Arthur Morrison was a British writer best known for novels about London's East End, as well as detective fiction works that featured the character Martin Hewitt.
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The Adventures of Martin Hewitt
By Arthur Morrison
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2015 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE AFFAIR OF MRS. SETON'S CHILD
First published in The Windsor Magazine, March 1896
It has struck me that many of my readers may wonder that, although I have set down in detail a number of interesting cases wherein Hewitt figured with success, I have scarcely as much as alluded to his failures. For failures he had, and of a fair number. More than once he has found his search met, perhaps at the beginning, perhaps after some little while, by an impenetrable wall of darkness through which no clue led. At other times he has lost time on a false trail while his quarry escaped. At others still the stupidity or inaccuracy of some person upon whom he has depended for information has set his plans to naught. The reason why none of these cases have been embodied in the present papers is simply this: that a problem with no answer, a puzzle with no explanation, an incident with no satisfactory end, as a rule lends itself but poorly to purposes of popular narrative, and it is often difficult to make understood and appreciated any degree of skill and acumen unless it produces a clear and intelligible result. That such results attended Hewitt's efforts in an extraordinary degree those who have followed my narratives so far will need no assurance; but withal impossibilities still remain impossibilities, for Hewitt as for the dullest creature alive. On some other occasion I may perhaps set out at length a case in which Martin Hewitt achieved nothing more than unqualified failure; for the present I shall content myself with a case which, although it was completely cleared up in the end, yet for some while baffled Hewitt because of some of the reasons I have alluded to.
On the ground floor of the building wherein Hewitt kept his office, and in which I myself had my chambers, were the offices of Messrs. Streatley and Raikes, an old-fashioned firm of family solicitors. Messrs. Streatley and Raikes's junior clerk appeared in Hewitt's outer office one morning with the query, "Is your guv'nor in?"
Kerrett admitted the fact.
"Will you tell him Mr. Raikes sends his compliments and will be obliged if he can step downstairs for a few minutes? It's a client of ours — a lady — and she's in a great state about losing her baby or something. Say Mr. Raikes would bring her up only she seems too ill to get up the stairs."
This was the purport of the message which Kerrett brought into the inner room, and in three minutes Hewitt was in Streatley and Raikes's office.
"I thought the only useful thing possible would be to send for you, Mr. Hewitt," Mr. Raikes explained; "indeed, if my client had been better acquainted with London no doubt she would have come to you direct. She is in a bad state in the inner office. Her name is Mrs. Seton; her husband is a recent client of ours. Quite young, and rather wealthy people, so far as I know. Made a fortune early, I believe, in South Africa, and came here to live. Their child — their only child, a little toddler of two years or thereabout — disappeared yesterday in a most mysterious way, and all efforts to find it seem to have failed as yet. The police have been set going everywhere, but there is no news as yet. Mrs. Seton seems to have passed a dreadful night, and could think of nothing better to do this morning than to come to us. She has her maid with her, and looks to be breaking down entirely. I believe she's lying on the sofa in my private room now. Will you see her? I think you might hear what she has to say, whether you take the case in hand or not; something may strike you, and in any case it will comfort her to get your opinion. I told her all about you, you know, and she clutched at the chance eagerly. Shall I see if we may go in?"
Mr. Raikes knocked at the door of his inner sanctum and waited; then he knocked again and set the door ajar. There was a quiet "Come in," and pushing open the door the lawyer motioned Hewitt to follow him.
On the sofa facing the door sat a lady, very pale, and exhibiting plain signs of grief and physical weariness. A heavy veil was thrown back over her bonnet, and her maid stood at her side holding a bottle of salts. As she saw Hewitt she made as if to rise, but he stepped quickly forward and laid his hand on her shoulder. "Pray don't disturb yourself, Mrs. Seton," he said; "Mr. Raikes has told me something of your trouble, and perhaps when I know a little more I shall be able to offer you some advice. But remember that it will be very important for you to maintain your strength and spirits as much as possible."
"This is Mr. Martin Hewitt, you know," Mr. Raikes here put in — "of whom I was speaking."
Mrs. Seton inclined her head and with a very obvious effort began.
"It is my child, you know, Mr. Hewitt — my little boy Charley; we can't find him."
"Mr. Raikes has told me so. When did you see the child last?"
"Yesterday morning. His nurse left him sitting on the floor in a room we call the small morning-room, where we sometimes allowed him to play when nurse was out, because the nursery was out of hearing, except from the bedrooms. I myself was in the large morning-room, and as he seemed to be very quiet I went to look, and found he was not there."
"You looked elsewhere, of course?"
