Mystery in the Channel : A British Library Crime Classic

Mystery in the Channel : A British Library Crime Classic

The Chichester is making a routine journey across the English Channel on a pleasant afternoon in June, when the steamer’s crew notice something strange. A yacht, bobbing about in the ...

About The Author

Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts (1879–1957)was one of the pre-eminent writers in the golden age of British crime fiction. He was the ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

Death on the High Seas

The captain lowered his six-diameter prism binoculars. “Not moving, is she, Mr. Hands?”

“Doesn’t seem to be, sir,” said the second officer, who was also the officer in charge.

The steamer was the Southern Railway Company’s Chich- ester and she was half-way to France on her usual day trip from Newhaven to Dieppe. A fine boat she was, the Com- pany’s newest for that route, and she was doing her steady three and twenty knots with scarcely a quiver to indicate the enormous power that was being unleashed in the cavernous holds far down below her decks.

It was a pleasant afternoon towards the end of June. The sea was like the proverbial glass, well burnished, and with a broad track of dazzling sparkles where the sun caught the tiny wavelets. A slight haze filled the air, not enough to be called a fog, but enough to blot out the horizon and every- thing above two or three miles distant. Hot it was; indeed, but for the breeze caused by the steamer’s motion, it would have been grilling. It was just the day for luxuriating  with closed eyes in a deck chair, and the rows of recumbent figures which covered every scrap of clear space on the decks showed that the passengers fully realised the fact.

There was quite a crowd on board. It was well into the holiday season and besides the ordinary passengers the members of more than one conducted tour were making the crossing. The labels on their suit-cases sorted them into sheep and goats. Here was a party on the way to spend a week in lovely Lucerne, there a group bound for the castles of the Loire, while still others were contenting themselves with a long week-end in Paris.

The object which had attracted the attention of the ship’s officers was a small pleasure yacht which lay right ahead. As she was heading across their bows, they thought at first she would have pulled clear of their track long before they came up. But a few seconds’ inspection showed that she was lying motionless. A shift of helm to pass behind her stern was therefore necessary, and the second officer crossed to the wheel-house and called sharply, “Starb’rd two degrees!” to the quartermaster at the wheel. As he returned, the captain again lowered his glasses.

“A fifty-foot petrol launch, British built, I should say,” he observed. “Can’t see her flag. Can you?”

“No, sir,” the second officer answered, gazing in his turn. “Nor can I see any one on deck.”

“Navigating from the wheel-house,” the captain rejoined, “if that hump forward is a wheel-house and not merely sidelight screens.”

“A wheel-house, I fancy, sir. But I can’t see any one in it.” “Scarcely close enough yet.”

With this the second officer dutifully agreed. There was silence for a moment and then Mr. Hands went on, “She must be broken down, sir, surely. Else why should she lie there?”

“Not asking for help at all events,” Captain Hewitt replied. He paused, searching the yacht with his glasses. “That is a wheel-house,” he went on. “I can see the wheel. There’s no one there.”

“Too high and mighty to keep a look out, I suppose,” the second officer said disgustedly. “And then they’re surprised if anything goes wrong. Of course if it does, it’s the other fellow’s fault.”

The captain did not reply. He was still fixedly examining the tiny vessel, which they were now rapidly approaching. She was obviously a pleasure yacht, well kept, from the brilliant flashes which leaped from her brasswork and the dazzling white of her paint. Every moment she grew in size, while objects aboard took on form and definition. Her deserted decks could now be seen with the naked eye. Soon they would be up with her.

Suddenly the captain’s regard grew more intense. “What do you make of that dark thing near the companion?” he asked sharply.

Mr. Hands also stared intently. “Uncommonly like a man, sir. By Jove, yes, it is a man! Lying in a heap on the deck. Good God, sir! He must be either ill or dead!”

“It doesn’t look too well.” Captain Hewitt glanced down at his passengers. “Pity to wake up all these sleeping beau- ties,” he went on, “but I’m afraid there’s no help for it. Give her a call, Mr. Hands.”

