Mystery of the Sand Hills
by R. Austin Freeman
I HAVE occasionally wondered how often Mystery and Romance present themselves to
us ordinary men of affairs only to be passed by without recognition. More often,
I suspect than most of us imagine. The uncanny tendency of my talented friend
John Thorndyke to become involved in strange, mysterious and abnormal
circumstances has almost become a joke against him. But yet, on reflection, I am
disposed to think that his experiences have not differed essentially from those
of other men, but that his extraordinary powers of observation and rapid
inference have enabled him to detect abnormal elements in what, to ordinary men,
appeared to be quite commonplace occurrences. Certainly this was so in the
singular Roscoff case, in which, if I had been alone, I should assuredly have
seen nothing to merit more than a passing attention.
It happened that on a certain summer morning it was the fourteenth of
August, to be exact we were discussing this very subject as we walked
across the golf-links from Sandwich towards the sea. I was spending a
holiday in the old town with my wife, in order that she might paint the
ancient streets, and we had induced Thorndyke to come down and stay with us
for a few days. This was his last morning, and we had come forth betimes to
stroll across the sand-hills to Shellness.
It was a solitary place in those days. When we came off the sand-hills on to
the smooth, sandy beach, there was not a soul in sight, and our own
footprints were the first to mark the firm strip of sand between high-water
mark and the edge of the quiet surf.
We had walked a hundred yards or so when Thorndyke stopped and looked down at
the dry sand above tide-marks and then along the wet beach.
'Would that be a shrimper?' he cogitated, referring to some impressions of
bare feet in the sand. 'If so, he couldn't have come from Pegwell, for the
River Stour bars the way. But he came out of the sea and seems to have made
straight for the sand-hills.'
'Then he probably was a shrimper,' said I, not deeply interested.
'Yet,'said Thorndyke, 'it was an odd time for a hrimper to be at work.'
'What was an odd time?' I demanded. 'When was he at work?'
'He came out of the sea at this place,' Thorndyke replied, glancing at his
watch, 'at about half-past eleven last night, or from that to twelve.'
'Good Lord, Thorndyke!' I exclaimed, 'how on earth do you know that?'
'But it is obvious, Anstey,' he replied. 'It is now half-past nine, and it
will be high-water at eleven, as we ascertained before we came out. Now, if
you look at those footprints on the sand, you see that they stop short or
rather begin about two-thirds of the distance from high-water mark to the
edge of the surf. Since they are visible and distinct, they must have been
made after last high-water. But since they do not extend to the water's
edge, they must have been made when the tide was going out; and the place
where they begin is the place where the edge of the surf was when the
footprints were made. But the place is, as we see, about an hour below the
high-water mark, Therefore, when the man came out of the sea, the tide had
been going down for an hour, roughly. As it is high-water at eleven this
morning, it was high-water at about ten-forty last night; and as the man
came out of the sea about an hour after high-water, he must have come out
at, or about, eleven-forty. Isn't that obvious?'
'Perfectly,' I replied, laughing. 'It is as simple as sucking eggs when you
think it out. But how the deuce do you manage always to spot these obvious
things at a glance? Most men would have just glanced at those footprints and
passed them without a second thought.'
'That', he replied, 'is a mere matter of habit; the habit of trying to extract
the significance of simple appearances. It has become almost automatic with
During our discussion we had been walking forward slowly, straying on to the
edge of the sand-hills. Suddenly, in a hollow between the hills, my eye
lighted upon a heap of clothes, apparently, to judge by their orderly
disposal, those of a bather. Thorndyke also had observed them and we
approached together and looked down on them curiously.
'Here is another problem for you,' said I. 'Find the bather. I don't see him
'You won't find him here,' said Thorndyke. 'These clothes have been out all
night. Do you see the little spider's web on the boots with a few dewdrops
still clinging to it? There has been no dew forming for a good many hours.
Let us have a look at the beach.'
We strode out through the loose sand and stiff, reedy grass to the smooth
beach, and here we could plainly see a line of prints of naked feet leading
straight down to the sea, but ending abruptly about two-thirds of the way to
the water's edge.
'This looks like our nocturnal shrimper,' said I. 'He seems to have gone into
the sea here and come out at the other place. But if they are the same
footprints, he must have forgotten to dress before he went home. It is a
'It is a most remarkable affair,' Thorndyke agreed; 'and if the footprints are
not the same it will be still more inexplicable.'
He produced from his pocket a small spring tape-measure with which he
carefully took the lengths of two of the most distinct footprints and the
length of the stride. Then we walked back along the beach to the other set
of tracks, two of which he measured in the same manner.
