Although her skirt and coat were of poor quality, her linen was of a class that could only be worn by some one who paid as much for a single under-garment as most women do for a good costume; but there were no laundry marks, such as usual, upon it.
On the feet were a pair of strong walking boots, bearing the stamped address of a fashionable boot-maker in the West End. Among a list of customers to whom the tradesman supplied footgear of this size and character appeared the name of Lady Dyke.
Not very convincing testimony, but sufficient to bring Sir Charles to the Putney mortuary in the endeavor to identify the remains as those of his missing wife.
In this he utterly failed.
Not only was this poor misshapen lump of distorted humanity wholly unlike Lady Alice, but the color of her hair was different.
Her ladyship’s maid called to identify the linen – even the police admitted the outer clothes were not Lady Dyke’s – was so upset at the repulsive nature of her task that she went into hysterics, protesting loudly that it could not be her mistress she was looking at.
Bruce differed from both of them. He quietly urged Sir Charles to consider the fact that a great many ladies give a helping hand to Nature in the matter of hair tints. The chemical action of water would —
The baronet nearly lost his temper.
“Really, Bruce, you carry your theories too far,” he cried. “My wife had none of these vanities. I am sure this is not she. The mere thought that such a thing could be possible makes me ill. Let us get away, quick.”
So a coroner’s jury found an open verdict, and the poor unknown was buried in a pauper’s grave.
The newspapers dismissed the incident with a couple of paragraphs, though the iron spike planted in the skull afforded good material for a telling headline, and within a couple of days the affair was forgotten.
But Claude Bruce, barrister and amateur detective, was quite sure in his own mind that the nameless woman was Alice, Lady Dyke.
He was so certain – though identification of the body was impossible – that he bitterly resented the scant attention given the matter by the authorities, and he swore solemnly that he would not rest until he had discovered her destroyer and brought the wretch to the bar of justice.
THE LADY’S MAID
The first difficulty experienced by the barrister in his self-imposed task was the element of mystery purposely contributed by Lady Dyke herself. To a man of his quick perception, sharpened and clarified by his legal training, it was easy to arrive at the positive facts underlying the trivial incidents of his meeting with the missing lady at Victoria Station.
Briefly stated, his summary was this: Lady Dyke intended to go to Richmond at a later hour than that at which his unexpected presence had caused her to set out. She had resolved upon a secret visit to some one who lived in Raleigh Mansions, Sloane Square – some person whom she knew so slightly as to be unacquainted with the exact address, and, as the result of this visit, she desired subsequently to see her sister at Richmond.
Sir Charles Dyke was apparently in no way concerned with her movements, nor had she thought fit to consult him, beyond the mere politeness of announcing her probable absence from home at the dinner hour.
To one of Bruce’s analytical powers the problem would be more simple were it, in a popular sense, more complex. In these days, it is a strange thing for a woman of assured position in society to be suddenly spirited out of the world without leaving trace or sign. He approached his inquiry with less certainty, owing to Lady Dyke’s own negative admissions, than if she had been swallowed up by an earthquake, and he were asked to determine her fate by inference and deduction.
It must be remembered that he was sure she was dead – murdered, and that her body had been lodged by human agents beneath an old drain-pipe at Putney.
What possible motive could any one have in so foully killing a beautiful, high-minded, and charming woman, whose whole life was known to her associates, whom the breath of scandal had never touched?
The key of the mystery might be found at Raleigh Mansions, but Bruce decided that this branch of his quest could wait until other transient features were cleared up.
He practically opened the campaign of investigation at Putney. Mild weather had permitted the workmen to conclude their operations the day before the barrister reached the spot where the body had been found – that is to say, some forty-eight hours after he had resolved neither to pause nor deviate in his search until the truth was laid bare.
A large house, untenanted, occupied the bank, a house with solid front facing the road, and a lawn running from the drawing-room windows to the river. Down the right side of the grounds the boundary was sharply marked by a narrow lane, probably a disused ferry road, and access to this thoroughfare was obtained from the lawn by a garden gate.
A newly marked seam in the roadway showed the line of the drainage work, and Bruce did not glance at the point where the pipe entered the Thames, as the structural features here were recent.
He went to the office of the contractor who had carried out the alterations. An elderly foreman readily answered his questions.
“Yes, sir. I was in charge of the men who were on the job. It was an easy business. Just an outlet for rain from the road. An old-fashioned affair; been there thirty or forty years, I should think; all the pipes were crumbling away.”
“Why were the repairs effected at this moment?”
“Well, sir, the house was empty quite a while. You see it used to be a school, a place where young gents were prepared for the army. It was closed about a year ago, and it isn’t everybody as wants so many bedrooms. I do hear as how the new tenant has sixteen children.”
“The incoming people have not yet arrived?”
“Can you tell me the name of the schoolmaster?”
“Oh, yes. When I was younger I have done a lot of carpenter’s work for him. He was the Reverend Septimus Childe.”
Bruce made a note of the name, and next sought the local police-inspector.
“No, nothing fresh,” said the latter, in reply to a query concerning the woman “found drowned.”
“I suppose these things are soon lost sight of?” said Bruce casually.
“Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. It’s wonderful occasionally how a matter gets cleared up after years. Of course we keep all the records of a case, so that the affair can be looked into if anything turns up.”
“Ah, that brings me to the most important object of my visit. A small piece of iron was found imbedded in the woman’s skull.”
The inspector smiled as he admitted the fact.
“May I see it? I want either the loan of it for a brief period, or an exact model.”
Again the policeman grinned.
“I don’t mind telling you that you are too late, sir.”
“Too late! How too late?”
“It’s been gone to Scotland Yard for the best part of a week.”
So others besides the barrister thought that the Putney incident required more attention than had been bestowed upon it.
Bruce concluded his round by a visit to the surgeon who gave evidence at the inquest.
The doctor had no manner of doubt that the woman had been murdered before being placed in the water, the state of the lungs being proof positive on that point.
“It was equally indisputable that she was put to death by malice aforethought?”
“Oh, yes. A small iron spike was absolutely wedged into the brain through the hardest part of the skull.”
“What was the nature of the injuries that caused death?”