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Title: The Pathologist to the Rescue

Date of first publication: 1929

Author: Richard Austin Freeman (1862-1943)

Date first posted: Sep. 8, 2018

Date last updated: Sep. 8, 2018

Faded Page eBook #20180911

This ebook was produced by: Delphine Lettau, Mark Akrigg, Jen Haines & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net


“I hope,” said I, as I looked anxiously out of our window up King’s Bench Walk, “that our friend, Foxley, will turn up to time, or I shall lose the chance of hearing his story. I must be in court by half-past eleven. The telegram said that he was a parson, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” replied Thorndyke. “The Reverend Arthur Foxley.”

“Then perhaps this may be he. There is a parson crossing from the Row in this direction, only he has a girl with him. He didn’t say anything about a girl, did he?”

“No. He merely asked for the appointment. However,” he added, as he joined me at the window and watched the couple approaching with their eyes apparently fixed on the number above our portico, “this is evidently our client, and punctual to the minute.”

In response to the old-fashioned flourish on our little knocker, he opened the inner door and invited the clergyman and his companion to enter; and while the mutual introductions were in progress, I looked critically at our new clients. Mr. Foxley was a typical and favourable specimen of his class: a handsome, refined, elderly gentleman, prim as to his speech, suave and courteous in bearing, with a certain engaging simplicity of manner which impressed me very favourably. His companion I judged to be a parishioner, for she was what ladies are apt to describe as “not quite”; that is to say, her social level appeared to appertain to the lower strata of the middle-class. But she was a fine, strapping girl, very sweet-faced and winsome, quiet and gentle in manner and obviously in deep trouble, for her clear grey eyes—fixed earnestly, almost devouringly, on Thorndyke—were reddened and swimming with unshed tears.

“We have sought your aid, Dr. Thorndyke,” the clergyman began, “on the advice of my friend, Mr. Brodribb, who happened to call on me on some legal business. He assured me that you would be able to solve our difficulties if it were humanly possible, so I have come to lay those difficulties before you. I pray to God that you may be able to help us, for my poor young friend here, Miss Markham, is in a most terrible position, as you will understand when I tell you that her future husband, a most admirable young man named Robert Fletcher, is in the custody of the police, charged with robbery and murder.”

Thorndyke nodded gravely, and the clergyman continued: “I had better tell you exactly what has happened. The dead man is one Joseph Riggs, a maternal uncle of Fletcher’s, a strange, eccentric man, solitary, miserly, and of a violent, implacable temper. He was quite well-to-do, though penurious and haunted constantly by an absurd fear of poverty. His nephew, Robert, was apparently his only known relative, and, under his will, was his sole heir. Recently, however, Robert has become engaged to my friend, Miss Lilian, and this engagement was violently opposed by his uncle, who had repeatedly urged him to make what he called a profitable marriage. For Miss Lilian is a dowerless maiden—dowerless save for those endowments with which God has been pleased to enrich her, and which her future husband has properly prized above mere material wealth. However, Riggs declared, in his brutal way, that he was not going to leave his property to the husband of a shop-woman, and that Robert might look out for a wife with money or be struck out of his will.

“The climax was reached yesterday when Robert, in response to a peremptory summons, went to see his uncle. Mr. Riggs was in a very intractable mood. He demanded that Robert should break off his engagement unconditionally and at once, and when Robert bluntly insisted on his right to choose his own wife the old man worked himself up into a furious rage, shouting, cursing, using the most offensive language and even uttering threats of personal violence. Finally, he drew his gold watch from his pocket and laid it with its chain on the table; then, opening a drawer, he took out a bundle of bearer bonds and threw them down by the watch.

“ ‘There, my friend,’ said he, ‘that is your inheritance. That is all you will get from me, living or dead. Take it and go, and don’t let me ever set eyes on you again.’

“At first Robert refused to accept the gift, but his uncle became so violent that eventually, for peace’ sake, he took the watch and the bonds, intending to return them later, and went away. He left at half-past five, leaving his uncle alone in the house.”

“How was that?” Thorndyke asked. “Was there no servant?”

“Mr. Riggs kept no resident servant. The young woman who did his housework came at half-past eight in the morning and left at half-past four. Yesterday she waited until five to get tea ready, but then, as the uproar in the sitting-room was still unabated, she thought it best to go. She was afraid to go in to lay the tea-things.