'Apparently they are the same,' he said, putting away his tape; 'indeed, they
could hardly be otherwise. But the mystery is, what has become of the man?
He couldn't have gone away without his clothes, unless he is a lunatic,
which his proceedings rather suggest. There is just the possibility that he
went into the sea again and was drowned. Shall we walk along towards
Shellness and see if we can find any further traces?'
We walked nearly half a mile along the beach, but the smooth surface of the
sand was everywhere unbroken. At length we turned to retrace our steps; and
at this moment I observed two men advancing across the sand-hills. By the
time we had reached the mysterious heap of garments they were quite near,
and, attracted no doubt by the intentness with which we were regarding the
clothes, they altered their course to see what we were looking at. As they
approached, I recognized one of them as a barrister named Hallet, a
neighbour of mine in the Temple, whom I had already met in the town, and we
'What is the excitement?' he asked, looking at the heap of clothes and then
glancing along the deserted beach; 'and where is the owner of the togs? I
don't see him anywhere.'
'That is the problem,' said I. 'He seems to have disappeared.'
'Gad!' exclaimed Hallett, 'if he has gone home without his clothes, he'll
create a sensation in the town! What?'
Here the other man, who carried a set of golf clubs, stooped over the clothes
with a look of keen interest.
'I believe I recognize these things, Hallett; in fact, I am sure I do. That
waistcoat, for instance. You must have noticed that waistcoat. I saw you
playing with the chap a couple of days ago. Tall, clean-shaven, dark fellow.
Temporary member, you know. What was his name? Popoff, or something like
'Roscoff,' said Hallett. 'Yes, by Jove, I believe you are right. And now I
come to think of it, he mentioned to me that he sometimes came up here for a
swim. He said he particularly liked a paddle by moonlight, and I told him he
was a fool to run the risk of bathing in a lonely place like this,
especially at night.'
'Well, that is what he seems to have done,' said Thorndyke, 'for these clothes
have certainly been here all night, as you can see by that spider's web.'
'Then he has come to grief, poor beggar!' said Hallett; 'probably got carried
away by the current. There is a devil of a tide here on the flood.'
He started to walk towards the beach, and the other man, dropping his clubs,
'Yes,' said Hallett, 'that is what has happened. You can see his footprints
plainly enough going down to the sea; but there are no tracks coming back.'
'There are some tracks of bare feet coming out of the sea farther up the
beach,' said I, 'which seem to be his.'
Hallett shook his head. 'They can't be his,' he said, 'for it is obvious that
he never did come back. Probably they are the tracks of some shrimper. The
question is, what are we to do! Better take his things to the dormy-house
and then let the police know what has happened.'
We went back and began to gather up the clothes, each of us taking one or two
'You were right, Morris,' said Hallett, as he picked up the shirt. 'Here's his
name, "P. Roscoff", and I see it is on the vest and the shorts, too. And I
recognize the stick now not that that matters, as the clothes are marked.'
On our way across the links to the dormy-house mutual introductions took
place. Morris was a London solicitor, and both he and Hallett knew Thorndyke
'The coroner will have an expert witness,' Hallett remarked as we entered the
house. 'Rather a waste in a simple case like this. We had better put the
things in here.'
He opened the door of a small room furnished with a good-sized table and a set
of lockers, into one of which he inserted a key.
'Before we lock them up,' said Thorndyke, 'I suggest that we make and sign a
list of them and of the contents of the pockets to put with them.'
'Very well,' agreed Hallett. 'You know the ropes in these cases. I'll write
down the descriptions, if you will call them out.'
Thorndyke looked over the collection and first enumerated the articles: a
tweed jacket and trousers, light, knitted wool waistcoat, black and yellow
stripes, blue cotton shirt, net vest and shorts, marked in ink 'P. Roscoff',
brown merino socks, brown shoes, tweed cap, and a walking-stick a mottled
Malacca cane with a horn crooked handle. When Hallett had written down this
list, Thorndyke laid the clothes on the table and began to empty the
pockets, one at a time, dictating the descriptions of the articles to
Hallett while Morris took them from him and laid them on a sheet of
newspaper. In the jacket pockets were a handkerchief, marked 'P.R.'; a
letter-case containing a few stamps, one or two hotel bills and local
tradesmen's receipts, and some visiting cards inscribed 'Mr. Peter Roscoff,
Bell Hotel, Sandwich'; a leather cigarette-case, a 3B pencil fitted with a
point-protector, and a fragment of what Thorndyke decided to be vine
'That lot is not very illuminating,' remarked Morris, peering into the pockets
of the letter-case. 'No letter or anything indicating his permanent address.