"Yes; but he was nowhere in the house, and none of the servants had seen him. At first I supposed that his nurse had gone back to the small morning-room and taken him with her — I had sent her on an errand — but when she returned I found that was not the case."
"Can he walk?"
"Oh, yes, he can walk quite well. But he could scarcely have come out from the room without my hearing him. The two rooms, the morning-room and the small sitting-room, are on opposite sides of the same passage."
"Do the doors face each other?"
"No; the door of the small room is farther up the passage than the other. But in any case he was nowhere in the house."
"But if he left the room he must have got out somehow. Is there no other door?"
"Yes, there is a French window, with the lower panels of wood, in the room; it gives on to a few steps leading down into the garden; but that was closed and bolted on the inside."
"You found no trace whatever of him, I take it, on the whole premises?"
"Not a trace of any sort, nor had anybody about the place seen him."
"Did you yourself actually see him in this room, or have you merely the nurse's word for it?"
"I saw her put him there. She left him playing with a box of toys. When I went to look for him the toys were there, scattered on the floor, but he had gone." Mrs. Seton sank on the arms of her maid and her breast heaved.
"I'm sure," Hewitt said, "You'll keep your nerves as steady as you can, Mrs. Seton; much may depend on it. If you have nothing else to tell me now I think I will come to your house at once, look at it, and question your servants myself. Meantime what has been done?"
"The police have been notified everywhere, of course," Mr. Raikes said, handing Hewitt a printed bill, damp from the press; "and here is a bill containing a description of the child and offering a reward, which is being circulated now."
Hewitt glanced at the bill and nodded. "That is quite right," he said, "so far as I can tell at present. But I must see the place. Do you feel strong enough to come home now, Mrs. Seton?"
Hewitt's business-like decision and confidence of manner gave the lady fresh strength. "The brougham is here," she said, "and we can drive home at once. We live at Cricklewood."
A fine pair of horses stood before the brougham, though they still bore signs of hard work; and indeed they had been kept at their best pace all that morning. All the way to Cricklewood Hewitt kept Mrs. Seton in conversation, never for a moment leaving her attention disengaged. The missing child, he learned, was the only one, and the family had only been in England for something less than a year. Mr. Seton had become possessed of real property in South Africa, had sold it in London, and had determined to settle here.
A little way past Shoot-up Hill the coachman swung his pair off to the left, and presently entering a gate pulled up before a large old-fashioned house.
Here Hewitt immediately began a complete examination of the premises. The possible exits from the grounds, he found, were four in number. The two wide front gates giving on to the carriage-drive, the kitchen and stable entrance, and a side gate in a fence — always locked, however. Inside the house, from the central hall, a passage to the right led to another wherein was the door of the small morning-room. This was a very ordinary room, 15 feet square or so, lighted by the glass in the French window, the bottom panes of which, however, had been filled in with wood. The contents of a box of toys lay scattered on the floor, and the box itself lay near.
"Have these toys been moved," Hewitt asked, "since the child was missed?"
"No, we haven't allowed anything to be disturbed. The disappearance seemed so wholly unaccountable that we thought the police might wish to examine the place exactly as it was. They did not seem to think it necessary, however."
Hewitt knelt and examined the toys without disturbing them. They were of very good quality, and represented a farmyard, with horses, carts, ducks, geese and cows complete. One of the carts had had a string attached so that it might be pulled along the floor.
"Now," Hewitt said rising, "you think, Mrs. Seton, that the child could not have toddled through the passage, and so into some other part of the house, without you hearing him?"
"Well," Mrs. Seton answered with indecision, "I thought so at first, but I begin to doubt. Because he must have done so, I suppose."
They went into the passage. The door of the large morning-room was four or five yards further toward the passage leading to the hall, and on the opposite side. "The floor in this passage," Hewitt observed, "is rather thickly carpeted. See here, I can walk on it at a good pace without noise."
Mrs. Seton assented. "Of course," she said, "if he got past here he might have got anywhere about the house, and so into the grounds. There is a veranda outside the drawing-room, and doors in various places."
"Of course the grounds have been completely examined?"
"Oh, yes, every inch."
"The weather has been very dry, unfortunately," Hewitt said, "and it would be useless for me to look for footprints on your hard gravel, especially of so small a child. Let us come back to the room. Is the French window fastened as you found it?"
"Yes; nothing has been changed."
The French window was, as is usual, one of two casements joining in the centre and fastened by bolts top and bottom. "It is not your habit, I see," Hewitt observed, "to open both halves of the window."
"No; one side is always fastened, the other we secure by the bottom bolt because the catch of the handle doesn't always act properly."
"And you found that bolt fastened as I see it now?"