“This morning, when she arrived at the house, she found the front door unlocked, as it always was during the day. On entering, her attention was at once attracted by two or three little pools of blood on the floor of the hall, or passage. Somewhat alarmed by this, she looked into the sitting-room, and finding no one there, and being impressed by the silence in the house, she went along the passage to a back room—a sort of study or office, which was usually kept locked when Mr. Riggs was not in. Now, however, it was unlocked and the door was ajar; so having first knocked and receiving no answer, she pushed open the door and looked in; and there, to her horror, she saw her employer lying on the floor, apparently dead, with a wound on the side of his head and a pistol on the floor by his side.

“Instantly she turned and rushed out of the house, and she was running up the street in search of a policeman when she encountered me at a corner and burst out with her dreadful tidings. I walked with her to the police station, and as we went she told me what had happened on the previous afternoon. Naturally, I was profoundly shocked and also alarmed, for I saw that—rightly or wrongly—suspicion must immediately fall on Robert Fletcher. The servant, Rose Turnmill, took it for granted that he had murdered her master; and when we found the station inspector, and Rose had repeated her statement to him, it was evident that he took the same view.

“With him and a sergeant, we went back to the house; but on the way we met Mr. Brodribb, who was staying at the ‘White Lion’ and had just come out for a walk. I told him, rapidly, what had occurred and begged him to come with us, which, with the inspector’s consent, he did; and as we walked I explained to him the awful position that Robert Fletcher might be placed in, and asked him to advise me what to do. But, of course, there was nothing to be said or done, until we had seen the body and knew whether any suspicion rested on Robert.

“We found the man Riggs lying as Rose had said. He was quite dead, cold and stiff. There was a pistol wound on the right temple, and a pistol lay on the floor at his right side. A little blood—but not much—had trickled from the wound and lay in a small pool on the oil-cloth. The door of an iron safe was open and a bunch of keys hung from the lock; and on a desk one or two share certificates were spread out. On searching the dead man’s pockets it was found that the gold watch which the servant told us he usually carried was missing, and when Rose went to the bedroom to see if it was there, it was nowhere to be found.

“Apart from the watch, however, the appearances suggested that the man had taken his own life. But against this view was the blood on the hall floor. The dead man appeared to have fallen at once from the effects of the shot, and there had been very little bleeding. Then how came the blood in the hall? The inspector decided that it could not have been the blood of the deceased; and when we examined it and saw that there were several little pools and that they seemed to form a track towards the street door, he was convinced that the blood had fallen from some person who had been wounded and was escaping from the house. And, under the circumstances, he was bound to assume that that person was Robert Fletcher; and on that assumption, he dispatched the sergeant forthwith to arrest Robert.

“On this I held a consultation with Mr. Brodribb, who pointed out that the case turned principally on the blood in the hall. If it was the blood of deceased, and the absence of the watch could be explained, a verdict of suicide could be accepted. But if it was the blood of some other person, that fact would point to murder. The question, he said, would have to be settled, if possible, and his advice to me, if I believed Robert to be innocent—which, from my knowledge of him, I certainly did—was this: Get a couple of small, clean, labelled bottles from a chemist and—with the inspector’s consent—put in one a little of the blood from the hall and in the other some of the blood of the deceased. Seal them both in the inspector’s presence and mine and take them up to Dr. Thorndyke. If it is possible to answer the question, Are they or are they not from the same person? he will answer it.

“Well, the inspector made no objection, so I did what he advised. And here are the specimens. I trust they may tell us what we want to know.”

Here Mr. Foxley took from his attaché-case a small cardboard box, and opening it, displayed two little wide-mouthed bottles carefully packed in cotton wool. Lifting them out tenderly, he placed them on the table before Thorndyke. They were both neatly corked, sealed—with Brodribb’s seal, as I noticed—and labelled; the one inscribed “Blood of Joseph Riggs,” and the other “Blood of unknown origin,” and both signed “Arthur Foxley” and dated. At the bottom of each was a small mass of gelatinous blood-clot.

Thorndyke looked a little dubiously at the two bottles, and addressing the clergyman, said:

“I am afraid Mr. Brodribb has rather over-estimated our resources. There is no known method by which the blood of one person can be distinguished with certainty from that of another.”

“Dear, dear!” exclaimed Mr. Foxley. “How disappointing! Then these specimens are useless, after all?”

“I won’t say that; but it is in the highest degree improbable that they will yield any information. You must build no expectations on them.”

“But you will examine them and see if anything is to be gleaned,” the parson urged, persuasively.

“Yes, I will examine them. But you realise that if they should yield any evidence, that evidence might be unfavourable?”

“Yes; Mr. Brodribb pointed that out, but we are willing to take the risk, and so, I may say, is Robert Fletcher, to whom I put the question.”

