A Silent Witness (First published 1914) By R. Austin Freeman Dr Humphrey Jardine recalls the chain of events coinciding with his new medical qualification, The adventure began late one evening when he found a corpse while strolling in north London. A clerical man is rifling through the dead man's clothes but when the doctor returned with the authorities the body had vanished and Dr. Jardine had some explaining to do and a mystery to solve.
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About the Author
British author Richard Austin Freeman (1862 -1943) wrote detective stories, many featuring medico-legal forensic investigator Dr. Thorndyke. He used some of his experiences as a colonial surgeon in his novels, offering scientific knowledge from areas such as toxicology.
He claimed to have invented the "inverted detective story" (in which the the crime is described at the beginning, with the story then describing the detective's attempt to solve the mystery).
He was the youngest of five children and trained as an apothecary and then studied medicine at Middlesex Hospital. He married and entered the Colonial Service, where he was sent to Accra on the Gold Coast.
He suffered from blackwater fever and returned to London but was unable to find a permanent medical role. Instead, heh earned money writing fiction, while practising medicine. His first stories were written in collaboration with John James Pitcairn (1860-1936), medical officer at Holloway Prison, and published under the nom de plume "Clifford Ashdown".
His first Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, was published in 1907. During World War I, he served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and afterwards published a Thorndyke novel annually until his death in 1943.
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A Silent Witness
By R. Austin Freeman
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2015 R. Austin Freeman
All rights reserved.
THE BEGINNING OF THE MYSTERY
The history upon which I am now embarking abounds in incidents so amazing that, as I look back on them, a something approaching to scepticism contends with my vivid recollections and makes me feel almost apologetic in laying them before the reader. Some of them indeed are so out of character with the workaday life in which they happened that they will appear almost incredible; but none is more fraught with mystery than the experience that befell me on a certain September night in the last year of my studentship and ushered in the rest of the astounding sequence.
It was past eleven o'clock when I let myself out of my lodgings at Gospel Oak; a dark night, cloudy and warm and rather inclined to rain. But, despite the rather unfavourable aspect of the weather, I turned my steps away from the town, and walking briskly up the Highgate Road, presently turned into Millfield Lane. This was my favourite walk and the pretty winding lane, meandering so pleasantly from Lower Highgate to the heights of Hampstead, was familiar to me under all its aspects.
On sweet summer mornings when the cuckoos called from the depths of Ken Wood, when the path was spangled with golden sunlight, and saucy squirrels played hide and seek in the shadows under the elms (though the place was within earshot of Westminster and within sight of the dome of St. Paul's); on winter days when the Heath wore its mantle of white and the ring of gliding steel came up from the skaters on the pond below; on August evenings, when I would come suddenly on sequestered lovers (to our mutual embarrassment) and hurry by with ill-feigned unconsciousness. I knew all its phases and loved them all. Even its name was delightful, carrying the mind back to those more rustic days when the wits foregathered at the Old Flask Tavern and John Constable tramped through this very lane with his colour-box slung over his shoulder.
It was very dark after I had passed the lamp at the entrance to the lane. Very silent and solitary too. Not a soul was stirring at this hour, for the last of the lovers had long since gone home and the place was little frequented even in the daytime. The elms brooded over the road, shrouding it in shadows of palpable black, and their leaves whispered secretly in the soft night breeze. But the darkness, the quiet and the solitude were restful after the long hours of study and the glare of the printed page, and I strolled on past the ghostly pond and the little thatched cottage, now wrapped in silence and darkness, with a certain wistful regret that I must soon look my last on them. For I had now passed all my examinations but the final "Fellowship," and must soon be starting my professional career in earnest.
Presently a light rain began to fall. Foreseeing that I should have to curtail my walk, I stepped forward more briskly, and, passing between the posts, entered the narrowest and most secluded part of the lane. But now the rain suddenly increased, and a squall of wind drove it athwart the path. I drew up in the shelter of one of the tall oak fences by which the lane is here inclosed, and waited for the shower to pass. And as I stood with my back to the fence, pensively filling my pipe, I became for the first time sensible of the utter solitude of the place.