An ear-splitting roar went out from the foghorn. As a breeze ruffles the surface of a cornfield, so a little movement passed over the deck as the occupants of the chairs opened their eyes, sat up, glanced round, muttered imprecations, and once more resigned themselves to sleep.

But the blast awakened no answer from the yacht.

“There doesn’t seem to be any one else on board,” the captain went on. “It looks like something badly wrong. I don’t like the way that figure is lying bunched up in a heap. And what’s that dark mark beside it? Seems very like blood to me. Give them another call, Mr. Hands.”

Two more raucous blasts roared out, reawakening the deck chair enthusiasts and even sending some of the more energetic to the rail in search of the cause of so unwonted an outrage.

Still there was no response from the yacht. The man on the deck made no movement nor did any one else appear. The shining brass wheel could now be plainly seen in its tiny wheel-house, deserted.

“It’s blood, that mark is, as sure as we’re alive,” said Hands. “A pretty bad wound to have bled like that.”

The yacht was now close by. The powerful glasses reduced the distance to a few yards.

“Yes, it’s blood right enough,” the captain agreed after another look. “Damn it, we’ll have to stop. Chap may not be dead, and in any case we can’t leave that outfit bobbing around to put a hole in somebody’s bows. Ring down, Mr. Hands.”

While the second officer rang his engines to “Stop!” and then a few seconds later to “Full Speed Astern!” the captain turned to the able seaman in attendance.

“Tell Mr. Mackintosh I want him here at once. And get the chief steward to find out if there’s a doctor on board and send him here also.”

For a moment all was ordered confusion. Whistles resounded, bells rang, figures hurried to and fro. A slight continuous tremor ran through the ship as if overwhelming activities were in progress below. From the safety valve pipes on the funnels came an appalling roar of escaping steam. Quickly men approached one of the starboard    lifeboats, politely moved the passengers back, and uncoiled ropes and knocked out wedges. The canvas boat cover vanished with incredible speed, the chocks fell aside, and the patent davits moved forwards. In a few seconds the boat, already manned, was swinging motionless over the sea.

By this time the passengers were awake to a man, or rather to a woman, and were pressing to the rail to see the fun. A little buzz of talk had broken out. Jokes were cracked, while those behind pushed forward, clamouring for information from those in front. Glasses and cameras were brought out and hopes of a thrill were expressed. Then as the yacht with its sinister burden floated into view, voices were hushed and all stood silent, overawed by the presence of tragedy.

There was indeed something dramatic in the situation which stirred the imagination of even the most prosaic. The little yacht, with its fine lines and finish, its white deck and gleaming brasswork, its fresh paint and brightly coloured club flag, looked what it so obviously was, a rich man’s toy, a craft given over to pleasure. On such the tragic and the sordid were out of place. Yet now they reigned supreme. The space which should fittingly have resounded with the laughs of pretty women and the voices of immaculately clad men, was empty, empty save for that hunched figure and that sinister stain with its hideous suggestion.

Such thoughts, however, were far from the minds of the ship’s officers. With ordered haste they carried on. Discreet inquiries among the men in the smoking-room had found a doctor, and he had been hurried to the bridge. The third officer, Mr. Mackintosh, had just preceded him.

“Dr. Oates?” the captain was saying. “Very good of you to help us. Mr. Mackintosh, I want you to board that yacht and see what’s the matter. If the man is alive, send him across with the doctor. If not, let him stay. If there’s no one else there keep a couple of men and work her to Newhaven.

 

 

Take a megaphone and let me know how things are and, if necessary, I’ll send you help from Dieppe. And for the Lord’s sake look sharp. We’re late already.”

In a few moments the boat had been lowered to the water, the falls cast off, and Mr. Mackintosh and his party were slowly rising and falling beside the Chichester’s towering side. “Give way, lads,” invited Mackintosh, and the Chichester with its rows of staring faces began to fall slowly back.

“Not often a cross-Channel boat halts in mid-career like this,” Dr. Oates essayed, when they were fairly under way. “I only mind it happening once before,” Mackintosh admitted. “That was when we sighted the Josephine. You didna see about her in the papers? She was a tr-r-ramp, an eight-hundred-ton coaster, from Grimsby to Havre with oils and paints. My wor-rd, she was a sight! We saw the smoke

of her ten miles off, going up like a volcano.” “Burnt out?”