However, that isn't our concern.' He laid aside the letter-case, and picking
up a pocket-knife that Thorndyke had just taken from the trousers pocket,
examined it curiously. 'Queer knife, that,' he remarked. 'Steel blade
mighty sharp, too nail file and an ivory blade. Silly arrangement, it
seems. A paperknife is more convenient carried loose, and you don't want a
handle to it.'
'Perhaps it was meant for a fruit-knife,' suggested Hallett, adding it to the
list and glancing at a little heap of silver coins that Thorndyke had just
laid down. 'I wonder', he added, 'what has made that money turn so black.
Looks! as if he had been taking some medicine containing sulphur. What do
you think, doctor?'
'It is quite a probable explanation,' replied Thorndyke, 'though we haven't
the means of testing it. But you notice that this vesta-box from the other
pocket is quite bright, which is rather against your theory.'
He held out a little silver box bearing the engraved monogram 'P.R.', the
burnished surface of which contrasted strongly with the dull brownish-black
of the coins. Hallett looked at it with an affirmative grunt, and having
entered it in his list and added a bunch of keys and a watch from the
waistcoat pocket, laid down his pen.
'That's the lot, is it?' said he, rising and beginning to gather up the
clothes. 'My word! Look at the sand on the table! Isn't it astonishing how
saturated with sand one's clothes become after a day on the links here? When
I undress at night, the bathroom floor is like the bottom of a bird-cage.
Shall I put the things in the locker now?'
'I think', said Thorndyke, 'that, as I may have to give evidence, I should
like to look them over before you put them away.'
Hallett grinned. 'There's going to be some expert evidence after all,' he
said. 'Well, fire away, and let me know when you have finished. I am going
to smoke a cigarette outside.'
With this, he and Morris sauntered out, and I thought it best to go with them,
though I was a little curious as to my colleague's object in examining these
derelicts. However, my curiosity was not entirely baulked, for my friends
went no farther than the little garden that surrounded the house, and from
the place where we stood I was able to look in through the window and
observe Thorndyke's proceedings.
Very methodical they were. First he laid on the table a sheet of newspaper and
on this deposited the jacket, which he examined carefully all over, picking
some small object off the inside near the front, and giving special
attention to a thick smear of paint which I had noticed on the left cuff.
Then, with his spring tape he measured the sleeves and other principal
dimensions. Finally, holding the jacket upside down, he beat it gently with
his stick, causing a shower of sand to fall on the paper. He then laid the
jacket aside, and, taking from his pocket one or two seed envelopes (which I
believe he always carried), very carefully shot the sand from the paper into
one of them and wrote a few words on it presumably the source of the sand
and similarly disposing of the small object that he had picked off the
This rather odd procedure was repeated with the other garments a fresh sheet
of newspaper being used for each and with the socks, shoes, and cap. The
latter he examined minutely, especially as to the inside, from which he
picked out two or three small objects, which I could not see, but assumed to
be hairs. Even the walking-stick was inspected and measured, and the
articles from the pockets scrutinized afresh, particularly the curious
pocket-knife, the ivory blade of which he examined on both sides through his
Hallett and Morris glanced in at him from time to time with indulgent smiles,
and the former remarked:
'I like the hopeful enthusiasm of the real pukka expert, and the way he
refuses to admit the existence of the ordinary and commonplace. I wonder
what he has found out from those things. But here he is. Well, doctor,
what's the verdict? Was it temporary insanity or misadventure?'
Thorndyke shook his head. 'The inquiry is adjourned pending the production of
fresh evidence,' he replied, adding: 'I have folded the clothes up and put
all the effects together in a paper parcel, excepting the stick.'
When Hallett had deposited the derelicts in the locker, he came out and looked
across the links with an air of indecision.
'I suppose,' said he, 'we ought to notify the police. I'll do that. When do
you think the body is likely to wash up, and where?'
'It is impossible to say,' replied Thorndyke. 'The set of the current is
towards the Thames, but the body might wash up anywhere along the coast. A
case is recorded of a bather drowned off Brighton whose body came up six
weeks later at Walton-on-the-Naze. But that was quite exceptional. I shall
send the coroner and the Chief Constable a note with my address, and I
should think you had better do the same. And that is all that we can do,
until we get the summons for the inquest, if there ever is one.'