“Then you have seen Mr. Fletcher since the discovery?”

“Yes, I saw him at the police station after his arrest. It was then that he gave me—and also the police—the particulars that I have repeated to you. He had to make a statement, as the dead man’s watch and the bonds were found in his possession.”

“With regard to the pistol. Has it been identified?”

“No. It is an old-fashioned derringer which no one has ever seen before, so there is no evidence as to whose property it was.”

“And as to those share certificates which you spoke of as lying on the desk. Do you happen to remember what they were?”

“Yes, they were West African mining shares; Abusum Pa-pa was the name, I think.”

“Then,” said Thorndyke,” Mr. Riggs had been losing money. The Abusum Pa-pa Company has just gone into liquidation. Do you know if anything had been taken from the safe?”

“It is impossible to say, but apparently not, as there was a good deal of money in the cash-box, which we unlocked and inspected. But we shall hear more to-morrow at the inquest, and I trust we shall hear something there from you. But in any case I hope you will attend to watch the proceedings on behalf of poor Fletcher. And if possible, to be present at the autopsy at eleven o’clock. Can you manage that?”

“Yes. And I shall come down early enough to make an inspection of the premises if the police will give the necessary facilities.”

Mr. Foxley thanked him effusively, and when the details as to the trains had been arranged, our clients rose to depart. Thorndyke shook their hands cordially, and as he bade farewell to Miss Markham he murmured a few words of encouragement. She looked up at him gratefully and appealingly as she naïvely held his hand.

“You will try to help us, Dr. Thorndyke, won’t you?” she urged. “And you will examine that blood very, very carefully. Promise that you will. Remember that poor Robert’s life may hang upon what you can tell about it.”

“I realise that, Miss Markham,” he replied gently, “and I promise you that the specimens shall be most thoroughly examined; and further, that no stone shall be left unturned in my endeavours to bring the truth to light.”

At his answer, spoken with infinite kindliness and sympathy, her eyes filled and she turned away with a few broken words of thanks, and the good clergyman—himself not unmoved by the little episode—took her arm and led her to the door.

“Well,” I remarked as their retreating footsteps died away, “old Brodribb’s enthusiasm seems to have let you in for a queer sort of task; and I notice that you appear to have accepted Fletcher’s statement.”

“Without prejudice,” he replied. “I don’t know Fletcher, but the balance of probabilities is in his favour. Still, that blood-track in the hall is a curious feature. It certainly requires explanation.”

“It does, indeed!” I exclaimed, “and you have got to find the explanation! Well, I wish you joy of the job. I suppose you will carry out the farce to the bitter end as you have promised?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “But it is hardly a farce. I should have looked the specimens over in any case. One never knows what illuminating fact a chance observation may bring into view.”

I smiled sceptically.

“The fact that you are asked to ascertain is that these two samples of blood came from the same person. If there are any means of proving that, they are unknown to me. I should have said it was an impossibility.”

“Of course,” he rejoined, “you are quite right, speaking academically and in general terms. No method of identifying the blood of individual persons has hitherto been discovered. But yet I can imagine the possibility, in particular and exceptional cases, of an actual, personal identification by means of blood. What does my learned friend think?”

“He thinks that his imagination is not equal to the required effort,” I answered; and with that I picked up my brief-bag and went forth to my duties at the courts.

That Thorndyke would keep his promise to poor Lilian Markham was a foregone conclusion, preposterous as the examination seemed. But even my long experience of my colleague’s scrupulous conscientiousness had not prepared me for the spectacle which met my eyes when I returned to our chambers. On the table stood the microscope, flanked by three slide-boxes. Each box held six trays, and each tray held six slides—a hundred and eight slides in all!

But why three boxes? I opened one. The slides—carefully mounted blood-films—were labelled “Joseph Riggs.” Those in the second box were labelled, “Blood from hall floor.” But when I opened the third box, I beheld a collection of empty slides labelled “Robert Fletcher”!

I chuckled aloud. Prodigious! Thorndyke was going even one better than his promise. He was not only going to examine—probably had examined—the two samples produced; he was actually going to collect a third sample for himself!

I picked out one of Mr. Riggs’s slides and laid it on the stage of the microscope. Thorndyke seemed to have been using a low-power objective—the inch-and-a-half. After a glance through this, I swung round the nosepiece to the high power. And then I got a further surprise. The brightly-coloured “white” corpuscles showed that Thorndyke had actually been to the trouble of staining the films with eosin! Again I murmured, “Prodigious!” and put the slide back in its box. For, of course, it showed just what one expected: blood—or rather, broken-up blood-clot. From its appearance, I could not even have sworn that it was human blood.