“Burnt out? Aye, I think she was burnt out. I never saw, before nor since, flames rising like yon. You’d ha’ thought they were a mile high. The paint, you know.”

“Any one lost?”

“No. They were in the boats and we picked them up. Say, doctor, that’s a tidy enough yacht. The Nymph, Folkestone,” he read. “What do you make her? A bit under fifty feet, I’d say. A good sea boat, but old-fashioned. She’s twenty years old, if she’s a day. Nowadays they give them higher bows and lower sterns. Eight to ten knots, I reckon. Likely a new motor; she’d be built for steam.”

“Strong, but not comely, she looks to me.”

Mackintosh nodded. “I reckon you’re no so far wrong, though, mind you, she’s well finished. Now, doctor, we’ll see what we shall see.” The yacht swung up alongside. “Easy on there. Easy does it.”

A man bow and stern grappled with boathooks and in a moment the two craft lay together, rising and falling easily on the swell. Mackintosh stood up, unhooked the gangway section of the yacht’s rail, and swung himself aboard. Dr. Oates followed more circumspectly.

A moment’s glance showed that the deck really was deserted save for the sinister figure near the companion. Closer inspection only confirmed the previous impression of the taste and wealth which had gone to the furnishing of the little vessel. The deck was broken only by the wheel-house, two skylights, two masts, and the companion, leaving an extraordinarily large promenading area for the size of the boat. The wheel-house was well forward, about eight feet from the bows. Then came a skylight, the saloon from its size, then the companion, and lastly a smaller skylight, apparently a cabin. Round the deck was a railing of polished teak on dazzlingly white supports, from which hung four lifebuoys, bearing the words, “M.Y. Nymph, Folkestone,” in neat black letters. The deck was holy-stoned to the palest sand colour, and everything that could be polished glittered like gold.

But it was not on these things that the gaze of the two men lingered. There were more evidences of tragedy than they had realised. At the step at their feet was a little pool of blood, and from it, running across the deck to the prone figure lay a trail of drops, as if the man, desperately wounded at the side of the yacht, had yet halted there for a moment and then staggered forward to where he had fallen. Quickly the newcomers noted the marks, then hurried forward to the body, for something in the attitude told them that they had come too late to be of service.

It was that of a tall man of spare build. He was dressed, not in yachting clothes, but in a dark grey lounge suit of expensive looking cloth, as far as they could see, well cut. On his feet were dark grey silk socks and neat black shoes. His thin left hand, like the claw of some great bird, was stretched out, hooked, as if attempting to grasp at the deck. He was lying hunched up on his face with his right arm underneath him. His hat had disappeared. His head was bald, surrounded by a fringe of thin grey hair, and the gold hook of a pair of spectacles showed round his ear. He was wearing a double collar, but except that he was clean shaven, his face could not be seen. Spreading out from his head was that ominous stain of dark red.

The doctor knelt beside him.

“I wouldna touch him unless you canna help,” Mackintosh advised.

“I want to lift the head.” Dr. Oates did so and drew in his breath sharply. “Shot,” he said as he gently lowered it again. “Quite dead. I can do nothing.”

“Shot, is he? Bless us all! Is it long since, doctor?” “Quite a short time. There’s  no appreciable    cooling.

Probably within an hour or so.”

“Is that a fact? Tell me, can you see the right hand? Is there a gun in it?”

The doctor shook his head. “I can’t see and I’ll not move him. It’ll be a job for the police. You’re going to take him back to Newhaven?”

“I reckon I’ll have to. Well, let’s have a look below and then you can get back aboard.”

He plunged down the companion steps and instantly gave a cry. “Good God, doctor, hell’s been loose here!” Oates followed and the two men stood staring blankly.

The companion led into a good-sized cabin about ten feet long and occupying the whole width of the yacht. Along the right side was a folding table, spread with some portion of a meal and with a seat-locker behind it. A seat-locker also stretched along the left side, while directly opposite was another door and an electric fireplace. On the walls   were bookshelves, a clock, an aneroid and some rolled up charts in a rack. The place was brilliantly lit by the reflection of the sun from the waves and ceiling.

