Chapter 9774376

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Chapter NumberI
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article9774376
Full Date1897-10-09
Page Number13
Corrections39
Word Count4450
IllustratedN
Last Corrected2018-04-04
Newspaper TitleThe Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957)
Trove TitleThe Last Fare: A Melbourne Detective Story
article text

THE LAST FARE.

A MELBOURNE DETECTIVE STORY.

By C. H. CHOMLEY.

CHAPTER I.

I have been induced to ixnto tins story, not because I pretend to any skill in the use of the pen, nor yet because, as some might think, I am a detective by profession; it is a profession, in fact, for which I entertain but small regard, since it involves upon the part of those who wish to succeed In it, a surrender of the attributes which distinguish honourable men for those more appropriate to a crafty, savqage, or wild beast in pursuit of his prey. Nevertheless, since it has been my fate, against my inclinations, to piay some considerable part in sheeting home his guilt to a criminal, who might otherwise now be walking the streets of Melboune, with a double blood-stain upon his conscience, I feel impelled, partly perhaps by pride in the acumen I displayed, but chiefly by the interest attaching to any human tragedy, to tell the tale with such

skill as I may.

I am, or rather I was, on the 20th July, 189—, a bachelor of thirty-two, blessed with a moderale income, engaged in no profession, and unhampered by any ties. At half past 12 o'clock on that night, which was as dark and wet and stormy as a midwinter night in Melbourne knows how to be, I was making my way down Chapel street, Prahran, with the faint hope of meeting a disengaged cab, which would take me home with a dry skin to my lodgings in Armadale. I bad just left a card party at the house of a friend in Prahran, not far from the railway station, and to my disgust had found that there was not a single vehicle upon the cab- rank there As I passed the omnibus stables near I noticed that an ommbus, with the dnver still upon his seat, stood by the open gates.

"Do you make another trip up Malvern way tonight?'' I asked, thinking that he would take me at least a little way upon

my road.

"No, sir, thank the Lord," he replied "The horses and me are just agoin' to turn

in."

"All right," I laughed, "but do you know you've a passenger there you'd better turn out first? He's gone to sleep in the

comer."

The lamp in the omnibus was not burning, but by the light that streamed from the stable doors, through the breath dimmed rain-stained windows, I could see the faint outline of a figure huddled up in the furthest left-hand comer. The driver got down from his seat, saying as he opened the door "A drunk, I suppose; I often get 'em, and sometimes they're violent."

I waited, idly curious to see the result of the interview, "Hi, wake up there," called the driver. There was no response, and, climbing into the vehicle, he shook the figure by the shoulder. Still there was no answer but the passenger fell from the seat to the floor. The dnver jumped out of the omnibus and, turning to me with a scared white face, said, "Why, sir, it's a woman and she's dead drunk, sure enough, if it

ain't somethin' worse."

"Hadn't you better drive your 'bus into the yard," I suggested, "out of the wind and the rain? Then we can get a lantern

and see what is the matter."

This seemed the best course to him, and following him into the yard, I waited, while with the assistance of the stable boy he unyoked the horses.

"See to them, Bill, will you? I've got a drunk in here to attend to, a 'lidy,' too,"

he said nervously.

"All right. Pitch her out on her ear and lock tho gates arter you," growled

Bill.

"You bet, I'll shunt her, if this gentleman

will help me," answered the driver, introducing me to Bill with a nod, as he lit

the stable lantern.

Bill had taken the horses off to their stalls when the driver entered the 'bus, closely followed by me. As he flashed the light into tho corner, we saw that the passenger was a woman in evening dress, wearing a high-collared opera cloak, fastened at the neck, and that she had fallen forward on her face, with one arm thrown out, and the little gloved hand lying limply in the dirty straw, in an attitude which I think we both instinctively knew was not that of a drunken person. The man turned to me with consternation in his face.

