No. 19.—Mystery on Board
H.M.S. Drawing-Room, Part 2.
AS THE UNFORTUNATE incident had happened aboard one of the ships of Her Majesty’s navy, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Royal Commission for Naval Investigations, and a team of investigators was accordingly dispatched at once. When they arrived, they busied themselves making exact renditions of the crime scene in oil on canvas (for later display in the Royal Museum of Naval Criminal Art). Meanwhile, their supervisor, Extraordinary Investigator Plenipotentiary Erasmus Thicke, introduced himself to me.
“Very pleased to meet you,” I responded politely, “though I wish we might have met under more fortunate circumstances. I am Admiral Hornswoggle.”
“Is that so?” Thicke inquired with a decidedly skeptical tone. “Well, I’ll believe that when I have hard evidence. Where’s the wife?”
“If you mean the Marchioness, no one has seen her since the Marquess entered the drawing-room.”
“Is that so? Now, listen, so-called Admiral Hornswoggle, I want everyone who was on the ship assembled in this room. We’re going to catch a murderer today.”
“I’m not quite sure it will be that simple,” I told him.
“Is that so? Well, I say I’ll get a confession out of someone in ten minutes,” Thicke answered with a bit of swagger. “No one stands up to my grilling.”
I had private reasons to doubt his assertion, but nevertheless I followed his instructions, assembling all my men around the edge of the drawing-room. In the center of the room, everything had been left as it was when we found the body, except that the body itself had been decently covered with a few sheets of the Nautical Times. The men were prompt and all accounted for; the Marchioness, however, was still nowhere to be found.
“Now,” Extraordinary Investigator Plenipotentiary Thicke announced when we were all gathered together, “the first thing I want to know is this: Who found the body?”
“I did,” I answered readily.
“Is that so?” Thicke asked, turning to face me. “You know, I’m always suspicious of people who find bodies. Nine times out of ten——”
“Nay, ’twere me,” Dim-Eye Jim suddenly interjected. “I done it. I confess. But the tub o’ lard had it comin’.”
“Jim,” I said gently (for I never knew his surname), “I do not mean to impugn your veracity, but do you not recall that you were out here in the hall with us?”
Old Jim considered this difficulty for a moment, and then explained, “I slipped in while you blinked.”
“While I blinked?”
“You takes powerful long blinks, Admiral,” he said, but it was apparent that he was not convincing even himself.
“Jim’s lyin’ to you, Admiral,” Higgs interrupted. “I murdered the old pig, an’ I’m glad I done it.”
“But, Mr. Higgs,” I objected, “you were here with Dim-Eye Jim and me when the Marquess was killed.”
Higgs appeared to be nonplussed for a short time; then his face brightened. “Course I was,” he said. “I done that to put you off the scent.”
“I did it,” came a voice from behind me. It was our chief engineer. “I couldn’t forget what he said about the toy tugboat.”
“And how did you get through the locked door?” I asked.
He thought about that for a moment. “You can do most anything with steam power these days,” he replied.
“I did it,” the cook interrupted, “I was the one who murdered the beast.”
And so it went: each member of my crew put in his own claim to have been the murderer; and, when that claim evaporated in rank implausibility, another crewman stepped up to take the blame.
“What kind of nonsense is this?” Thicke demanded at last.
“Well, you did say you would have a confession in ten minutes,” I reminded him. “I see you are a man of your word.”
At this moment the Marchioness appeared in the doorway, and, taking one look at the scene of horror in the middle of the room, let out a disappointed sigh.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “It’s happened again.”
To be continued.