I had just closed the box when Thorndyke entered the room. His quick eye at once noted the changed objective and he remarked:

“I see you have been having a look at the specimens.”

“A specimen,” I corrected. “Enough is as good as a feast.”

“Blessed are they who are easily satisfied,” he retorted; and then he added: “I have altered my arrangements, though I needn’t interfere with yours. I shall go down to Southaven to-night; in fact, I am starting in a few minutes.”

“Why?” I asked.

“For several reasons. I want to make sure of the post-mortem to-morrow morning, I want to pick up any further facts that are available, and finally, I want to prepare a set of blood-films from Robert Fletcher. We may as well make the series complete,” he added with a smile, to which I replied by a broad grin.

“Really, Thorndyke,” I protested, “I’m surprised at you, at your age, too. She is a nice girl, but she isn’t so beautiful as to justify a hundred and eight blood-films.”

I accompanied him to the taxi, followed by Polton, who carried his modest luggage, and then returned to speculate on his probable plan of campaign. For, of course, he had one. His purposive, resolute manner told me that he had seen farther into this case than I had. I accepted that as natural and inevitable. Indeed, I may admit that my disrespectful badinage covered a belief in his powers hardly second even to old Brodribb’s. I was, in fact, almost prepared to discover that those preposterous blood-films had, after all, yielded some “illuminating fact” which had sent him hurrying down to Southaven in search of corroboration.

When I alighted from the train on the following day at a little past noon, I found him waiting on the platform, ready to conduct me to his hotel for an early lunch.

“All goes well, so far,” he reported. “I attended the post-mortem, and examined the wound thoroughly. The pistol was held in the right hand not more than two inches from the head; probably quite close, for the skin is scorched and heavily tattooed with black powder grains. I find that Riggs was right-handed. So the prima facie probabilities are in favour of suicide; and the recent loss of money suggests a reasonable motive.”

“But what about that blood in the hall?”

“Oh, we have disposed of that. I completed the blood-film series last night.”

I looked at him quickly to see if he was serious or only playing a facetious return-shot. But his face was as a face of wood.

“You are an exasperating old devil, Thorndyke!” I exclaimed with conviction. Then, knowing that cross-examination would be futile, I asked:

“What are we going to do after lunch?”

“The inspector is going to show us over ‘the scene of the tragedy,’ as the newspapers would express it.”

I noted gratefully that he had reserved this item for me, and dismissed professional topics for the time being, concentrating my attention on the old-world, amphibious streets through which we were walking. There is always something interesting in the aspect of a sea-port town, even if it is only a small one like Southaven.

The inspector arrived with such punctuality that he found us still at the table and was easily induced to join us with a cup of coffee and to accept a cigar—administered by Thorndyke, as I suspected, with the object of hindering conversation. I could see that his interest in my colleague was intense and not unmingled with awe, a fact which, in conjunction with the cigar, restrained him from any undue manifestations of curiosity, but not from continuous, though furtive, observation of my friend. Indeed, when we arrived at the late Mr. Riggs’s house, I was secretly amused by the close watch that he kept on Thorndyke’s movements, unsensational as the inspection turned out to be.

The house, itself, presented very little of interest excepting its picturesque, old-world exterior, which fronted on a quiet by-street and was furnished with a deep bay-window, which—as Thorndyke ascertained—commanded a clear view of the street from end to end. It was a rather shabby, neglected little house, as might have been expected, and our examination of it yielded, so far as I could see, only a single fact of any significance: which was that there appeared to be no connection whatever between the blood-stain on the study floor and the train of large spots from the middle of the hall to the street door. And on this piece of evidence—definitely unfavourable from our point of view—Thorndyke concentrated his attention when he had made a preliminary survey.

Closely followed by the watchful inspector, he browsed round the little room, studying every inch of the floor between the blood-stain and the door. The latter he examined minutely from top to bottom, especially as to the handle, the jambs, and the lintel. Then he went out into the hall, scrutinising the floor inch by inch, poring over the walls, and even looking behind the framed prints that hung on them. A reflector lamp suspended by a nail on the wall received minute and prolonged attention, as did also a massive lamp-hook screwed into one of the beams of the low ceiling, of which Thorndyke remarked as he stooped to pass under it, that it must have been fixed there by a dwarf.