"It's a bad business," I said. "Put down your lantern, and let us lift her on to the

seat. "

Between us we did so, the dnver placing his folded coat beneath her head for a pillow, while I covered her feet with the heavy folds of her black velvet dress. When the light fell upon her face I saw that it was one I knew - had known years ago - and while ransacking my memory for the name that it belonged to, I was startled by the driver exclaiming in a frightened whisper, "Why, damme, if it ain't Mrs. Corfield, the wife of that rich old chap that lives up above there in Malvern."

With the name came a rush of memories across my brain. I had not seen her since the marriage, which had come as such a shock to all of us who knew her. But this was no time for playing with old memories, and recalling myself with an effort to the present, I said, "Driver,- what's your

name?''

"Gunn, sir. "

"Gunn, send that stable-boy of yours for a doctor and the police. You stay with me here, and let's see if anything can be done. Open the windows and pack off

that boy."

We let fall every window, and the cold night air rushed in to take the place of the close, stifling atmosphere of the omnibus.

Then Gunn turned to me.

"It's not a drunk, sir?" he said, in an inquiring tone, as though he had some hope that I would contradict him. "A faint more likely."

Why, she's dead, man," I said, roughly, angry at being forced to put into words the belief I knew was shared by both of us. "Undo that cloak at her neck," I added, taking one of her hands in mine. Through the glove I could feel that it was cold. Gunn undid the clasp and, starting back, crled out, suddenly, "Good God, look at

that!"

Following the direction of his eyes, I saw a broken pearl necklace, and below it a white silk handkerchief of marvellous fineness, twisted so tightly round her neck, that it cut into the fine white flesh like a cord.

With a trembling hand I took a penknife from my pocket and carefully severed the silk. I had believed the woman dead before Gunn made his gruesome discovery, but now there could be scarcely a doubt of it. Gently I took m my hand the wrist that hung limply beside her and felt for her pulse; but there was no pulse there, neither could I hear the slightest sound when I put my ear to her heart.

Conscious that nothing could be done till the doctor came, and that little remained for him to do but to give his verdict and leave the matter in the hands of the police, Gunn and I sat down and waited, instinctively taking off our hats, and speaking in a whisper when we spoke at all, out of reverence for the mystery in whose presence we were. I have seen dead people before and since, but I shall never forget the compassion that filled me for that white face lying there, so sad, so young and beautiful, with an expression less oi fear than wonder in her open eyes and on her parted lips. She did not look as if she had been strangled. There was no contortion of her features, nothung livid in her colour; and yet the blue line wntten on the throat by that savagely- twisted scarf told another story.

The driver and I sat there, silent and - at least I speak for myself - filled with thoughts and memories of no cheerful nature, listening to the soughing wind and pattering rain, when to our relief we heard footsteps and voices in the yard.

The doctor and the police had arrived together. Of the later there were two, a keen- eyed, smart looking inspector and a stolid Irish constable. We stepped down from the omnibus to meet them. The inspector

nodded curtly to Gunn and myself, taking

impelled by professional reflex action, went significantly to the spot where the hand

cuffs lay beneath his tunic.

"Your turn first, doctor," he said. "See if anythuig can be done."

The doctor stepped quickly into the omnibus, followed by the police officer, who, turning to us said politely -

"You gentlemen will oblige me by remaining outside - with the constable."

A few seconds' examination assured the doctor that the woman was beyond his aid. "She is dead," I heard him say.

"You are certain?" "Absolutely."

"Is she strangled?" he asked, taking up the handkerchief, which I had laid upon the

seat.

"No," answered the doctor, in a somewhat hesitating tone. "At least, I think not. A handkerchief knotted as that was would have caused death, but she was dead or dying before it was ever placed there."

"Very well," said the inspecto. "Ifyou can spare a few minutes come with me into the office. We have done all we can here for the present. Wait," he added, as his eye fell upon the extinguished lamp, "Busman,

come here."

Gunn obeyed him with alacrity. "Did you put out that lamp?" "No, sir."

"How was it extinguished'"

"Blest if I rightly know," answered Gunn, scratching his head.