I looked about me and listened. The lane was darker here than elsewhere; a mere trench between the high fences. I could dimly see the posts at the entrance and a group of large elms over-shadowing them. In the other direction, where the lane doubled sharply upon itself, was absolute, inky blackness, save where a faint glimmer from the wet ground showed the corner of the fence and a projecting stump or tree-root jutting out from the corner and looking curiously like a human foot with the toes pointed upward.
The rain fell steadily with a soft, continuous murmur; the leaves of the elm-trees whispered together and answered the falling rain. The Scotch pines above my head stirred in the breeze with a sound like the surge of the distant sea. The voices of Nature, hushed and solemn, oblivious of man like the voices of the wilderness; and over all and through all, a profound, enveloping silence.
I drew up closer to the fence and shivered slightly, for the night was growing chill. It seemed a little lighter now in the narrow, trench-like lane; not that the sky was less murky but because the ground was now flooded with water. The posts stood out less vaguely against the background of wet road, and the odd-looking stump by the corner was almost distinct. And again it struck me as looking curiously like a foot — a booted foot with the toe pointing upwards.
The chime of a church clock sounded across the Heath, a human voice, this, penetrating the desolate silence. Then, after an interval, the solemn boom of Big Ben came up faintly from the sleeping city.
Midnight! and time for me to go home. It was of no use to wait for the rain to cease. This was no passing shower, but a steady drizzle that might last till morning. I re-lit my pipe, turned up my collar, and prepared to plunge into the rain. And as I stepped out, the queer-looking stump caught my eye once more. It was singularly like a foot; and it was odd, too, that I had never noticed it before in my many rambles through the lane.
A sudden, childish curiosity impelled me to see what it really was before I went, and the next moment I was striding sharply up the sodden path. Of course, I expected the illusion to vanish as I approached. But it did not. The resemblance increased as I drew nearer, and I hurried forward with something more than curiosity.
It was a foot! I realized it with a shock while I was some paces away; and, as I reached the corner, I came upon the body of a man lying in the sharp turn of the path; and the limp, sprawling posture, with one leg doubled under, told its tale at a glance.
I laid my finger on his wrist. It was clammy and cold, and not a vestige of a pulse could I detect. I struck a wax match and held it to his face. The eyes were wide-open and filmy, staring straight up into the reeking sky. The dilated pupils were insensitive to the glare of the match, the eyeballs insensitive to the touch of my finger.
Beyond all doubt the man was dead.
But how had he died? Had he simply fallen dead from some natural cause, or had he been murdered? There was no obvious injury, and no sign of blood. All that the momentary glimmer of the match showed was that his clothes were shiny with the wet; a condition that might easily, in the weak light, mask a considerable amount of bleeding.
When the match went out, I stood for some moments looking down on the prostrate figure as it lay with the rain beating down on the upturned face, professional interest contending with natural awe of the tragic presence. The former prompted me to ascertain without delay the cause of death; and, indeed, I was about to make a more thorough search for some injury or wound when something whispered to me that it is not well to be alone at midnight in a solitary place with a dead man — perchance a murdered man. Had there been any sign of life, my duty would have been clear. As it was, I must act for the best with a due regard to my own safety. And, reaching this conclusion, I turned away, with a last glance at the motionless figure and set forth homeward at a rapid pace.
As I turned out of Millfield Lane into Highgate Rise I perceived a policeman on the opposite side of the road standing under a tree, where the light from a lamp fell on his shining tarpaulin cape. I crossed the road, and, as he civilly touched his helmet, I said: "I am afraid there is something wrong up the lane, Constable; I have just seen the body of a man lying on the pathway."
The constable woke up very completely. "Do you mean a dead man, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, he is undoubtedly dead," I replied.
"Whereabouts did you see the body?" enquired the constable.
"In the narrow part of the lane, just by the stables of Mansfield House."
"That's some distance from here," said the constable. "You had better come with me and report at the station. You're sure the man was dead, sir?"
"Yes, I have no doubt about it. I am a medical man," I added, with some pride (I had been a medical man about three months, and the sensation was still a novel one).
"Oh, are you, sir?" said the officer, with a glance at my half-fledged countenance; "then, I suppose you examined the body?"
"Sufficiently to make sure that the man was dead, but I did not stay to ascertain the cause of death."
"No, sir; quite so. We can find that out later."