“Yes,” the inspector agreed, “and a fool. A swinging lamp hung on that hook would have blocked the whole fairway. There isn’t too much room as it is. What a pity we weren’t a bit more careful about footprints in this place. There are plenty of tracks of wet feet here on this oil-cloth; faint, but you could have made them out all right if they hadn’t been all on top of one another. There’s Mr. Foxley’s, the girl’s, mine, and the men who carried out the body, but I’m hanged if I can tell which is which. It’s a regular mix up.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “it is all very confused. But I notice one rather odd thing. There are several faint traces of a large right foot, but I can’t see any sign of the corresponding left foot. Can you?”

“Perhaps this is it,” said Thorndyke, pointing to a large, vague oval mark. “I have noticed that it seems to occur in some sort of connection with the big right foot; but I must admit that it is not a very obvious foot-print.”

“I shouldn’t have taken it for a foot-print at all, or at any rate, not a human foot-print. It is more like the spoor of some big animal.”

“It is,” Thorndyke agreed; “but whatever it is, it seems to have been here before any of the others arrived. You notice that wherever it occurs, it seems to have been trodden on by some of the others.”

“Yes, I had noticed that, and the same is true of the big right foot, so it seems probable that they are connected, as you say. But I am hanged if I can make anything of it. Can you, inspector?”

The inspector shook his head. He could not recognise the mark as a foot-print, but he could see very plainly that he had been a fool not to have taken more care to protect the floor.

When the examination of the hall was finished, Thorndyke opened the door and looked at the big, flat doorstep.

“What was the weather like, here, on Wednesday evening?” he asked.

“Showery,” the inspector replied; “and there were one or two heavy showers during the night. You were noticing that there are no blood-tracks on the doorstep. But there wouldn’t be in any case; for if a man had come out of this door dropping blood, the blood would have dropped on wet stone and got washed away at once.”

Thorndyke admitted the truth of this; and so another item of favourable evidence was extinguished. The overwhelming probability that the blood in the hall was that of some person other than the deceased remained undisturbed; and I could not see that a single fact had been elicited by our inspection of the house that was in any way helpful to our client. Indeed, it appeared to me that there was absolutely no case for the defence, and I even asked myself whether we were not, in fact, merely trying to fudge up a defence for an obviously guilty man. It was not like Thorndyke to do that. But how did the case stand? There was a suggestion of suicide, but a clear possibility of homicide. There was strong evidence that a second person had been in the house, and that person appeared to have received a wound. But a wound suggested a struggle; and the servant’s evidence was to the effect that when she left the house a violent altercation was in progress. The deceased was never again seen alive; and the other party to the quarrel had been found with property of the dead man in his possession. Moreover, there was a clear motive for the crime, stupid as that crime was. For the dead man had threatened to revoke his will; but as he had presumably not done so, his death left the will still operative. In short, everything pointed to the guilt of our client, Robert Fletcher.

I had just reached this not very gratifying conclusion when a statement of Thorndyke’s shattered my elaborate summing up into impalpable fragments.

“I suppose, sir,” said the inspector, “there isn’t anything that you would care to tell us, as you are for the defence. But we are not hostile to Fletcher. In fact, he hasn’t been charged. He is only being detained in custody until we have heard what turns up at the inquest. I know you have examined that blood that Mr. Foxley took, and Fletcher’s blood, too, and you’ve seen the premises. We have given all the facilities that we could, and if you could give us any sort of hint that might be useful—well, I should be very much obliged.”

Thorndyke reflected for a few moments. Then he replied:

“There is no reason for secrecy in regard to you, inspector, who have been so helpful and friendly, so I will be quite frank. I have examined both samples of blood and Fletcher’s, and I have inspected the premises, and what I am able to say definitely is this: the blood in the hall is not the blood of the deceased——”

“Ah!” exclaimed the inspector, “I was afraid it wasn’t.”

“And it is not the blood of Robert Fletcher.”

“Isn’t it now! Well, I am glad to hear that.”

“Moreover,” continued Thorndyke, “it was shed well after nine o’clock at night, probably not earlier than midnight.”

“There, now!” the inspector exclaimed, with an admiring glance at Thorndyke, “just think of that. See what it is to be a man of science! I suppose, sir, you couldn’t give us any sort of description of the person who dropped that blood in the hall?”

Staggered as I had been by Thorndyke’s astonishing statements, I could not repress a grin at the inspector’s artless question. But the grin faded rather abruptly as Thorndyke replied in matter-of-fact tones:

“A detailed description is, of course, impossible. I can only sketch out the probabilities. But if you should happen to meet with a negro—a tall negro with a bandaged head or a contused wound of the scalp and a swollen leg—you had better keep your eye on him. The leg which is swollen is probably the left.”