To this we all agreed; and as the morning was now spent we walked back
together across the links to the town, where we encountered my wife
returning homeward with her sketching kit. This Thorndyke and I took
possession of and having parted from Hallett and Morris opposite the
Barbican, we made our way to our lodgings in quest of lunch. Naturally, the
events of the morning were related to my wife and discussed by us all, but I
noted that Thorndyke made no reference to his inspection of the clothes, and
accordingly I said nothing about the matter before my wife; and no
opportunity of opening the subject occurred until the evening, when I
accompanied him to the station. Then, as we paced the platform while waiting
for his train, I put my question:
'By the way, did you extract any information from those garments? I saw you
going through them very thoroughly.'
'I got a suggestion from them,' he replied, 'but it is such an odd one that I
hardly like to mention it. Taking the appearances at their face value, the
suggestion was that the clothes were not all those of the same man. There
seemed to be traces of two men, one of whom appeared to belong to this
district, while the other would seem to have been associated with the
eastern coast of Thanet between Ramsgate and Margate, and by preference, on
the scale of probabilities, to Dumpton or Broadstairs.'
'How on earth did you arrive at the localities?' I asked.
'Principally,' he replied, 'by the peculiarities of the sand which fell from
the garments and which was not the same in all of them. You see, Anstey,' he
continued, 'sand is analogous to dust. Both consist of minute fragments
detached from larger masses; and just as, by examining microscopically the
dust of a room, you can ascertain the colour and material of the carpets,
curtains, furniture coverings, and other textiles, detached particles of
which form the dust of that room, so, by examining sand, you can judge of
the character of the cliffs, rocks, and other large masses that occur in the
locality, fragments of which become ground off by the surf and incorporated
in the sand of the beach. Some of the sand from these clothes is very
characteristic and will probably be still more so when I examine it under
'But', I objected, 'isn't there a fallacy in that line of reasoning? Might not
one man have worn the different garments at different times and in different
'That is certainly a possibility that has to be borne in mind,' he replied.
'But here comes my train. We shall have to adjourn this discussion until you
come back to the mill.'
As a matter of fact, the discussion was never resumed, for, by the time that I
came back to 'the mill', the affair had faded from my mind, and the
accumulations of grist monopolized my attention; and it is probable that it
would have passed into complete oblivion but for the circumstance of its
being revived in a very singular manner, which was as follows.
One afternoon about the middle of October my old friend, Mr. Brodribb, a
well-known solicitor, called to give me some verbal instructions. When he
had finished our business, he said:
'I've got a client waiting outside, whom I am taking up to introduce to
Thorndyke. You'd better come along with us.'
'What is the nature of your client's case?' I asked.
'Hanged if I know,' chuckled Brodribb. 'He won't say. That's why I am taking
him to our friend. I've never seen Thorndyke stumped yet, but I think this
case will put the lid on him. Are you coming?"
'I am, most emphatically,' said I, 'if your client doesn't object.'
'He's not going to be asked,' said Brodribb. 'He'll think you are part of the
show. Here he is.'
In my outer office we found a gentlemanly, middle-aged man to whom Brodribb
introduced me, and whom he hustled down the stairs and up King's Bench Walk
to Thorndyke's chambers. There we found my colleague earnestly studying a
will with the aid of a watchmaker's eye-glass, and Brodribb opened the
proceedings without ceremony.
'I've brought a client of mine, Mr. Capes, to see you) Thorndyke. He has a
little problem that he wants you to solve.'
Thorndyke bowed to the client and then asked:
'What is the nature of the problem?'
'Ah!' said Brodribb, with a mischievous twinkle, 'that's what you've got to
find out. Mr. Capes is a somewhat reticent gentleman.'
Thorndyke cast a quick look at the client and from him to the solicitor. It
was not the first time that old Brodribb's high spirits had overflowed in
the form of a 'leg-pull', though Thorndyke had no more whole-hearted admirer
than the shrewd, facetious old lawyer.
Mr. Capes smiled a deprecating smile. 'It isn't quite so bad as that,' he
said. 'But I really can't give you much information. It isn't mine to give.
I am afraid of telling someone else's secrets, if I say very much.'
'Of course you mustn't do that,' said Thorndyke. 'But, I suppose you can
indicate in general terms the nature of your difficulty and the kind of help
you want from us.'
'I think I can,' Mr. Capes replied. 'At any rate, I will try. My difficulty is
that a certain person with whom I wish to communicate has disappeared in
what appears to me to be a rather remarkable manner. When I last heard from
him, he was staying at a certain seaside resort and he stated in his letter
that he was returning on the following day to his rooms in London. A few
days later, I called at his rooms and found that he had not yet returned.