"When do you last remember seeing it

alight?''

"When I left Chapel-street, on the last up-trip to Malvern."

I heard all this from my post in the rain, feeling, with the constable's suspicious eye upon me, as if I were myself guilty of the

murder.

Directing the constable to sit down in the omnibus and see that nothing in it was disturbed, Inspector Sinclair, for such I learnt afterwards was his name, told Gunn to lead the wav to the little office by the stables, asking the stable boy, the doctor and myself

to follow him.

There were two chairs in the room. Taking one himself and motioning the doctor to the other he produced a note-book from his pocket. The men and myself were left

standing.

"Now," he began, "let us hear what any of you gentlemen know of this matter. You first," turning to the stable boy. "Your name and address, please."

"William Williams, sir. I live here."

"Thank you. You have seen the deceased?"

"No, sir."

"Have you been in the omnibus tonight?"

"No. I was sent by Gunn to fetch you and the doctor. I done it, and know notlnn' more about it."

"Very good. Now, sir," addressing himself to me, "will you kindly give me your name and address, and tell me what you know about this business?"

"My name is Gerald Winton," I began. "I arrived from England the day before yesterday and I am at present living in lodgings — No. 7 Carrington-street, Armadale."

Then I gave bim the particulars with which the reader is already acquainted and expressed my willingness to answer questions on any further points that he might consider material.

"Are you acquainted with the deceased?"

he asked.

I knew her some years ago, before her marriage," I answered. "I recognised the face when I first saw it, but could not remember the name till the dnver mentioned it."

"And the name is?"

"Mrs Corfield, wife of Mr Corfield, the merchant up in Malvern," interposed

Gunn.

"Thank you," said Sinclair "Now, Mr. Winton, you saw the body before Dr Anthony or mvself had the opportunity of doing so. In what position was it when you saw it first?"

I told him that the woman appeared to be sitting in the corner until Gunn touched her, when she fell, and that when we entered the omnibus, the body was lying on the floor, whence we lifted it on to the seat, and left it as he had seen it.

"And where was the silk handkerchief, which is now on the seat?" he asked.

"Knotted tightly round her neck, and the broken pearl necklace, which no doubt you have seen, lay in the bosom of her

dress."

"Was the lady quite dead when yon discovered

her?"

"To the best of my belief she was. Her heart and her pulse had no perceptible beat, and her hands were cold."

"Were the windows of the omnibus open?"

"No. Gunn and myself opened them to give the deceased fresh air, hoping that it might be only a faint. The atmosphere of the omnibus was singularly close and heavy."

The doctor, who had been listening in an abstracted sort of way, suddenly started.

"Ah!" he said. "Inspector, let me ask Mr Winton a question."

The inspector nodded.

"Mr Winton," asked the doctor, "did you form any theory as to the cause of death? I presume you believed that the lady had been strangled?"

"No," I answered. "I agree with the opinion I heard you express, that the handkerchief was knotted round the throat when the deceased was unconscious, if not dead. She did not look like a suffocated person."

"You think so?" said the doctor; "and you say that the atmosphere of the omnibus

was close and heavy?"

"Yes, particularly so. I have quite a headache from it now."

"Indeed," said tho doctor, apparently much interested. "Mr. Winton, do you know, could you recognise, the smell of ether or chloroform?"

The cause of the oppressive atmosphere of the omnibus flashed across me in a second. I did not know the specific smell ot chloroform or ether but I felt sure that some volatile drug had been used and told

the doctor so.

Sinclair took notes of our conversation, and thanking me courteously for the information I had given turned to the driver, who showed a nervous consciousness that his evidence would be most material.

He lived in Charles-street Prahran, No. 43. The inspector asked first for his story from the time when he first saw the body. It of course agreed with mine. Asked if he had noticed anything remarkable about the atmosphere of the omnibus, he said that now he came to think of it, it was a bit scented and heavy-like - worse than on ordinary occasions, and a bit different, though, he added reflectively, "When there's been a lot of folks in her on a wet night she do be sometimes powerful strong." However, on this particular night passengers had been very fes.

