The Secret of a Cobham Coppice

One July evening two young men went into the White Lion, the principal inn in the picturesque village of Cobham, Surrey, and asked for two pint bottles of port wine. The request, under ordinary circumstances, would have seemed peculiar, for the port wine of most country inns is not a vintage one cares for. But the White Lion was an old posting house, with stabling for some twenty horses, and was known for the excellence of its wines.

“We have no small bottles,” said the barmaid.

“Very well, we’ll have a large one,” answered the elder of the two men.

The wine was brought, and the barmaid tried to put it in the fishing pannier which the younger one carried; but it was too large.

“Take your pouch out of the basket, Herbert,” said the elder man.

Accordingly, the one addressed as Herbert took a small leather bag out and thus made room for the bottle of wine.

“We shan’t want the pouch,” said he. “It will only be in our way. Perhaps you’ll take care of it for us, miss, until to-morrow?”

The young lady said she would, and the travellers left the inn. They looked as if they were going on a fishing expedition. One of them had a rod in a bag. The contents of the pouch, which was emptied before it was left, consisted of a pair of scissors, tweezers, and some artificial flies.

The barmaid took special notice of the elder man, for there was something very peculiar about his face and manner. Indeed, he seemed “quite lost”​—​so much so, that he was going out without paying for the wine. The barmaid, as may be guessed, reminded him of the omission, upon which the younger man produced some money and paid.

As they were leaving, the younger one said they were going to Stoke D’Abernon, but they went towards Walton Heath, which is in the opposite direction.

The next day came, but the pouch was not called for, nor was it the next, or the next. Apparently the strangers had forgotten their property.

Cobham is now well known to cyclists; but in the pre-cycle days it was a very secluded and out-of-the-way spot. It is situated on the River Mole, where the travellers were presumably going to fish.

Some days after the visit to the White Lion a little girl, wandering near the banks of the river, found a fishing rod, put together, and with the line attached, leaning against a bush. She passed on, thinking that it belonged to some persons fishing, who would return for it; but, finding it still there when she came back, she took it to her father.

A week went by, and then came a terrible discovery.

A short distance from Cobham a bridge crosses the River Mole, and the road traverses rough, unenclosed land known as Walton Heath. Three roads are near the bridge, enclosing a triangular piece of ground planted with trees. This spot did not abut on the bank of the river, but was only a short distance from it.

It was the 1st of August. Three men, residents of Cobham, passed over the bridge for a walk on the heath. When they were near the rough waste land, one of them said:

“Something here smells very bad. There must be a dead dog or a cat. The parish ought to look to it. I’ve half a mind to see what it means.”

And he went into the coppice. In a minute or so his friends heard him shouting, and they ran into the coppice also. Here they beheld a most horrifying spectacle​—​the corpses of two men, the one resting on the other, in a very advanced state of decomposition. The appalled spectators hurried away, and sent a policeman to the spot. The constable brought with him a number of the villagers​—​for the news had spread​—​and examined the place.

One body was lying on its back, with a railway rug over the face; the other was lying on the right side, close to, and in the direction nearly parallel to, the other, on the head of which the hand was lying.

They had evidently been lying there for many days. The clothes of both were undisturbed, and so far as the action of the weather and the horrible state of the bodies would permit one to judge, the garments seemed to indicate persons of the better class.

A strange, miscellaneous collection of articles was found upon the bodies and on the ground. Two pistols, both of which had been discharged; a tin box containing percussion caps; a pill-box, with two conical bullets; bullets loose in the pockets; a fishing pannier containing a rod-bag; a fly-book, with flies, and some writing in pencil which had been defaced; glasses, money, white cambric handkerchiefs, and other articles of personal use.

On the ground was a wine bottle, with the neck broken off, which had contained port wine, and on one of the dead men was found a flask containing a little weak brandy-and-water. One of the men appeared to be thirty-five and the other twenty-five years of age.

The discovery of the port wine bottle furnished a clue as to their identity up to a certain point. The barmaid of the White Lion recollected the two strangers who bought and took away the bottle of port, and she was able to say at the inquest that the appearance of these men corresponded with that of the deceased.

But here the clue ended. Meanwhile, the widest excitement was caused throughout the district, and the theories of murder, of suicide, of a duel, were hotly discussed.

Hundreds of people visited the spot. The Sunday trains were crowded with morbid sightseers from London, the grass round about the coppice was trodden down, and the ground became dry and bare with the constant movement of feet.

Of course, the local residents were full of curiosity, and among these was a woman who, poking about the scrub with her umbrella, picked up a printed paper​—​a tailor’s circular. This woman lived a short distance from Walton Heath, and, by a curious coincidence, it turned out that on the evening of July 24th she heard the sounds of two reports.

The woman put the circular in her pocket as a sort of memento, and took it home to show her family.

“Why, mother,” exclaimed her daughter, “there’s writing on the back!”

“My goodness! Let me look! Oh, I can’t make it out!” said she, after a glance at the scrawl. “It’s in pencil, and all smeary. Your eyes are better than mine, child. See what it says!”

