“Only this,” said Holmes, “that if the competition was still in progress when he left, it would not have been possible for Whiting to retrieve the last arrows he shot, which I understand all missed the target, and would thus be lying on the ground. Once the contest was over, and the competitors had dispersed, anyone might have picked those arrows up from the ground and used them.”
“It sounds a bit unlikely,” said Sir George Kirkman. “Of course, I realize that in murder cases, those acting for the defence must always do their best to contrive an alternative explanation, however far-fetched, to try to cast doubt on their client’s guilt.”
“Unless it can be proved that the arrow which killed Woodforde Soames came from those still in the quiver, rather than those on the ground,” continued Holmes, ignoring the interruption, “then the colour of the arrow shaft is, it seems to me, of no significance whatever. Where did Whiting leave his bow and quiver when he returned from his walk?”
“He dropped them on the ground near the targets,” said Lestrade, “on the archery field, where all the other equipment had been left at the end of the contest.”
“Were they still there when you arrived?”
“No. All the equipment had been collected up by Sir George’s servants and put away in this storeroom. I did ask them if they had observed anything unusual about the equipment – if any of it had been left in an odd place, for instance – but they said not. Some of the arrows had been lying on the ground, they said, and some had been in the quivers, but they could not remember any details.”
“In other words,” said Holmes, “no one can say with any confidence where the fatal arrow came from, nor which bow fired it. It seems to me, then, Lestrade, that most of your case against Neville Whiting collapses. Did anyone other than Whiting leave the archery field before the end of the competition?”
Lestrade shook his head. “Everyone else stayed until the end. Sir George presented a little trophy to Woodforde Soames, who had won, and then they all drifted away, some to the house and some to take a walk over the estate.”
Holmes nodded. “Has anyone left today?”
“Two Members of Parliament were obliged to return to London this morning.”
“But everyone else who was present over the weekend is still here?”
“All except Sir George’s secretary, Hepplethwaite,” Lestrade returned. “He left yesterday afternoon to visit a sick relative.”
“Have you verified the matter?” Holmes queried.
“I did not think it necessary,” Lestrade returned in surprise.
“No? Surely it is something of an odd coincidence that this man Hepplethwaite should leave the house at the same time as Woodforde Soames is killed. I should certainly have felt obliged to satisfy myself as to the truth of the matter.”
“No doubt,” responded Lestrade in a tone of irritation, “and no doubt I would have done so, too, had there been the slightest possibility that Hepplethwaite had been involved in the crime in any way. But he left the house only a few minutes after the archery competition finished, at which time Woodforde Soames was still very much alive, for he sat over a cup of tea on the terrace for some five or ten minutes at about that time, talking to various people – including Miss Greville and her mother, as it happens – before going off for his walk. That’s right, isn’t it, Sir George?”
“Absolutely,” responded Kirkman. “I had just returned to my study, shortly after presenting the archery trophy, and Woodforde Soames and the others were taking tea, as you say, when Hepplethwaite entered with a telegram he had received. It informed him that his father was ill. He asked if he might leave at once, and I agreed to the request. As far as I am aware, he left the house a few minutes later.”
“I see,” said Holmes. “Well, well. Let us now inspect the spot where Soames met his death.”
Lestrade led us across the lawn and down another flight of stone steps to a lower lawn, surrounded on three sides by trees. Along the far side, a number of wooden chairs and benches were set out. It was evidently upon this lower lawn that the archery contest had taken place, for at the left-hand end stood two large targets. Behind them, a long canvas sheet had been hung from the trees to catch any arrows that missed the targets.
We crossed the lawn at an angle, and followed Lestrade through a gap in the trees, immediately to the right of the canvas sheeting, from where a narrow path curved away into the woods. After a short distance this path was joined by another, and we followed it to the left, crossing several other smaller paths, until we came presently to a wider, well-used path which ran at right-angles to our own. Lestrade turned right onto this path and we followed its winding course for some twenty or thirty yards. The trees in this part of the wood grew very close together, and there was an air of shaded gloom about the place. Coming at last round a sharp turn to the left, we arrived at a place where the path stretched dead straight for some twenty yards ahead of us. Lestrade stopped before a small cairn of pebbles which had been placed in the middle of the path.
“I have marked the spot,” said he. “These paths wind about so much that one could easily become confused as to where one was in the wood.”
“Very good,” said Holmes in approval. Then he squatted down upon the ground and proceeded to examine with great care every square inch of the path for fifteen feet in either direction. Presently he rose to his feet, a look of dissatisfaction upon his face.
“Found what you were looking for?” asked Kirkman in an undisguised tone of mockery.
“The ground is very hard, so it is unlikely that there would be much to be seen in any case,” replied Holmes in a placid tone, “but so many feet have passed this way in the last twenty-four hours that the little there may have been has been quite obliterated.” He looked about him, peering into the dense undergrowth on either side, then walked up and down the path several times. “Soames was found face-down, stretched lengthways on the path, I take it,” he remarked at last to Inspector Lestrade.
“That’s correct, Mr Holmes,” the policeman replied. “He had been shot in the back, as you’re no doubt aware, an inch or two left of centre. The local doctor who examined the body said that the arrow had penetrated quite deeply, and he thought that death would probably have occurred within a few seconds.”
He broke off as there came the sound of footsteps behind us. I turned as a stocky, middle-sized man appeared round the bend in the path. His sunburnt face was clean-shaven, save for a small dark moustache, and there was a military precision in his manner as he stepped forward briskly and introduced himself as Captain Blake, the former companion in adventure of Woodforde Soames. He had, he said, just heard of our arrival, and asked, as we shook hands, if he might accompany us in our investigation.
“By all means,” said Holmes. “In which direction was Soames facing when he was found?” he continued, addressing Lestrade.
“With his feet pointing back the way we have come, and his head towards the straight section of the path in front of us,” Lestrade replied. “The path we are now on begins near the kitchen gardens, by the side of the house. It is evident, therefore, that he was coming from the house, or somewhere near it, and heading deeper into the woods.”
Holmes stood a moment in silence, then he shook his head.
“I disagree,” said he at length, in a considered tone.
“Why so?” asked Lestrade in surprise.
“The disposition of the body is, in this case, of less consequence than the disposition of the path,” said Holmes.
“What on earth are you talking about?” demanded Kirkman.
“I think that when struck, Soames must have turned before he fell,” Holmes continued. “The force of the blow, just below the left shoulder blade, would probably have been sufficient by itself to spin him round. But he may also have tried to turn as he fell, to see who it was that was attacking him.”