The inspector was thrilled; and so was I, for that matter. The thing was incredible; but yet I knew that Thorndyke’s amazing deductions were the products of perfectly orthodox scientific methods. Only I could form no sort of guess as to how they had been arrived at. A negro’s blood is no different from any other person’s, and certainly affords no clue to his height or the condition of his legs. I could make nothing of it; and as the dialogue and the inspector’s note-takings brought us to the little town hall in which the inquest was to be held, I dismissed the puzzle until such time as Thorndyke chose to solve it.

When we entered the town hall we found everything in readiness for the opening of the proceedings. The jury were already in their places and the coroner was just about to take his seat at the head of the long table. We accordingly slipped on to the two chairs that were found for us by the inspector, and the latter took his place behind the jury and facing us. Near to him Mr. Foxley and Miss Markham were seated, and evidently hailed our arrival with profound relief, each of them smiling us a silent greeting. A professional-looking man sitting next to Thorndyke I assumed to be the medical witness, and a rather good-looking young man who sat apart with a police constable I identified as Robert Fletcher.

The evidence of the “common” witnesses, who deposed to the general facts, told us nothing that we did not already know, excepting that it was made clear that Fletcher had left his uncle’s house not later than seven o’clock and that thereafter until the following morning his whereabouts were known. The medical witness was cautious, and kept an uneasy eye on Thorndyke. The wound which caused the death of deceased might have been inflicted by himself or by some other person. He had originally given the probable time of death as six or seven o’clock on Wednesday evening. He now admitted—in reply to a question from Thorndyke—that he had not taken the temperature of the body, and that the rigidity and other conditions were not absolutely inconsistent with a considerable later time of death. Death might even have occurred after midnight.

In spite of this admission, however, the sum of the evidence tended strongly to implicate Fletcher, and one or two questions from jurymen suggested a growing belief in his guilt. I had no doubt whatever that if the case had been put to the jury at this stage, a unanimous verdict of “wilful murder” would have been the result. But, as the medical witness returned to his seat, the coroner fixed an inquisitive eye on Thorndyke.

“You have not been summoned as a witness, Dr. Thorndyke,” said he, “but I understand that you have made certain investigations in this case. Are you able to throw any fresh light on the circumstances of the death of the deceased, Joseph Riggs?”

“Yes,” Thorndyke replied. “I am in a position to give important and material evidence.”

Thereupon he was sworn, and the coroner, still watching him curiously, said:

“I am informed that you have examined samples of the blood of deceased and the blood which was found in the hall of deceased’s house. Did you examine them, and if so, what was the object of the examination?”

“I examined both samples and also samples of the blood of Robert Fletcher. The object was to ascertain whether the blood on the hall floor was the blood of the deceased or of Robert Fletcher.”

The coroner glanced at the medical witness, and a faint smile appeared on the face of each.

“And did you,” the former asked in a slightly ironical tone, “form any opinion on the subject?”

“I ascertained definitely that the blood in the hall was neither that of the deceased nor that of Robert Fletcher.”

The coroner’s eyebrows went up, and once more he glanced significantly at the doctor.

“But,” he demanded incredulously, “is it possible to distinguish the blood of one person from that of another?”

“Usually it is not, but in certain exceptional cases it is. This happened to be an exceptional case.”

“In what respect?”

“It happened,” Thorndyke replied, “that the person whose blood was found in the hall suffered from the parasitic disease known as filariasis. His blood was infested with swarms of a minute worm named Filaria nocturna. I have here,” he continued, taking out of his research-case the two bottles and the three boxes, “thirty-six mounted specimens of this blood, and in every one of them one or more of the parasites is to be seen. I have also thirty-six mounted specimens each of the blood of the deceased and the blood of Robert Fletcher. In not one of these specimens is a single parasite to be found. Moreover, I have examined Robert Fletcher and the body of the deceased, and can testify that no sign of filarial disease was to be discovered in either. Hence it is certain that the blood found in the hall was not the blood of either of these two persons.”

The ironic smile had faded from the coroner’s face. He was evidently deeply impressed, and his manner was quite deferential as he asked:

“Do these very remarkable observations of yours lead to any further inferences?”

“Yes,” replied Thorndyke. “They render it certain that this blood was shed not earlier than nine o’clock and probably nearer midnight.”

“Really!” the astonished coroner exclaimed. “Now, how is it possible to fix the time in that exact manner?”

