A Circumstantial Puzzle can be found in






A Circumstantial Puzzle

R. E. FRANCILLON


I

The almost insuperable difficulty of telling a story with even a grain of truth in it is this—or, I should rather say, the two insuperable difficulties are these: firstly, there is never the faintest dramatic point about really true stories; secondly, if they are worth telling at all, they are almost always incredible. And the truer they are, the more pointless and the more incredible they are. The story I am going to tell is neither dramatic nor probable. And yet it seems to me worth telling—independently of its inherent curiosity—as an instance of those extraordinary freaks of psychology which now and again throw out of gear altogether the everyday experience of practical men, among whom I have some claim to be reckoned. It has also a yet more important bearing upon the manner of making delicate investigations which, if I remember to do so, I may perhaps take occasion to point out before I have done. As when I sent you my last contribution to your museum of professional curiosities, I will merge my own proper personality in that of my informant, the solicitor who played so leading and, for a time, so uncomfortable a part in the affair. For all purposes it is more convenient to translate 'he' into 'I', when one is telling another man's story. Indeed, it is almost essential to the process of telling the tale as it was told to me.

I, then, early one forenoon, received a visit from my very best client, Mr John Buller.

Mr John Buller was a gendeman who, still hardly past the prime of life, had made a considerable fortune as a builder and contractor. Altogether there must have been something out of the common about him, for he had become the wealthy man he certainly was seemingly in defiance of all established precedents and rules. He was not what is commonly—and often very mistakenly—called a 'good man of business'; he always had more irons in the fire than he could possibly attend to personally, or even superintend generally, and he placed such implicit trust in all who served him or dealt with him as to amount to credulity. Nevertheless, I am by no means sure myself of its being really singular that his many irons should have taken excellent care of themselves, and that he very rarely indeed, at least to my knowledge, found himself seriously deceived. I need hardly say that, like all men of such a temper, to be found out in deceiving him in the smallest trifle was to lose his confidence irrevocably and for ever; so that not only were moderately honourable men put upon their honour to an unusual degree in their relations towards one who trusted them so completely, but the dishonourable were by experience taught to fear injuring one from whom everything was to be gained but pardon. He certainly was not one of those who hold that in business a man should have no enemies and no friends. All men were his friends until, as sometimes would happen, they became his enemies. And yet one might know him for years without suspecting that he had any sort of temper at all. Doubtless it was the consciousness on his own part of having one, and the suspicion that it might be a weakness or a failing, that made him seem needlessly hard and reserved. On the whole, I incline to ascribe his success in life less to courage and overconfidence than to a yet more unbusiness-like habit of always doing his work a little better than his contract required. I would pay ten per cent higher rent, any day, to live in a house that I knew to have been built by John Buller. I should know that everything about that house was better than it seemed. And that is the chief reason why I set out by speaking of him as a gentleman. For he had risen from the lower rounds of the ladder, and, so far as he might be called a diamond, was decidedly an unpolished one. He was, I believe, a seriously religious man; he was an unquestionably generous and charitable one; not highly educated, but with plenty of intelligence and openness of mind. I should add that he had never been married; was without known relations; and lived alone in thoroughly respectable comfort, without pretence of any kind. The nature of his business, by no means confined to the limits of the northern town where we both lived, took him about a great deal, and no doubt largely helped him to do without much society at home. For that matter, he was, socially speaking, above one-half the place and below the other; so, though universally respected, he must, on the whole, have lived almost too much alone. But in this matter, as in all things, habit is everything; and so busy a man had little time to feel dull.

'Mr Standish,' he began, in the broad north-country speech, which I shall make no pretence of reproducing, 'something mortal queer has happened, that I can't make head or tail o'. It's not the money's-worth, though fifty pound is fifty pound; but—Look here!'

'Your cheque for fifty pounds, cashed by the Redport branch of the County Bank, and returned to you in the regular course. Well, what's wrong?'

'Do you see anything queer about that cheque, Mr Standish—anything out of the way?'

'No. It's drawn to yourself or order by yourself; endorsed by you; and nothing wrong about date or anything else that I can see.'

'And if you'd been a clerk at Redport, you'd have cashed that over the counter without any bones?'

'Of course I should; as I suppose from this you have an account there.'

'And that's just what was done, then. And all the same, that cheque was no more filled up, nor signed, nor backed by me than it was by you.'

'You mean to say it's forged? By Jove, that's a serious thing! Do you mean to say that some rascal has been clever enough to fill up and sign a whole cheque in your handwriting, even down to the least turn of the smallest stroke of the pen? I'd have sworn to this being your own handwriting before a jury.'

'Ay, Mr Standish; and so would I, if I didn't know. But I do know; and that's no more my cheque than it's yours. And I'm hanged if I know what to do.'

'You've seen the bank manager here? What does he say?'

'No, I haven't. I haven't seen a soul; and what's more, I don't mean to, unless I'm driven. And it's to get out of being driven I'm come to you. This cheque isn't the first of 'em, Mr Standish—no, nor the second, nor yet the third. There's four cheques of fifty pounds apiece; and I've not drawn one!'

'And you haven't found it out till now?'

'I've found out nothing, Mr Standish, mark that—not one word. Nothing's found out till it's proved. I want to know what I can do.'

That premature question was the only sign of precipitancy or impatience I had ever seen in John Buller. I began to see that he was disturbed by something beyond the loss, to himself or the bank, of two hundred pounds, or by the always detestable necessity of being mixed up in what looked like a criminal matter. So I made no answer, which is always the best way of getting quickly at the bottom of a story.

'I'm putting up the new row of villas on the esplanade at Redport,' said he. 'It's a biggish job in a small way, and it's very much on my own account; and what with the hands, and one thing and another, there's a goodish lot of cash floating about from week to week—going out, anyhow, though of course none to speak of coming in. So, to save a lot of bother, I've had for some time an account with the branch at Redport. You don't know the place, I believe?'

'I've never been over there yet; but I must run over some day, when I can get a holiday. Well?'

'It's been main through me that the place has got on well enough to make it worth the Bank's while to have a branch there; and if I was to draw for five times what's to my credit, I don't suppose they'd make any bother, looking to my credit at the main branch here. So this game might go on any time before I heard I'd overdrawn. As far as I'm concerned, a cheque on the branch at Redport's much the same as one on the bank here.'

'Well?'

'You see, though that job's middling big, I've got too many bigger on hand to bother in person with Redport. It's two months since I've been near the place, and may be it'll be another month before I can get over there again. So I've got a clerk of the works in an office in one of the villas, and he comes over to me here every Friday to report and take any new orders, and I give him cheques on the Redport branch for what's wanted—he brings me his accounts and vouchers, of course, and I settle that way whatever has to be paid running. And some of the cheques I receive I send over by him to be paid in there.'

'Excuse me,' said I, 'but doesn't this seem rather a loose an...

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