This brought him to the part of his evidence

where the clue to the mystery, if any, was to be found, and all of us in that dtngy little ill-lighted office hung with fascinated

interest on the words, that after all told us so little.

You say there were very few passengers to-night?" said Sinclair. "I suppose the fare-box will bear you out in that?"

"Yes, sir," somewhat aggressively answered Gunn, who was growing nervous.

"Well, perhaps some of them were people you know? To begin with, can you remember when or where Mrs. Corfield, the deceased lady, got into the 'bus?"

Gunn thought hard, and scratched his head till I felt quite uncomfortable.

"To the best of my belief she carne aboard at the Windsor terminus, in Chapel- street, when I was starting on my last up trip, but I couldn't swear it."

"Never mind swearing now," said Sinclair, encouiagmgly. "That will come later. Say what you believe. Was anybody with

her?"

"Someone I would take to be Mr Corfield. Anyway, I think there was a man in evening dress and a high hat, that might be him, but I didn't take no partikler notice at the time, and couldn't swear."

"But you think she and her husband got in at Windsor?"

"Yes, sir," said Gunn, "I do."

"And when did they, or rather he, get out?"

down at Williams-road when another passenger got in Someone got out, anyway."

"But they don't live anywhere near there," objected Sinclair.

"No, but they very seldom travel by 'bus, anyhow, and maybe they were going to

see someone."

Perhaps. Now, do you know the passenger who got in?"

"Yes, sir."

'Who was it?"

"A gentleman who lives near the terminus about a mile from Mr. Corfield's. Mr Cunninghnm his name is."

I started when the name was mentioned and the inspector looked at me curiously, but made no remark, and I followed the rest of Gunn's, evidence with renewed in-terest.

"Cunningham was waiting for the 'bus," he said, "at the Williams-road corner. A cab was standing in Dandenong-road close by. He could not say whether there was anybody in it or not. Cunningham appeared to be speaking lo someone when the 'bus carne up, but he could not say whether it was a man or a woman. The night waa dark, and the omnibus was between Cunningham and the other person and the light from the lamp-post."

"Wait a minute," said the inspector. "Could this person who was m Cunningham's company have got into the omnibus

also?"

Gunn considered for a second before answering. "I can't say, sir. I don't think he did. Leastways he didn't pay any

fare."

"Probably not," said Sinclair drily. "But I suppose it is possible that he or she got in without your knowledge.?"

"Oh, yes, possible enough; but I don't believe

they did."

"Did you see what became of this person

when the bus started'"

"No, I dldn't look behind, and mightn't see him on such a night if I did."

"And where did the cab go to?"

"It was standing there when I started. I saw the light."

"What was the colour of the horse?"

"Bay or brown, or, leastways, some dark colour. If it had been a grey I'd have

noticed it."

"Now, Mr Gunn," said Sinclair. "You have told me that you think Mr. Corfield or some passenger got out at Williams-road. What makes }ou think so? Did you see

him?"

"No I don't say I seen him, but someone rang the bell to stop me."

"Rang the bell or pulled tho strap?'' asked the inspector.

"Pulled the strap, now I come to think of it," said Gunn.

"And I suppose that could be pulled from outside by someone catching hold of the door handle, for instance?"

"Yes, it could," said Gunn in a puzzled way, as if wondering what was the drift of Sinclair's questions.

I wondered too, if, on the slender evidemce before him, he bad already commenced to build a theory. His next question showed me that he had, and wild as it seemed on such data as he could possess, there was a certain grim attractiveness about it for me, having the knowledge of some details in the history of Cunningham and the unfortunate Mrs Corfield which I was pretty sure he had not.

Turning round on his chair to get a better view of Gunn's face, he said, "Now, driver, I want you to tax your memory to the utmost. Are you certain that Mrs. Corfield got into the 'bus at the terminus at all?"

"I told you before I'm not certain," said Gunn rather sullenly.