But his luggage, which he had sent on independently, had arrived on the day
which he had mentioned. So it is evident that he must have left his seaside
lodgings. But from that day to this I have had no communication from him,
and he has never returned to his rooms nor written to his landlady.'
'About how long ago was this?' Thorndyke asked.
'It is just about two months since I heard from him.'
'You don't wish to give the name of the seaside resort where he was staying.'
'I think I had better not,' answered Mr. Capes. 'There are circumstances
they don't concern me, but they do concern him very much which seem to
make it necessary for me to say as little as possible.'
'And there is nothing further that you can tell us?'
'I am afraid not, excepting that, if I could get into communication with him,
I could tell him of something very much to his advantage and which might
prevent him from doing something which it would be much better that he
should not do.'
Thorndyke cogitated profoundly while Brodribb watched him with undisguised
enjoyment. Presently my colleague looked up and addressed our secretive
'Did you ever play the game of "Clump", Mr. Capes? It is a somewhat legal form
of game in which one player asks questions of the others, who are required
to answer "yes" or "no" in the proper witness-box style.'
'I know the game,' said Capes, looking a little puzzled, 'but '
'Shall we try a round or two?' asked Thorndyke, with an unmoved countenance.
'You don't wish to make any statements, but if I ask you certain specific
questions, will you answer "yes or no"?'
Mr. Capes reflected awhile. At length he said:
'I am afraid I can't commit myself to a promise. Still, if you like to ask a
question or two, I will answer them if I can.'
'Very well,' said Thorndyke, 'then, as a start, supposing I suggest that the
date of the letter that you received was the thirteenth of August? What do
you say? Yes or no?'
Mr. Capes sat bolt upright and stared at Thorndyke open-mouthed.
'How on earth did you guess that?' he exclaimed in an astonished tone. 'It's
most extraordinary! But you are right. It was dated the thirteenth.'
'Then,' said Thorndyke, 'as we have fixed the time we will have a try at the
place. What do you say if I suggest that the seaside resort was in the
neighbourhood of Broadstairs?'
Mr. Capes was positively thunderstruck. As he sat gazing at Thorndyke he
looked like amazement personified.
'But,' he exclaimed, 'you can't be guessing! You know! You know that he was at
Broadstairs. And yet, how could you? I haven't even hinted at who he is.'
'I have a certain man in my mind,' said Thorndyke, 'who may have disappeared
from Broadstairs. Shall I suggest a few personal characteristics?'
Mr. Capes nodded eagerly and Thorndyke continued:
'If I suggest, for instance, that he was an artist a painter in oil' Capes
nodded again 'that he was somewhat fastidious as to his pigments?'
'Yes,' said Capes. 'Unnecessarily so in my opinion, and I am an artist myself.
'That he worked with his palette in his right hand and held his brush with his
'Yes, yes,' exclaimed Capes, half-rising from his chair; 'and what was he
'By gum,' murmured Brodribb, 'we haven't stumped him after all.'
Evidently we had not, for he proceeded:
'As to his physical characteristics, I suggest that he was a shortish man
about five feet seven rather stout, fair hair, slightly bald and wearing a
rather large and ragged moustache.'
Mr. Capes was astounded and so was I, for that matter and for some moments
there was a silence, broken only by old Brodribb, who sat chuckling softly
and rubbing his hands. At length Mr. Capes said:
'You have described him exactly, but I needn't tell you that. What I do not
understand at all is how you knew that I was referring to this particular
man, seeing that I mentioned no name. By the way, sir, may I ask when you
saw him last?'
'I have no reason to suppose,' replied Thorndyke, 'that I have ever seen him
at all'; an answer that reduced Mr. Capes to a state of stupefaction and
brought our old friend Brodribb to the verge of apoplexy. 'This man,'
Thorndyke continued, 'is a purely hypothetical individual whom I have
described from certain traces left by him. I have reason to believe that he
left Broadstairs on the fourteenth of August and I have certain opinions as
to what became of him thereafter. But a few more details would be useful,
and I shall continue my interrogation. Now this man sent his luggage on
separately. That suggests a possible intention of breaking his journey to
London. What do you say?'
'I don't know,' replied Capes, 'but I think it probable.'
'I suggest that he broke his journey for the purpose of holding an interview
with some other person.'
'I cannot say,' answered Capes, 'but if he did break his journey it would
probably be for that purpose.'