“By inference from the habits of the parasite,” Thorndyke explained. “This particular filaria is distributed by the mosquito, and its habits are adapted to the habits of the mosquito. During the day, the worms are not found in the blood; they remain hidden in the tissues of the body. But about nine o’clock at night they begin to migrate from the tissues into the blood, and remain in the blood during the hours when the mosquitoes are active. Then, about six o’clock in the morning, they leave the blood and migrate back into the tissues.

“There is another very similar species—Filaria diurna—which has exactly opposite habits, adapted to day-flying suctorial insects. It appears in the blood about eleven in the forenoon and goes back into the tissues about six o’clock in the evening.”

“Astonishing!” exclaimed the coroner. “Wonderful! By the way, the parasites that you found could not, I suppose, have been Filaria diurna?”

“No,” Thorndyke replied. “The time excludes that possibility. The blood was certainly shed after six. They were undoubtedly nocturna, and the large numbers found suggest a late hour. The parasites come out of the tissues very gradually, and it is only about midnight that they appear in the blood in really large numbers.”

“That is very important,” said the coroner. “But does this disease affect any particular class of persons?”

“Yes,” Thorndyke replied. “As the disease is confined to tropical countries, the sufferers are naturally residents of the tropics, and nearly always natives. In West Africa, for instance, it is common among the negroes but practically unknown among the white residents.”

“Should you say that there is a distinct probability that this unknown person was a negro?”

“Yes. But apart from the filariae, there is direct evidence that he was. Searching for some cause of the bleeding, I noticed a lamp-hook screwed into the ceiling and low enough to strike a tall man’s head. I examined it closely, and observed on it a dark, shiny mark, like a blood-smear, and one or two short coiled hairs which I recognised as the scalp-hairs of a negro. I have no doubt that the unknown man is a negro, and that he has a wound of the scalp.”

“Does filarial disease produce any effects that can be recognised?”

“Frequently it does. One of the commonest effects produced by Filaria nocturna, especially among negroes, is the condition known as elephantiasis. This consists of an enormous swelling of the extremities, most usually of one leg, including the foot; whence the name. The leg and foot look like those of an elephant. As a matter of fact, the negro who was in the hall suffered from elephantiasis of the left leg. I observed prints of the characteristically deformed foot on the oil-cloth covering the floor.”

Thorndyke’s evidence was listened to with intense interest by everyone present, including myself. Indeed, so spell-bound was his audience that one could have heard a pin drop; and the breathless silence continued for some seconds after he had ceased speaking. Then, in the midst of the stillness, I heard the door creak softly behind me.

There was nothing particularly significant in the sound. But its effects were amazing. Glancing at the inspector, who faced the door, I saw his eyes open and his jaw drop until his face was a very mask of astonishment. And as this expression was reflected on the faces of the jurymen, the coroner and everyone present, excepting Thorndyke, whose back was towards the door, I turned to see what had happened. And then I was as astonished as the others.

The door had been pushed open a few inches and a head thrust in—a negro’s head, covered with a soiled and blood-stained rag forming a rough bandage. As I gazed at the black, shiny, inquisitive face, the man pushed the door farther open and shuffled into the room; and instantly there arose on all sides a soft rustle and an inarticulate murmur followed by breathless silence, while every eye was riveted on the man’s left leg.

It certainly was a strange, repulsive-looking member, its monstrous bulk exposed to view through the slit trouser and its great shapeless foot—shoeless, since no shoe could have contained it—rough and horny like the foot of an elephant. But it was tragic and pitiable, too; for the man, apart from this horrible excrescence, was a fine, big, athletic-looking fellow.

The coroner was the first to recover. Addressing Thorndyke, but keeping an eye on the negro, he said:

“Your evidence, then, amounts to this: On the night of Joseph Rigg’s death, there was a stranger in the house. That stranger was a negro, who seems to have wounded his head and who, you say, had a swelled left leg.”

“Yes,” Thorndyke admitted, “that is the substance of my evidence.”

Once more a hush fell on the room. The negro stood near the door, rolling his eyes to and fro over the assembly as if uneasily conscious that everyone was looking at him. Suddenly, he shuffled up to the foot of the table and addressed the coroner in deep, buzzing, resonant tones.

“You tink I kill dat ole man! I no kill um. He kill himself. I look um.”

Having made this statement, he rolled his eyes defiantly round the court, and then turned his face expectantly towards the coroner, who said:

“You say you know that Mr. Riggs killed himself?”

“Yas. I look um. He shoot himself. You tink I shoot um. I tell you I no shoot um. Why I fit kill this man? I no sabby um.”

“Then,” said the coroner,” if you know that he killed himself, you must tell us all that you know; and you must swear to tell us the truth.”

