The Cornish Cliff Mystery
(Adventures of the Puzzle Club
Though the incident known in the Club as "The Cornish Cliff Mystery" has never been published, every one remembers the case with which it was connected—an embezzlement at Todd's Bank in Cornhill a few years ago. Lamson and Marsh, two of the firm's clerks, suddenly disappeared; and it was found that they had absconded with a very large sum of money. There was an exciting hunt for them by the police, who were so prompt in their action that it was impossible for the thieves to get out of the country. They were traced as far as Truro, and were known to be in hiding in Cornwall.
Just at this time it happened that Henry Melville and Fred Wilson were away together on a walking tour round the Cornish coast. Like most people, they were interested in the case; and one morning, while at breakfast at a little inn, they learnt that the absconding men had been tracked to that very neighbourhood, and that a strong cordon of police had been drawn round the district, making an escape very improbable. In fact, an inspector and a constable came into the inn to make some inquiries, and exchanged civilities with the two members of the Puzzle Club. A few references to some of the leading London detectives, and the production of a confidential letter Melville happened to have in his pocket from one of them, soon established complete confidence, and the inspector opened out.
He said that he had just been to examine a very important clue a quarter of a mile from there, and expressed the opinion that Messrs. Lamson and Marsh would never again be found alive. At the suggestion of Melville the four men walked along the road together.
"There is our stile in the distance," said the inspector. "This constable found beside it the pocket-book that I have shown you, containing the name of Marsh and some memoranda in his handwriting. It had evidently been dropped by accident. On looking over the stone stile he noticed the footprints of two men—which I have already proved from particulars previously supplied to the police to be those of the men we want—and I am sure you will agree that they point to only one possible conclusion."
Arrived at the spot, they left the hard road and got over the stile. The footprints of the two men were here very clearly impressed in the thin but soft soil, and they all took care not to trample on the tracks. They followed the prints closely, and found that they led straight to the edge of a cliff forming a sheer precipice, almost perpendicular, at the foot of which the sea, some two hundred feet below, was breaking among the boulders.
"Here, gentlemen, you see," said the inspector, "that the footprints lead straight to the edge of the cliff, where there is a good deal of trampling about, and there end. The soil has nowhere been disturbed for yards around, except by the footprints that you see. The conclusion is obvious."
"That, knowing they were unable to escape capture, they decided not to be taken alive, and threw themselves over the cliff?" asked Wilson.
"Exactly. Look to the right and the left, and you will find no footprints or other marks anywhere. Go round there to the left, and you will be satisfied that the most experienced mountaineer that ever lived could not make a descent, or even anywhere get over the edge of the cliff. There is no ledge or foothold within fifty feet."
"Utterly impossible," said Melville, after an inspection. "What do you propose to do?"
"I am going straight back to communicate the discovery to headquarters. We shall withdraw the cordon and search the coast for the dead bodies."
"Then you will make a fatal mistake," said Melville. "The men are alive and in hiding in the district. Just examine the prints again. Whose is the large foot?"
"That is Lamson's, and the small print is Marsh's. Lamson was a tall man, just over six feet, and Marsh was a little fellow."
"I thought as much," said Melville. "And yet you will find that Lamson takes a shorter stride than Marsh. Notice, also, the peculiarity that Marsh walks heavily on his heels, while Lamson treads more on his toes. Nothing remarkable in that? Perhaps not; but has it occurred to you that Lamson walked behind Marsh? Because you will find that he sometimes treads over Marsh's footsteps, though you will never find Marsh treading in the steps of the other."
"Do you suppose that the men walked backwards in their own footprints?" asked the inspector.
"No; that is impossible. No two men could walk backwards some two hundred yards in that way with such exactitude. You will not find a single place where they have missed the print by even an eighth of an inch. Quite impossible. Nor do I suppose that two men, hunted as they were, could have provided themselves with flying-machines, balloons, or even parachutes. They did not drop over the cliff."
Melville then explained how the men had got away. His account proved to be quite correct, for it will be remembered that they were caught, hiding under some straw in a barn, within two miles of the spot. How did they get away from the edge of the cliff?
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