There are times in the experience of all detectives when decisions of the greatest importance hang upon the slenderest of clues. Had you been Inspector Briggs, what would you have deduced about the Renstowe claimant? Were the mother and child impostors or the true heirs?
When Wilfred Barrington, Earl of Renstowe, died fighting in France in 1917 it seemed that the long line of Barringtons as Earls of Renstowe would be broken at last and that the title would go to a distant relative–a cousin who was a curate in a rural part of England. For Wilfred, whose wife had died the year before him, was childless, and, as the newspapers pointed out, it seemed almost certain that Hubert, Wilfred’s younger brother, had died, unknown and in disgrace, several years before the war broke out.
They still discussed this Hubert in the London clubs. Not in many years had the English nobility yielded so thorough a scamp. It was well known that he had sown his wild oats with such a lavish hand that in 1904 his older brother, the Earl, had settled twenty thousand pounds on him and ordered him out of England forever. But in a couple of years hea had run through it and was back, making the Earl’s life miserable with pleas which some described as little short of brotherly blackmail. Fresh settlements from the older brother were followed by renewed escapades which nearly landed Hubert in jail, and finally the youngere Barrington disappeared from England in 1908 and joined the French Foreign Legion undere another name. Some years later rumors came that he had left the legion, settled in Algeria, and had died there in a fever epidemic in 1912; but his brother, long since disgusted with the sound of his name, did nothing to verify the news. By 1917 Hubert was assumed dead by everyone in England.
But a month after the sudden death of the Earl the Renstowe solicitors were amazed to receive a cable from Algiers which startled both them and the curate cousin. Signed by a Dr. Rupert MacArthur, it stated that, although Hubert Barrington had ided in 1912, his wife and six-year old child wer alive in Algiers and would start at once for England to claim the estate and title. Full documents proving the claim, the cable said, would be produced.
A fever of investigation set in upon the Renstowe lawyers, fo rthe curate cousin saw his claim to luxury vanishing into thin air. Could this news be true? No one had received the slightest inkling of a marriage contracted by the dissolute Hubert. And who was the doctor who rose out of nowhere to champion the claim of the woman and child of Algiers?
To their immense dissatisfaction the Renstowe lawyers found, upon investigation, that Dr. Rupert MacArthur was a duly registered English physician knowin in Algiers. While little could be learned of his character, it was learned through Algerian correspondents that MacArthur was a man of some means and had been established there for many years. If it was a hoax, thought the lawyers, then it was a well-sponsored hoax and carefully planned.
The arrival in England of MacArthur and the two claimants, however, rather shook the solicitors’ conviction that it must be a hoax. The frank personalities of the woman and her champion, and th ewealth of legally attested documents bearing on the case, seemed to indicate tha the claim was just.
The woman who claimed to be the widow of Hubert Barrington poured forth her story in a singularly compelling and pathetic way. There could be no doubt of her intimate knowledge of hte man who had disgraced himself in England in previous years. She narrated the minutest details of his faults. But there had been a regeneration of the man in the French Foreign Legion, she said, and when they had met in Algiers in 1910, he had married her and had settled down there to a happy life. the boy had been born in Algiers, July 3, 1911, she claimed, and they had been supremely happy. But on March 7th of the following year her husband had been taken in an epidemic of fever and she had compelled to give music lessons for a living ever since.
The handsome, curly-haired boy at her side, as she talked with the Renstowe solicitors, confirmed the impression which they received. He was a sturdy, proud, aristocratic-looking little chap–the image of the woman and obviously devoted to her. If he was not the true heir to the Renstowe earldom, thought the solicitors, at least he looked as a boy earl should. There was little if anything of the Barringtons in his features; but many children, they had to admit, took more after the mother than the father.
She submitted documents. Dr. MacArthur, her companion, explained that he had attended at the birth of the boy and at the death of the father. The documents were duly attested and supported by a mass of affidavits and official seals of the authorities of Algiers.
Rigorous cross-examination of MacArthur and the alleged widow of Hubert Barrington revealed no discrepancy in their stories or any haziness in their knowledge of the Barrington family affairs. On one point only could the woman’s story be regarded as weak: while she furnished a marriage certificate of the wedding of “Hubert Barrington and Adele Reamer, both English,” she could offer no proof as to her own identity as Adele Reamer. She had been taken abroad as a child, she explained, and since her parents’ death, some years before, she had lost all track of former friends in England. But she swore that she was Adele Reamer and produced several letters, addressed to her as such, which seemed to be in the hand of Hubert Barrington–letters written to her, she said, before her marriage.
It is of record in the case that the skeptical lawyers were virtually convinced of the truth of her story and were about to recommend a compromise settlement to the curate cousin. but this gentleman, somewhat suspicious, took it into his own hands to consult privately an old friend, ex-Inspector Briggs of Scotland yard. Briggs resorted to a thoroughly unethical ransacking of the woman’s baggage at her hotel one day in her absence and found amon papers in the bottom of her trunk several scribbled pages. These had apparently come loose from a notebook onces used as a diary. Altough the pages bore no signature it was obvious that they had been written in the hand of the woman who claimed to be Mrs. Hubert Barrington, nee Adele Reamer.
As is now well known, ex-Inpector Briggs, by reasoning solely from the evidence thus afforded, was able to settle the matter at once with remarkable conclusiveness. Here is a transcript of what met his eye. What would you have deduced?
The diary entries read:
Nov. 15, ’11
Have written so much in my diary this year that I have to start a new vol. to-day. Have been re-reading Nicholas Nickleby. The same old books! I wonder if I shall ever be where there are new books to read or theatres to go to. I get so sick of it all. Baby is gaining. He looks much better now.
Nothing to do but walk. Never anything to do but walk. Not so pleasant to-day. Spring is very late this year, and anyway it doesn’t thrill me as it used to. Had a letter from Julia to-day. She and Oscar are coming over Sunday. I must be careful–I think she is a little jealous of Oscar’s admiration of me, but I cannot help it, and no matter anyway, for he’ll be sailing for South America in a week and afterwards to Australia or New Zealand. I am happy, I suppose, but I do envy anone traveling about. But then, maybe these places just seem romantic because they are so far away. Perhaps it’s just that I have been rooted here so long–just three years to-day.
The questions to be answered are:
1. Was she Hubert Barrinton’s widow, or not?
2. What conclusively proves it?
3. In what part of the world was the diary written?
(See the comment section below for the answers.)
The above mystery is borrowed from The Second Baffle Book (NY: Doubleday, Doran, & Company, Inc., 1929).