"You are not certain?" repeated Sinclair.

"No, but I think so; and I know a man and a woman did get in."

"And they might have got out again before the 'bus started I suppose?"

"Of course they might, but I dunno' what they'd do it for."

'"Never mind that. When did they pay

their fares?"

"I can't say. There were two fares in the 'bus when I stopped at Kooyong-road."

"They didn't ring for change?"

"No."

Sinclair was becoming excited by the detective instinct as Gunn's answers evidently suited his preconceived notions, and

tho doctor and I found his excitement infectious. He seemed in a hurry to act upon his theory, for he stood up and asked his remaining questions with a sharpness very different fiom the judicial manner in which he had begun.

"I suppose you can't swear that two people did not get in at Williams-road?"

he said.

"No, I can't?"

"And one of them was Cunningham?" "Yes."

"Very well. Who got out at the terminus. Anyone besides Mr. Cunningham?"

"No."

"Did he speak to you?" * "Yes, he said 'good night.' "

"Did you notice anything remarkable

about him?"

"Well, yes; he seemed a bit muzzy and unsteady like, and said he didn't know what was wrong willi him. I reckoned it was whisky."

The doctor looked at me and gave a soft whistle and I noticed a significant gleam in Sinclair's eye.

"Thank you," he said to Gunn. "I think you have told me all I want for the present You may go - and you, too," addressing the stable boy, who had been present sent up till now. Get out a pair of horses,

and put them in the 'bus."

When the men had gone he turned to me. "Mr. Winton," he said, "you were startled when you heard that the name of the other passenger in the 'bus was Cunningham.

May I ask why?"

I hesitated for a second, and he continued. "This is an important matter, and every scrap of knowledge is of the utmost value. If you do not care to speak before the doctor-"

"Oh, certainly," said the latter who had just lit a cigar, taking up his hat; but I

stopped him.

"No," I said, "there is no reason why I should not say what I know but it is not much, after all. I did start when I heard Cunningham's name, though I did not suppose you had observed it. I was struck by the coincidence that all the people Gunn mentioned to-night, should be acquaintances of mine, and by the fact that Cunningham was at one time engaged to marry Mrs. Corfield."

"That is a coincidence indeed," said Sinclair, with a queer little smile. "Can you give me any further details?"

"That was nearly three years ago," I said. "She broke off the engagement suddenly, just before I left for England, and within a month she married Corfield. Cunningham was heartbroken over it and I have heard that he took to drink, and went to the dogs generally for a time, but I believe that he steadied down afterwards. However I know little of their doings and have seen neither of them since till to-night."

I felt it my duty to tell Sinclair this and yet hated doing so for I could see that it strengthened him in the suspicion that I guessed he had formed. I could not share it with him. I had known Cunningham well, and liked him Gambling and a tendency to overdo it in the matter of champagne on peculiarly festive occasions were the worst faults that anybody could accuse him of, and I dismissed the idea the circumstances suggested, though not without

an effort.

"What do you think of the case, Inspector?" asked the doctor, as we got up

to go.

"I have a theory," he answered.

"Cunningham, I suppose?" said the doctor,

with a yawn.

"I will tell you to-morrow," said Sinclair, lmportantly; but Mr. Cunningham must certainly be interviewed. I hope we shall find him at home. Now, I must away to business. You gentlemen will be on hand when you are wanted, I presume?"

"Yes," we answered, and the doctor added, "What are you going to do with the lady?"

"Dnve her down to the police station, just as she is, seal up the door and windows till we can examine everything in daylight. There may be evidence in that 'bus still that smarter heads than mine can make something of. You must excuse me now. Good night."

As Dr. Anthony and I passed out through the yard we saw Sinclair talking to the constable and the men yoking up the weary horses for their melancholy trip. The doctor and I parted ot the gate, and I walked home, forgetful of the rain as I pondered over the strange events of the evening and the grimness of the meeting with my old acquaintance, Mrs Corfield, whom I had intended to call upon within that very week.