'And supposing that interview to have taken place, would it be likely to be an
'I am afraid not. I suspect that my er acquaintance might have made
certain proposals which would have been unacceptable, but which he might
have been able to enforce. However, that is only surmise,' Capes added
hastily. 'I really know nothing more than I have told you, except the
missing man's name, and that I would rather not mention.'
'It is not material,' said Thorndyke, 'at least, not at present. If it should
become essential, I will let you know.'
'Myes,' said Mr. Capes. 'But you were saying that you had certain opinions as
to what has become of this person.'
'Yes,' Thorndyke replied; 'speculative opinions. But they will have to be
verified. If they turn out to be correct or incorrect either I will let
you know in the course of a few days. Has Mr. Brodribb your address?'
'He has; but you had better have it, too.'
He produced his card, and, after an ineffectual effort to extract a statement
from Thorndyke, took his departure.
The third act of this singular drama opened in the same setting as the first,
for the following Sunday morning found my colleague and me following the
path from Sandwich to the sea. But we were not alone this time. At our side
marched Major Robertson, the eminent dog trainer, and behind him trotted one
of his superlatively educated fox-hounds.
We came out on the shore at the same point as on the former occasion, and
turning towards Shellness, walked along the smooth sand with a careful eye
on the not very distinctive landmarks. At length Thorndyke halted.
'This is the place,' said he. 'I fixed it in my mind by that distant tree,
which coincides with the chimney of that cottage on the marshes. The clothes
lay in that hollow between the two big sand-hills.'
We advanced to the spot, but, as a hollow is useless as a landmark, Thorndyke
ascended the nearest sand-hill and stuck his stick in the summit and tied
his handkerchief to the handle.
'That,' he said, 'will serve as a centre which we can keep in sight, and if we
describe a series of gradually widening concentric circles round it, we
shall cover the whole ground completely.'
'How far do you propose to go?' asked the major.
We must be guided by the appearance of the ground,' replied Thorndyke. 'But
the circumstances suggest that if there is anything buried, it can't be very
far from where the clothes were laid. And it is pretty certain to be in a
The major nodded; and when he had attached a long leash to the dog's collar,
we started, at first skirting the base of the sand-hill, and then, guided by
our own footmarks in the loose sand, gradually increasing the distance from
the high mound, above which Thorndyke's handkerchief fluttered in the light
breeze. Thus we continued, walking slowly, keeping close to the previously
made circle of footprints and watching the dog; who certainly did a vast
amount of sniffing, but appeared to let his mind run unduly on the subject
In this way half an hour was consumed, and I was beginning to wonder whether
we were going after all to draw a blank, when the dog's demeanour underwent
a sudden change. At the moment we were crossing a range of high sand-hills,
covered with stiff, reedy grass and stunted gorse, and before us lay a deep
hollow, naked of vegetation and presenting a bare, smooth surface of the
characteristic greyish-yellow sand. On the side of the hill the dog checked,
and, with upraised muzzle, began to sniff the air with a curiously
suspicious expression, clearly unconnected with the rabbit question. On
this, the major unfastened the leash, and the dog, left to his own devices,
put his nose to the ground and began rapidly to cast to and fro, zig-zagging
down the side of the hill and growing every moment more excited. In the same
sinuous manner he proceeded across the hollow until he reached a spot near
the middle; and here he came to a sudden stop and began to scratch up the
sand with furious eagerness.
'It's a find, sure enough!' exclaimed the major, nearly as excited as his
pupil; and, as he spoke, he ran down the hillside, followed by me and
Thorndyke, who, as he reached the bottom, drew from his 'poacher's pocket' a
large fern-trowel in a leather sheath. It was not a very efficient digging
implement, but it threw up the loose sand faster than the scratchings of the
It was easy ground to excavate. Working at the spot that the dog had located,
Thorndyke had soon hollowed out a small cavity some eighteen inches deep.
Into the bottom of this he thrust the pointed blade of the big trowel. Then
he paused and looked round at the major and me, who were craning eagerly
over the little pit.
'There is something there,' said he. 'Feel the handle of the trowel.'
I grasped the wooden handle, and, working it gently up and down, was aware of
a definite but somewhat soft resistance. The major verified my observation,
and then Thorndyke resumed his digging, widening the pit and working with
increased caution. Ten minutes' more careful excavation brought into view a
recognizable shape a shoulder and upper arm; and following the lines of
this, further diggings disclosed the form of a head and shoulders plainly
discernable though still shrouded in sand. Finally, with the point of the
trowel and a borrowed handkerchief mine the adhering sand was cleared
away; and then, from the bottom of the deep, funnel-shaped hole, there
looked up at us, with a most weird and horrible effect, the discoloured face
of a man.