Hewitt lifted the bolt and opened the door. Four or five steps led parallel with the face of the wall to a sort of path which ran the whole length of the house on this side, and was only separated from a quiet public lane by a low fence and a thin hedge. Almost opposite a small, light gate stood in the fence, firmly padlocked.
"I see," Hewitt remarked, "your house is placed close against one side of the grounds. Is that the side gate which you always keep locked?"
Mrs. Seton replied in the affirmative, and Hewitt laid his hand on the gate in question. "Still," he said, "if security is the object I should recommend hinges a little less rural in pattern; see here," and he gave the gate a jerk upward, lifting the hinge-pins from their sockets and opening the gate from that side, the padlock acting as hinge. "Those hinges," he added, "were meant for a heavier gate than that," and he replaced the gate.
"Yes," Mrs. Seton replied; "I am obliged to you; but that doesn't concern us now. The French window was bolted on the inside. Would you like to see the servants?"
The servants were produced, and Hewitt questioned each in turn, but not one would admit having seen anything of Master Charles Seton after he had been left in the small morning-room. A rather stupid groom fancied he had seen Master Charles on the side lawn, but then remembered that that must have been the day before. The cook, an uncommonly thin, sharp-featured woman for one of her trade, was especially positive that she had not seen him all that day. "And she would be sure to have remembered if she had seen him leaving the house," she said, "because she was the more particular since he was lost the last time."
This was news to Hewitt. "Lost the last time?" he asked; "why, what is this, Mrs. Seton? Was he lost once before?"
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Seton answered, "six or seven weeks ago. But that was quite different. He strayed out at the front gate and was brought back from the police station in the evening."
"But this may be most important," Hewitt said. "You should certainly have told me. Tell me now exactly what happened on this first occasion."
"But it was really quite an ordinary sort of accident. He was left alone and got out through an open gate. Of course we were very anxious; but we had him back the same evening. Need we waste time in talking about that?"
"But it will be no waste of time, I assure you. What was it that happened, exactly?"
"Nurse was about to take him for a short walk just before lunch. On the front lawn he suddenly remembered a whip which had been left in the nursery and insisted on taking it with him. She left him and went back for it, taking however some little time to find it. When she returned he was nowhere to be seen; but one of the gates was a couple of feet or more open — it had caught on a loose stone in swinging to — and no doubt he had wandered off that way. A lady found him some distance away and, not knowing to whom he belonged, took him that evening to a police station, and as messages had been sent to the police stations, we had him back soon after he was left there."
"Do you know who the lady was?"
"Her name was Mrs. Clark. She left her name and address at the police station, and of course I wrote to thank her. But there was some mistake in taking it down, I suppose, for the letter was returned marked not known.'"
"Then you never saw this lady yourself?"
"I think I will make a note of the exact description of the child and then visit the police station to which this lady took him six weeks ago. Fair, curly hair, I think, and blue eyes? Age two years and three months; walks and runs well, and speaks fairly plainly. Dress?"
"Pale blue llama frock with lace, white under-linen, linen overall, pale blue silk socks and tan shoes. Everything good as new except the shoes, which were badly worn at the backs through a habit he has of kicking back and downward with his heels when sitting. They were rather old shoes, and only used indoors."
"If I remember aright nothing was said of those shoes in the printed bill?"
"Was that so? No, I believe not. I have been so worried."
"Yes, Mrs. Seton, of course. It is most creditable in you to have kept up so well while I have been making my inquiries. Go now and take a good rest while I do what is possible. By the way, where was Mr. Seton yesterday morning when you missed the boy?"
"In the City. He has some important business in hand just now."
"He has gone to the City again. Of course he is sadly worried; but he saw that everything possible was done, and his business was very important."
"Just so. Mr. Seton was not married before, I presume — if I may?"
"No, certainly not; why do you ask?"
"I beg your pardon, but I have a habit of asking almost every question I can think of; I can't know too much of a case, you know, and most unlikely pieces of information sometimes turn out useful. Thank you for your patience; I will try another plan now."
Mrs. Seton had kept up remarkably well during Hewitt's examination, but she was plainly by no means a strong woman, and her maid came again to her assistance as Hewitt left. Hewitt himself made for the police station. Few inspectors indeed of the Metropolitan Police force did not know Hewitt by sight, and the one here in charge knew him well. He remembered very well the occasion, six weeks or so before, when Mrs. Clark brought Mrs. Seton's child to the station. He was on duty himself at the time, and he turned up the book containing an entry on the subject. From this it appeared that the lady gave the address No. 89 Sedgby Road, Belsize Park.
Excerpted from The Adventures of Martin Hewitt by Arthur Morrison. Copyright © 2015 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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