Here again, however, it was not to these details that the men’s attention was directed. In the middle of the floor, as if having risen from the meal, lay another man. This time there was no doubt of his condition. He lay sprawled on his face, but his forehead could be seen, and on that forehead was the deadly round hole where a bullet had entered. He seemed a younger man than the other, of medium height and rather stout build. His hair was plentiful, and though naturally dark, it was now greying. He also was dressed in town rather than yachting clothes, a dark brown tweed lounge suit, brown shoes and a wing collar, all very neat and expensive. Both arms were thrown out as if in an attempt to ward off some attack. This time there was but little blood.

Mackintosh swore, then pulled himself together. “You canna do anything, doctor?”

Oates briefly examined the body.

“Nothing. It was instantaneous. And quite recent, like the other.”

The vision of Captain Hewitt, impatient on the bridge of the Chichester, was evidently in the third officer’s mind, for he hurried Oates on.

“We’ll have a run through the rest of her and then you can get away.”

A door aft from the cabin led to a small two-berth cabin in the stern. Forward of the saloon were a tiny pantry- kitchen, a lavatory and bathroom, the motor-room beneath the wheel-house, and right up in the bows, a store with two bunks. The two men spent no time looking round. Simply they made sure that no other person, alive or dead, remained on board. But even in that short survey they could not help being impressed not only with the luxurious appointments, but also with the extraordinarily clean and efficient way in which everything was kept.

Though they had not lost a moment, they were not quick enough for the captain of the Chichester. Scarcely had they completed their survey when a couple of stentorian blasts came rolling across the sea. Mackintosh smothered an imprecation.

“For the love of Mike, doctor,” he cried, “look alive. We mustna keep the old man waiting.” He leaped to the deck. “Smith and Wilcox,” he shouted, “lay aboard here at once. Snelgrove take charge and get away back to the ship. Hold a sec, the doctor’s going. Right, doctor? You’ll tell the old man? Away you go, then! Put your backs into it, lads!”

The lads put their backs into it and the water frothed from the boat’s stern. Mackintosh turned to his two helpers. “Get below, you two,” he said sharply, disregarding the wondering looks they bent on the dead man. “Start up that engine and find out how much petrol there is. Look  alive now. I want it done before that boat gets picked up.”

He leaned on the tiny engine-room hatch, watching the efforts of his men below. Smith, he knew, had been a motor mechanic before he started sailoring. His presence in the boat had been a piece of luck which the third officer had not been slow to take advantage of. Now almost caressingly the man’s hands passed over the machine, turning taps, making adjustments, moving levers. Then he gave a sharp tug and with a hesitating little cough the motor gave a jerky rota- tion and then settled down into a merry chuffing. Another minute and Smith called up that there was plenty of petrol in the tank.

“Enough to get us forty miles?” “Twice that, sir.”

The men in the boat were just grabbing at the swinging falls as Mackintosh stood up and raised his megaphone. “Am staying to work her to Newhaven,” he roared. “I dinna require any help.”

The captain waved his arm. As the boat rose dripping from the water the Chichester began to move. Quickly she regained speed, and soon her rails with their rows of white faces vanished and she became a rapidly diminishing smudge in the thick air.

The need for immediate action over, Mackintosh called his crew together.

“Stop that engine of yours, Smith, till we get this body covered. Any flags in the locker?”

They searched the little vessel, at last finding the flags beneath the cabin seat. From the bundle they extracted    a blue ensign—the only large flag there was—while they lowered their voices with rough reverence for the cabin’s other occupant. On reaching the deck Mackintosh shut the companion door.

“We’ll no need to go down there again,” he declared. “Get some weights, Wilcox, to keep this ensign down. Here, Smith, help me spread it.”

Carefully the prone figure was covered and spare parts from the engine-room laid along the edges of the flag. It was the only way in which they could pay their tribute to the dead. Mackintosh automatically recording the hour, ten minutes to two o’clock, turned away to consider the situation.