In that face, the passing weeks had wrought inevitable changes, on which I
need not dwell. But the features were easily recognizable, and I could see
at once that the man corresponded completely with Thorndyke's description.
The cheeks were full; the hair on the temples was of a pale, yellowish
brown; a straggling, fair moustache covered the mouth; and, when the sand
had been sufficiently cleared away, I could see a small, tonsure-like bald
patch near the back of the crown. But I could see something more than this.
On the left temple, just behind the eyebrow, was a ragged, shapeless wound
such as might have been made by a hammer.
'That turns into certainty what we have already surmised,' said Thorndyke,
gently pressing the scalp around the wound. 'It must have killed him
instantly. The skull is smashed in like an egg-shell. And this is
undoubtedly the weapon,' he added, drawing out of the sand beside the body a
big, hexagon-headed screw-bolt, 'very prudently buried with the body. And
that is all that really concerns us. We can leave the police to finish the
disinterment; but you notice, Anstey, that the corpse is nude with the
exception of the vest and probably the pants. The shirt has disappeared.
Which is exactly what we should have expected.'
Slowly, but with the feeling of something accomplished, we took our way back
to the town, having collected Thorndyke's stick on the way. Presently, the
major left us, to look up a friend at the club house on the links. As soon
as we were alone, I put in a demand for an elucidation.
'I see the general trend of your investigations,' said I 'but I can't imagine
how they yielded so much detail; as to the personal appearance of this man,
'The evidence in this case,' he replied, 'was analogous to circumstantial
evidence. It depended on the cumulative effect of a number of facts, each
separately inconclusive, but all pointing to the same conclusion. Shall I
run over the data in their order and in accordance with their connections?'
I gave an emphatic affirmative, and he continued:
'We begin, naturally, with the first fact, which is, of course, the most
interesting and important; the fact which arrests attention, which shows
that something has to be explained and possibly suggests a line of inquiry.
You remember that I measured the footprints in the sand for comparison with
the other footprints. Then I had the dimensions of the feet of the presumed
bather. But as soon as I looked at the shoes which purported to be those of
that bather, I felt a conviction that his feet would never go into them.
'Now, that was a very striking fact if it really was a fact and it came on
top of another fact hardly less striking, The bather had gone into the sea;
and at a considerable distance he had unquestionably come out again. Then,
could be no possible doubt. In foot-measurement an, length of stride the two
sets of tracks were indentical; and there were no other tracks. That man had
come ashore and he had remained ashore. But yet he had not put on his
clothes. He couldn't have gone away naked; but obviously he was not there.
As a criminal lawyer, you must admit that there was prima fade evidence of
something very abnormal and probably criminal.
On our way to the dormy-house, I carried the stick in the same hand as my own
and noted that it was very little shorter. Therefore it was a tall man's
stick. Apparently, then, the stick did not belong to the shoes, but to the
man who had made the footprints. Then, when we came to the dormy-house,
another striking fact presented itself. You remember that Hallett commented
on the quantity of sand that fell from the clothes on to the table. I am
astonished that he did not notice the very peculiar character of that sand.
It was perfectly unlike the sand which would fall from his own clothes. The
sand on the sand-hills is dune sand wind-borne sand, or, as the legal term
has it, ζolian sand; and it is perfectly characteristic. As it has been
carried by the wind, it is necessarily fine. The grains are small; and as
the action of the wind sorts them out, they are extremely uniform in size.
Moreover, by being continually blown about and rubbed together, they become
rounded by mutual attrition. And then dune sand is nearly pure sand,
composed of grains of silica unmixed with other substances.
'Beach sand is quite different. Much of it is half-formed, freshly broken down
silica and is often very coarse; and, as I pointed out at the time, it is
mixed with all sorts of foreign substances derived from masses in the
neighbourhood. This particular sand was loaded with black and white
particles, of which the white were mostly chalk, and the black particles of
coal. Now there is very little chalk in the Shellness sand, as there are no
cliffs quite near, and chalk rapidly disappears from sand by reason of its
softness; and there is no coal.'
'Where does the coal come from?' I asked.
'Principally from the Goodwins,' he replied. 'It is derived from the cargoes
of colliers whose wrecks are embedded in those sands, and from the bunkers
of wrecked steamers. This coal sinks down through the seventy odd feet of
sand and at last works out at the bottom, where it drifts slowly across the
floor of the sea in a north- westerly direction until some easterly gale
throws it up on the Thanet shore between Ramsgate and Foreness Point. Most
of it comes up at Dumpton and Broadstairs, there you may see the poor
people, in the winter, gathering coal pebbles to feed their fires.