As we talked, the constable swung along down the hill, without hurry, but at a pace that gave me very ample exercise, and I caught his eye from time to time, travelling over my person with obvious professional interest. When we had nearly reached the bottom of the hill, there appeared suddenly on the wet road ahead, a couple of figures in waterproof capes. "Ha!" said the constable, "this is fortunate. Here is the inspector and the sergeant. That will save us the walk to the station."
He accosted the officers as they approached and briefly related what I had told him. "You are sure the man was dead, sir?" said the inspector, scrutinizing me narrowly; "but, there, we needn't stay here to discuss that. You run down, Sergeant, and get a stretcher and bring it along as quickly as you can. I must trouble you, sir, to come with me and show me where the body is. Lend the gentleman your cape, sergeant; you can get another at the station."
I accepted the stout cape thankfully, for the rain still fell with steady persistency, and set forth with the inspector to retrace my steps. And as we splashed along through the deep gloom of the lane, the officer plied me with judicious questions. "How long did you think the man had been dead?" he asked.
"Not long, I should think. The body was still quite limp."
"You didn't see any marks of violence?"
"No. There were no obvious injuries."
"Which way were you going when you came on the body?"
"The way we are going now, and, of course, I came straight back."
"Did you meet or see anyone in the lane?"
"Not a soul," I answered.
He considered my answers for some time, and then came the question that I had been expecting. "How came you to be in the lane at this time of night?"
"I was taking a walk," I replied, "as I do nearly every night. I usually finish my evening's reading about eleven, and then I have some supper and take a walk before going to bed, and I take my walk most commonly in Millfield Lane. Some of your men must remember having met me."
This explanation seemed to satisfy him for he pursued the subject no farther, and we trudged on for awhile in silence. At length, as we passed through the posts into the narrow part of the lane, the inspector asked: "We're nearly there, aren't we?"
"Yes," I replied: "the body is lying in the bend just ahead."
I peered into the darkness in search of the foot that had first attracted my notice, but was not yet able to distinguish it. Nor, to my surprise, could I make it out as we approached more nearly; and when we reached the corner, I stopped short in utter amazement.
The body had vanished! "What's the matter?" asked the inspector. "I thought this was the place you meant."
"So it is," I answered. "This is the place where the body was lying; here, across the path, with one foot projecting round the corner. Someone must have carried it away."
The inspector looked at me sharply for a moment. "Well, it isn't here now," said he, "and if it has been taken away, it must have been taken along towards Hampstead Lane. We'd better go and see." Without waiting for a reply, he started off along the lane at a smart double and I followed.
We pursued the windings of the lane until we emerged into the road by the lodge gates, without discovering any traces of the missing corpse or meeting any person, and then we turned back and retraced our steps; and as we, once more, approached the crook in the lane where I had seen the body, we heard a quick, measured tramp. "Here comes the sergeant with the stretcher," observed the inspector; "and he might have saved himself the trouble." Once more the officer glanced at me sharply, and this time with unmistakable suspicion. "There's no body here, Robson," he said, as the sergeant came up, accompanied by two constables carrying a stretcher. "It seems to have disappeared."
"Disappeared!" exclaimed the sergeant, bestowing on me a look of extreme disfavour; "that's a rum go, sir. How could it have disappeared?"
"Ah! that's the question!" said the inspector. "And another question is, was it ever here? Are you prepared to make a sworn statement on the subject, sir?"
"Certainly I am," I replied.
"Then," said the inspector, "we will take it that there was a body here. Put down that stretcher. There is a gap in the fence farther along. We will get through there and search the meadow."
The bearers stood the stretcher up against a tree and we all proceeded up the lane to the place where the observant inspector had noticed the opening in the fence. The gravel, though sodden with the wet, took but the faintest impressions of the feet that trod it, and, though the sergeant and the two constables threw the combined light of their lanterns on the ground, we were only able to make out very faintly the occasional traces of our own footsteps.