The girl took the paper to the light, and read:

“‘Whoever finds this body——’”

She stopped. She could make out no more.

“It’s written by one of them poor men!” said the mother. “We ought to take it to the police.”

She did so. A powerful lens was used, and at last the writing was deciphered as follows:

“Whoever finds this body will confer a great favour on one who can never ask another, if he will take the gloves the writer wears to ——, and tell her that he died blessing her, and praying for her happiness. And the writer asks with his dying breath —— will love ——, and he asks to be —— dearly for his sake; and he asks forgiveness from all whom he may pain by thus going away to die, but he is too unhappy to live. And as the last request of her dying child, he asks his mother to love ——, and to take care of her as far as possible; and the writer most earnestly begs pardon from his poor old father, whom he is sorry to leave. But Fate is too strong to resist. May God bless all those who have been so good to me, and whom I have so ill requited. But if my life were to be lived again, I am afraid I should do all I have done. As for my death, I die quite happy, and with a blissful feeling that I am going to rest. ——” (probably meaning his companion) “is nearly dead. I have promised to see him safely dead before I quit ——”

Here the writer ceased, and no doubt terminated his own existence.

In each of the blanks a name had been written, and afterwards completely defaced by the pencil, as though the writer wished, on consideration, to avoid publicity.

On the same day a small medicine phial was found near the spot, bearing the name of a chemist at Upper Holloway. It was then ascertained, as already mentioned, that on the evening of July 24th, the date when the two men called at the White Lion, a woman heard the two reports of firearms, with a very short interval between them.

These were all the facts the police could discover concerning this strange occurrence. The letter disposed of the theory of a double murder; but it did not solve the mystery. The question that remained was whether the two persons had each committed suicide, or whether one had been killed by the other with or without his own consent, the survivor dying afterwards by his own hand.

This question the surgeons could not decide. All they could say was that the corpse lying undermost was that of the younger person. There was a perforation, as of a pistol shot, through the vest, a little below the heart. But there was nothing to indicate whether the shot had been fired with his own hand or by that of another. He had evidently died before his companion destroyed himself, for his face had been carefully covered over by the rug.

The wound of the elder person, however, showed plainly it had been inflicted by his own hand. He had placed the pistol under the chin; the bullet had traversed the head and came out at the crown, carrying away a wig which the deceased wore.

Eventually the bodies were identified as those of the sons of a Mr. Bittlesdon, residing in the Hornsey Road. One of them was his son Charles, aged thirty-eight, and the other Herbert, aged twenty-five. Both were clerks in an insurance company.

Mr. Bittlesdon’s story, if anything, added to the puzzle. He stated they left home on Thursday, July 24th, on a fishing excursion, and then seemed to be in their ordinary spirits. On being told to be sure to be home in good time, one answered cheerfully:

“Oh, yes, father; we shall be home at the usual time!”

Mr. Bittlesdon declared that he knew of nothing which should have caused them to commit deliberate suicide. He had observed no difference of late in the conduct of either, nothing at all to explain the matter. He was not aware that they had quarrelled. Inquiry was made at the insurance office; but the answer was that there was nothing wrong in their accounts, nor had anything occurred there to explain the act.

One of those perplexing discrepancies which seem inseparable from mysteries was this:

The witness who found the bodies, and the surgeons who examined them, declared, as previously mentioned, that the body of the underneath person was that of the younger man. On the other hand, Mr. Bittlesdon expressed his belief that the body which was found underneath the other was that of his elder son.

If, however, the surgeons’ evidence is to be relied upon​—​and there is no reason to doubt it​—​the elder brother shot himself and was consequently the last to die. If this were so, he must have written the letter which was found. But Mr. Bittlesdon once more added a little confusion, for in his opinion the letter was written by his younger son.

There was some justification for this, as a prolonged examination of one erased name, that where the writer says “—— is nearly dead,” showed that the name was “Charles.” The female referred to, said Mr. Bittlesdon, he thought was the sister of the deceased.

The coroner’s jury had thus to solve the riddle as best they could, and after a long deliberation they returned a verdict of “Felo-de-se against Charles Bittlesdon, and that Herbert died of a pistol-shot wound, by whom inflicted there was no evidence to show.”

Thus the mystery was left. In most puzzles of this kind the motive is supplied by some love-attachment. Old Mr. Bittlesdon declared positively that he was not aware that either of his sons was attached to any young lady. This assertion is, of course, not worth very much, as sons, especially when they are of the age of Charles and Herbert Bittlesdon, do not usually make their fathers acquainted with their love affairs. To whom were the gloves referred to in the letter to be sent?

Mr. Bittlesdon’s words were certainly guarded, and one or two of his expressions seemed to suggest that there was mystery lurking in the background.

“Something may come out after a bit that will account for it,” said he. And again he remarked: “No doubt there was a cause, which will come out after a time. At present it is inexplicable to me.”

Did anything “come out after a bit”? Was the mystery of this double death ever solved? Who shall say?