'This sand, then, almost certainly came from the Thanet coast; but the missing
man, Roscoff, had been staying in Sandwich, playing golf on the sand-hills.
This was another striking discrepancy, and it made me decide to examine the
clothes exhaustively, garment by garment. I did so; and this is what I
'The jacket, trousers, socks and shoes were those of a shortish, rather stout
man, as shown by measurements, and the cap was his, since it was made of the
same cloth as the jacket and trousers.
'The waistcoat, shirt, underclothes and stick were those of a tall man.
'The garments, socks and shoes of the short man were charged with Thanet beach
sand, and contained no dune sand, excepting the cap, which might have fallen
off on the sand-hills.
'The waistcoat was saturated with dune sand and contained no beach sand, and a
little dune sand was obtained from the shirt and under-garments. That is to
say, that the short man's clothes contained beach sand only, while the tall
man's clothes contained only dune sand.
'The short man's clothes were all unmarked; the tall man's clothes were either
marked or conspicuously recognizable, as the waistcoat and also the stick.
'The garments of the short man which had been left were those that could not
have been worn by a tall man without attracting instant attention and the
shoes could not have been put on at all; whereas the garments of the short
man which had disappeared the waistcoat, shirt and underclothes were
those that could have been worn by a tall man without attracting attention.
The obvious suggestion was that the tall man had gone off in the short man's
shirt and waistcoat but otherwise in his own clothes.
'And now as to the personal characteristics of the short man. From the cap I
obtained five hairs. They were all blond, and two of them were of the
peculiar, atrophic, "point of exclamation" type that grow at the margin of a
bald area. Therefore he was a fair man and partially bald. On the inside of
the jacket, clinging to the rough tweed, I found a single long, thin, fair
moustache hair, which suggested a long, soft moustache. The edge of the left
cuff was thickly marked with oil-paint-not a single smear, but an
accumulation such as a painter picks up when he reaches with his brush hand
across a loaded palette. The suggestion not very conclusive was that he
was an oil-painter and left-handed. But there was strong confirmation. There
was an artist's pencil 3B and a stump of vine charcoal such as an
oil-painter might carry. The silver coins in his pocket were blackened with
sulphide as they would be if a piece of artist's soft, vulcanized rubber has
been in the pocket with them. And there was the pocket-knife. It contained a
sharp steel pencil-blade, a charcoal file and an ivory palette-blade; and
that palette-blade had been used by a left-handed man.'
'How did you arrive at that?' I asked.
'By the bevels worn at the edges,' he replied. 'An old palette-knife used by a
right-handed man shows a bevel of wear on the under side of the left-hand
edge and the upper side of the right-hand edge; in the case of a left handed
man the wear shows on the under side of the right hand edge and the upper
side of the left-hand edge. This being an ivory blade, showed the wear very
distinctly and proved conclusively that the user was left-handed; and as an
ivory palette-knife is used only by fastidiously careful painters for such
pigments as the cadmiums, which might be discoloured by a steel blade, one
was justified in assuing that he was somewhat fastidious as to his
As I listened to Thorndyke's exposition I was profoundly impressed. His
conclusions, which had sounded like mere speculative guesses, were, I now
realized, based upon an analysis of the evidence as careful and as impartial
as the summing up of a judge. And these conclusions he had drawn
instantaneously from the appearances of things that had been before my eyes
all the time and from which I had learned nothing.
'What do you suppose is the meaning of the affair?' I asked presently. 'What
was the motive of the murder?'
'We can only guess,' he replied. 'But, interpreting Capes' hints, I should
suspect that our artist friend was a blackmailer; that he had come over here
to squeeze Roscoff perhaps not for the first time and that his victim
lured him out on the sand-hills for a private talk and then took the only
effective means of ridding himself of his persecutor. That is my view of the
case; but, of course, it is only surmise.'
Surmise as it was, however, it turned out to be literally correct. At the
inquest Capes had to tell all that he knew, which was uncommonly little,
though no one was able to add to it. The murdered man, Joseph Bertrand, had
fastened on Roscoff and made a regular income by blackmailing him. That much
Capes knew; and he knew that the victim had been in prison and that that was
the secret. But who Roscoff was and what was his real name for Roscoff was
apparently a nom de guerre he had no idea. So he could not help the
police. The murderer had got clear away and there was no hint as to where to
look for him; and so far as I know, nothing has ever been heard of him