We scrutinized the break in the fence and the earth around with the utmost minuteness, but could detect no sign of anyone having passed through. The short turf of the meadow, on which I had seen sheep grazing in the daytime, was not calculated to yield traces of anyone passing over it, and no traces of any kind were discoverable. When we had searched the meadow thoroughly and without result, we came back into the lane and followed its devious course to the "kissing-gate" at the Hampstead Lane entrance. And still there was no sign of anything unusual. True, there were obscure foot-prints in the soft gravel by the turnstile, but they told us nothing; we could not even be sure that they had not been made by ourselves on our previous visit. In short, the net result of our investigations was that the body had vanished and left no trace. "It's a very extraordinary affair," said the inspector, in a tone of deep discontent, as we walked back. "The body of a full-grown man isn't the sort of thing you can put in your pocket and stroll off with without being noticed, even at midnight. Are you perfectly sure the man was really dead and not in a faint?"
"I feel no doubt whatever that he was dead," I replied.
"With all respect to you, sir," said the sergeant, "I think you must be mistaken. I think the man must have been in a dead faint, and after you came away, the rain must have revived him so that he was able to get up and walk away."
"I don't think so," said I, though with less conviction; for, after all, it was not absolutely impossible that I should have been mistaken, since I had discovered no mortal injury, and the sergeant's suggestion was an eminently reasonable one.
"What sized man was he?" the inspector asked.
"That I couldn't say," I answered. "It is not easy to judge the height of a man when he is lying down and the light was excessively dim. But I should say he was not a tall man and rather slight in build."
"Could you give us any description of him?"
"He was an elderly man, about sixty, I should think, and he appeared to be a clergyman or a priest, for he wore a Roman collar with a narrow, dark stripe up the front. He was clean shaven, and, I think, wore a clerical suit of black. A tall hat was lying on the ground close by and a walking-stick which looked like a malacca, but I couldn't see it very well as he had fallen on it and most of it was hidden."
"And you saw all this by the light of one wax match," said the inspector. "You made pretty good use of your eyes, sir."
"A man isn't much use in my profession if he doesn't," I replied, rather stiffly.
"No, that's true," the inspector agreed. "Well, I must ask you to give us the full particulars at the station, and we shall see if anything fresh turns up. I'm sorry to keep you hanging about in the wet, but it can't be helped."
"Of course it can't," said I, and we trudged on in silence until we reached the station, which looked quite cheerful and homelike despite the grim blue lamp above the doorway. "Well, Doctor," said the inspector, when he had read over my statement and I had affixed my signature, "if anything turns up, you'll hear from us. But I doubt if we shall hear anything more of this. Dead or alive, the man seems to have vanished completely. Perhaps the sergeant's right after all, and your dead man is at this moment comfortably tucked up in bed. Good-night, Doctor, and thank you for all the trouble you have taken."
By the time that I reached my lodgings I was tired out and miserably cold; so cold that I was fain to brew myself a jorum of hot grog in my shaving pot. As a natural result, I fell fast asleep as soon as I got to bed and slept on until the autumn sunshine poured in through the slats of the Venetian blind.
Excerpted from A Silent Witness by R. Austin Freeman. Copyright © 2015 R. Austin Freeman. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am a huge fan of this series of mysteries, all written during the Golden Age of Mystery writing. A Silent Witness is Freeman's fourth full-length novel featuring Dr. Thorndyke, a barrister, doctor, and all-around solver of intriguing mysteries. In this installment, the action centers on one Dr Humphrey Jardine, who is the narrator of the story, and who himself is the focus of several strange events that happen to him just after he has finished medical school and begins his career as a physician. Jardine's troubles begin with a casual walk in Hampstead Heath (London), where he comes across the body of a man and runs to fetch the police, only to come back and find that the dead man has disappeared. The police can find no trace that the man was ever there, so Jardine takes it upon himself to examine the scene for clues. His findings lead him into a very strange adventure which can only be solved with the technical expertise of Dr. Thorndyke, but not before Jardine finds his life in danger, and not just once. There is a lot going on in this novel, but the strands all come together quite nicely and offer a mystery that will have you scratching your head. Nothing is as it seems here, so the mystery element starts off strong and continues to keep the reader scratching his or her head throughout the book. If you like old-fashioned mystery stories, the Dr. Thorndyke series is a good one. The verbiage is somewhat archaic for modern readers, but character and plot development are both nicely done. You could read this one as a stand alone, but it's better if you start with the first book and read them in order to better understand the thinking process of Dr. Thorndyke.Overall, nicely done and another worthy addition to my British reading room library.