killed by one of those victims. But it wasn't the lawyer's remark in the train that I was talking about, for a very simple reason.'

'And why not?' enquired his companion.

'Because that was not the first conversation we overheard.'

Walter Weir clutched his knees with his long bony hands, and seemed to stiffen still more as if in a trance, but he went on talking steadily.

'I have told you the moral and the burden of all these things; that it is one thing to hear what men say and another to hear what they mean. And it was at the very first talk that we heard all the words and missed all the meaning. We did not overhear that first talk slinking about in moonlit gardens and whispering-galleries. We overheard that first talk sitting openly at our regular desks in broad daylight, in a bright and business-like office. But we no more made sense of that talk than if it had been half a whisper, heard in a black forest or a cave.'

He sprang to his feet as if a stiff spring were released and began striding up and down, with what was for him an unnatural animation.

'That was the talk we really misunderstood,' he cried. 'That was the conversation that we heard word for word, and yet missed entirely! Fools that we were! Deaf and dumb and imbecile, sitting there like dummies and being stuffed with a stage play! We were actually allowed to be eavesdroppers, tolerated, ticketed, given special permits to be eavesdroppers; and still we could not eavesdrop! I never even guessed till ten minutes ago the meaning of that conversation in the office. That terrible conversation! That terrible meaning! Hate and hateful fear and shameless wickedness and mortal peril—death and hell wrestled naked before our eyes in that office, and we never saw them. A man accused another man of murder across a table, and we never heard it.'

'Oh,' gasped Brandon at last, 'you mean that the Master accused the brother of murder?'

'No!' retorted Weir, in a voice like a volley, 'I mean that the brother accused the Master of murder.'

'The Master!'

'Yes,' answered Weir, and his high voice fell suddenly, 'and the accusation was true. The man who murdered old Morse was our employer, Dr Adrian Hyde.'

'What can it all mean?' asked Brandon, and thrust his hand through his thick brown hair.

'That was our mistake at the beginning,' went on the other calmly, 'that we did not think what it could all mean. Why was the brother so careful to say the reproduction of the footprint was a proof and not the original? Why did Dr Hyde say the outline of the fugitive would be difficult to prove? Why did he tell us, with that sardonic grin, that the brother having robbed a bank was the key of the riddle? Because the whole of that consultation of the client and the specialist was a fiction for our benefit. The whole course of events was determined by that first thing that happened; that the young and innocent detectives were allowed to remain in the room. Didn't you think yourself the interview was a little too like that at the beginning of every damned detective story? Go over it speech by speech, and you will see that every speech was a thrust or parry under a cloak. That blackmailing blackguard Alfred hunted out Dr Hyde simply to accuse and squeeze him. Seeing us there, he said, "This is confidential", meaning, "You don't want to be accused before them." Dr Hyde answered, "They're my favourite pupils", meaning, "I'm less likely to be blackmailed before them; they shall stay." Alfred answered, "Well, I can state my business, if not quite so personally," meaning, "I can accuse you so that you understand, if they don't."? And he did. He presented his proofs like pistols across the table; things that sounded rather thin, but, in Hyde's case, happened to be pretty thick. His boots, for instance, happened to be very thick. His huge footprint would be unique enough to be a clue. So would the cigar-end; for very few people can afford to smoke his cigars. Of course, that's what got him tangled up with the money-lender—extravagance. You see how much money you get through if you smoke those cigars all day and never drink anything but the best vintage champagne. And though a black silhouette against the moon sounds as vague as moonshine, Hyde's huge figure and hunched shoulders would be rather marked. Well, you know how the blackmailed man hit back: "I perceive by your left eyebrow that you are a deserter; I deduce from the pimple on your nose that you were once in gaol," meaning, "I know you, and you're as much a crook as I am; expose me and I'll expose you." Then he said he had deduced in the Sherlock Holmes manner that Alfred had robbed a bank, and that was where he went too far. He presumed on the incredible credulity, which is the mark of the modern mind when anyone has uttered the magic word "science". He presumed on the priestcraft of our time; but he presumed the least little bit too much, so far as I was concerned. It was then I first began to doubt. A man might possibly deduce by scientific detection that another man had been in a certain navy or prison, but by no possibility could he deduce from a man's appearance that what he had once robbed was a bank. It was simply impossible. Dr Hyde knew it was his biggest bluff; that was why he told you in mockery, that it was the key to the riddle. It was; and I managed to get hold of the key.'

He chuckled in a hollow fashion as he laid down his pipe. 'That jibe at his own bluff was like him; he really is a remarkable man or a remarkable devil. He has a sort of horrible sense of humour. Do you know, I've got a notion that sounds rather a nightmare, about what happened on that great slope of steps that night. I believe Hyde jeered at the journalistic catchword, "Whose Was the Hand?" partly because he, himself, had managed it without hands. I believe he managed to commit a murder entirely with his feet. I believe he tripped up the poor old usurer and stamped on him on the stone steps with those monstrous boots. An idyllic moonlight scene, isn't it? But there's something that seems to make it worse. I think he had the habit anyhow, partly to avoid leaving his fingerprints, which may be known to the police. Anyhow, I believe he did the whole murder with his hands in his trouser-pockets.'

Brandon shuddered suddenly; then collected himself and said, rather weakly: 'Then you don't think the science of observation—'

'Science of observation be damned?' cried Weir. 'Do you still think private detectives get to know about criminals by smelling their hair-oil, or counting their buttons? They do it, a whole gang of them do it just as Hyde did. They get to know about criminals by being half criminals themselves, by being of the same rotten world, by belonging to it and by betraying it, by setting a thief to catch a thief, and proving there is no honour among thieves. I don't say there are no honest private detectives, but if there are, you don't get into their service as easily as you and I got into the office of the distinguished Dr Adrian Hyde. You ask what all this means, and I tell you one thing it means. It means that you and I are going to sweep crossings or scrub out drains. I feel as if I should like a clean job.'


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