“Yas,” the negro agreed, “I tell you eberyting one time. I tell you de troof. Dat ole man kill himself.”

When the coroner had explained to him that he was not bound to make any statement that would incriminate him, as he still elected to give evidence, he was sworn and proceeded to make his statement with curious fluency and self-possession.

“My name Robert Bruce. Dat my English name. My country name Kwaku Mensah. I live for Winnebah on de Gold Coast. Dis time I cook’s mate for dat steamer Leckie. On Wednesday night I lay in my bunk. I no fit sleep. My leg he chook me. I look out of de porthole. Plenty moon live. In my country when de moon big, peoples walk about. So I get up. I go ashore to walk about de town. Den de rain come. Plenty rain. Rain no good for my sickness. So I try for open house doors. No fit. All doors locked. Den I come to dis ole man’s house. I turn de handle. De door open. I go in. I look in one room. All dark. Nobody live. Den I look annudder room. De door open a little. Light live inside. I no like dat. I tink, spose somebody come out and see me, he tink I come for teef someting. So I tink I go away.

“Den someting make ‘Ping!’ same like gun. I hear someting fall down in dat room. I go to de door and I sing out, ‘Who live in dere?’ Nobody say nutting. So I open de door and look in. De room full ob smoke. I look dat ole man on de floor. I look dat pistol. I sabby dat ole man kill himself. Den I frighten too much. I run out. De place all dark. Someting knock my head. He make blood come plenty. I go back for ship. I no say nutting to nobody. Dis day I hear peoples talk ’bout dis inquess to find out who kill dat ole man. So I come to hear what peoples say. I hear dat gentleman say I kill dat ole man. So I tell you eberyting. I tell you de troof. Finish.”

“Do you know what time it was when you came ashore?” the coroner asked.

“Yas. When I come down de ladder I hear eight bells ring. I get back to de ship jus’ before dey ring two bells in de middle watch.”

“Then you came ashore at midnight and got back just before one o’clock?”

“Yas. Dat is what I say.”

A few more questions put by the coroner having elicited nothing fresh, the case was put briefly to the jury.

“You have heard the evidence, gentlemen, and most remarkable evidence it was. Like myself, you must have been deeply impressed by the amazing skill with which Dr. Thorndyke reconstructed the personality of the unknown visitor to that house, and even indicated correctly the very time of the visit, from an examination of a mere chance blood-stain. As to the statement of Kwaku Mensah, I can only say that I see no reason to doubt its truth. You will note that it is in complete agreement with Dr. Thorndyke’s evidence, and it presents no inconsistencies or improbabilities. Possibly the police may wish to make some further inquiries, but for our purposes it is the evidence of an eyewitness, and as such must be given full weight. With these remarks, I leave you to consider your verdict.”

The jury took but a minute or two to deliberate. Indeed, only one verdict was possible if the evidence was to be accepted, and that was agreed on unanimously—suicide whilst temporarily insane. As soon as it was announced, the inspector, formally and with congratulations, released Fletcher from custody, and presently retired in company with the negro to make a few inquiries on board the ship.

The rising of the court was the signal for a wild demonstration of enthusiasm and gratitude to Thorndyke. To play his part efficiently in that scene he would have needed to be furnished, like certain repulsive Indian deities, with an unlimited outfit of arms. For everyone wanted to shake his hand, and two of them—Mr. Foxley and Miss Markham—did so with such pertinacity as entirely to exclude the other candidates.

“I can never thank you enough,” Miss Markham exclaimed, with swimming eyes, “if I should live to be a hundred. But I shall think of you with gratitude every day of my life. Whenever I look at Robert, I shall remember that his liberty, and even his life, are your gifts.”

Here she was so overcome by grateful emotion that she again seized and pressed his hand. I think she was within an ace of kissing him; but being, perhaps, doubtful how he would take it, compromised by kissing Robert instead. And, no doubt, it was just as well.



This story is Number Twenty from the book

“The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke

 Thirty-seven of his criminal

 investigations as set down by

 R. Austin Freeman.”


also known as


“Dr. Thorndyke His Famous Cases as

 Described by R. Austin Freeman”.


First published July 1929

Hodder & Stoughton, London




Misspelled words and printer errors have been corrected. Where multiple spellings occur, majority use has been employed.

Punctuation has been maintained except where obvious printer errors occur.

Book name and author have been added to the original book cover, together with the name and number of this story. The resulting cover is placed in the public domain.

[The end of The Pathologist to the Rescue by Richard Austin Freeman]