It was a police affair, this that he had got mixed up in, and the police would expect evidence. He was the first man on the scene and they would want to know what he had found. Was there anything that he should do or note, he wondered, before setting off to Newhaven?

That the affair was either murder or suicide was obvious. Mackintosh was inclined to the murder theory, as in his hurried glance over the saloon he had seen no weapon. Though in a way it was not his business, he felt it was a point which he would like to settle. Breaking through his own regulation, he climbed once more down the companion steps and entered the saloon. No, there was no weapon. There was no place in which it could have fallen and lain hid. The affair was therefore murder. Then he saw that he was wrong. This conclusion did not follow. The thing might have been a suicide pact. If there was a weapon in the hand of the man on the deck, he might well have shot first his companion and then himself.

“Job for the police; let them worry it out,” thought Mackintosh, looking carefully round.

At once he noticed something that he had missed on his first inspection. The dead man wore a wrist watch, and the glass was cracked, evidently from striking the floor. The watch had stopped at 12.33.

If this were the hour of the tragedy, it worked in well enough with what the doctor had said. Mackintosh won- dered if he could get any other corroboration.

He moved to the engine-room and felt the cylinder jacketing.

“How long do you reckon she was stopped?” he asked the expert, Smith.

Smith said he had felt her all over when he came down first, before he had started her up, and he would guess that she had been stopped about an hour. Mackintosh nodded. “I want you to mark everything,” he said. “Petrol-paraffin set, isn’t she? Well, mark the level of the petrol and the paraf- fin. Also there is lubricating oil. Mark it too. Let’s see  you do it. We may both have to swear that it’s right.”

The record was carefully made. There was nothing else, so far as Mackintosh could see, of immediate importance. He turned back to the men. “It’s two o’clock,” he observed. “We’d best get away for Newhaven. Start her up again, Smith, and let’s see what she’ll do.”

Wilcox was installed helmsman at the little brass wheel, while Mackintosh stood watching the water slip slowly past. As he had imagined, the speed was low; less than ten knots, he reckoned. They should get in about six.

The air had cleared somewhat, but it was still thick enough to require a constant look out. When they had got under way they were alone on the sea, but almost at once a tiny craft had crept into view from the nor’-nor’-east, coming up on the Nymph’s starboard beam. Mackintosh had a look at it with a pair of glasses which he found in the wheel-house. It was still too far away to see its details, but he thought it was a small petrol launch. It was heading straight for the Nymph, and from the little specks of white at its stern, seemed to be coming at a fair speed. No fear, he thought, of a collision with that, as he slowly filled his pipe, an unwonted luxury while on duty.

Though Mackintosh was no chicken and had seen War service, he felt a trifle overwhelmed by the horror of this tragedy with which he had been brought so closely in con- tact. Up to the present he had had no time to think about it, but now that there was nothing more to be done than this mechanical job of keeping a look out, his mind naturally became filled with it. Who were these men and how had they come to meet so terrible a fate? Was there a revolver in the hidden right hand of the figure on deck, and had  he murdered the other and then committed suicide? If so, where was the crew, for both the deceased were evidently landsmen? Or had both been murdered by some third party, who in some way had left the yacht?

The third officer had no leanings towards detective work, though his natural curiosity tempted him to make a further detailed examination of the deceased, in the hope of finding an answer to some at least of his questions. But he refrained from doing so.

The little he knew about police methods made him quite certain that his duty was to touch nothing and even to keep away from the actual position of the bodies, lest his move- ments might obliterate some trace left by the murderer.

“A shoemaker shouldna leave his last,” he said to himself with the common sense of the hard-headed practical man. “My job is to get this outfit to Newhaven, and no to make a story about how the damage happened.”

But in spite of this laudable conclusion, he was to have more to think of than navigation before he reached port.

Reviews of

Mystery in the Channel : A British Library Crime Classic

“Wills Crofts is one of the masters of the golden age of British detective fiction … Not only is this a first-rate puzzler, but Crofts’ outrage over the financial firm’s betrayal of the public trust should resonate with today’s readers.”

Booklist (starred review)

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads