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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fell Murder (1944) => Topic started by: Admin on July 31, 2023, 04:29:35 am

Title: Chapter One
Post by: Admin on July 31, 2023, 04:29:35 am
WHEN he reached the crest of the fell, John Staple halted in the lee of the stone wall which ran along the edge of the Garthmere land. He was panting a little from the long climb and he leaned with his back against the rough unmortared stones and stood gazing westwards, while his sheep dog stood beside him with waving tail, facing the wind, alert for any indication of his master’s wishes. A sturdy grey-haired man, nearing sixty, with long-sighted grey eyes and weather-beaten face, John Staple seemed part of the landscape himself.

The prospect before him was one of which Staple never wearied: he had known it for over half a century, and throughout that time no change had occurred to mar the familiar loveliness of fell side, valley, and distant hills. Far below him, the River Lune wound its serpentine curves across the wide flood plane: beneath the clear September sky the water shone blue, flowing out to Morecambe Bay, whose golden sands gleamed palely in the western distance. On the opposite side of the valley the ground rose in a series of ridges, wooded in places, but in the main showing the chequered carpet of farm land: intense green of the fog grass in the rich river dales, pale gold of stubble on the higher levels, blue-green of unharvested kale and mangold crops, lighter green of pasture. The sun caught the stone farm buildings of the hamlet of Gressthwaite, half hidden among the trees mid-way up the slope across the river. Far beyond to the north, the blue hills of the Lake District stood out clear against the sky—Scafell, the Langdale Pikes, and Helvellyn. Staple had climbed them all, and he knew every ridge and notch of the blue outlines. Behind him, on the farther side of the wall, the fell was clothed in heather, its fragrance heavy with the sweetness of honey. At his feet the rough pasture, in which bracken and bramble and bilberry mingled, sloped down to the richer pasture of the lower levels.

Staple stood very still, his hands gripping his stick, enjoying the keen wind which whistled round him, in his ears the call of peewits and curlews, while his grey eyes dwelt lovingly on the rich valley and embracing hills. His mind was not given to formulating his thoughts in explicit words, and it would have been alien to him to express the facile enthusiasm of the more vocal southern Englishman, but he was conscious of some warmth of comfort which dwelt in the wide prospect, of an unchanging certainty in an unstable and changing world.

The wind in his ears prevented Staple hearing the footsteps which approached him from the westward. A man came towards him striding unheard through the heather, but Staple’s sheep dog gave a short bark of warning just as the newcomer approached. Staple turned quickly to face the latter, surprised at the intrusion of a stranger in that loneliness of fell and sky.

“You’ve forgotten me, John, but I haven’t forgotten you.” The newcomer’s voice had an alien note, for something of an American accent sounded in the deep tone of a voice which yet retained something of its north of England quality. John Staple stared at the other, his brows knitted in perplexity for a moment. The newcomer was a tall, hefty fellow, clad in a suit of rough, navy-blue pilot cloth, with a seaman’s jersey rolled up to his chin. He had thick stubbly hair, greyish about the temples, and very blue eyes deep-set beneath shaggy brows. Most of his square face was concealed by a short curly beard, once fair, but greying now, like his hair. His low, square forehead and cheeks were tanned and weather-beaten, and the face was heavily lined, yet the blue smiling eyes still had a boyish look.

After a long stare, the perplexity in John Staple’s face gave way to recognition and his long face lightened to a welcoming smile as his hand shot out eagerly to grasp the other’s.

“Richard Garth, by gum! By all that’s wonderful it’s yourself, Richard. Lord, it’s good to see you home again!---- Twenty-five years it’d be since you went away.”

Richard Garth gripped the outstretched hand in his own.

“Aye---not far short of twenty-five years, John. It was in 1919 I talked to you last, up here it was too, against this same wall. Home? Yes, it seems like home up here, with you to welcome me.”

He turned and looked northward across the valley to the lakeland hills. “It hasn’t changed, has it? I’ve often thought of this---the river and the dales and the fells. I’ve seen a lot of the world since I was here last, and---by the Lord!---I’ve seen nothing to equal this, not to my way of thinking.”

“Aye, it’s a good country,” replied Staple. “I’ve lived in it all my life, and I ask for nothing better. Have you come home to stay, Richard?”

The other gave a short laugh. “Home to stay? No. I haven’t a home to stay in. You know that. I came back to see---this: perhaps to see you, as well. I’ve got a week’s leave between voyages. I’ve been on the Atlantic convoys these past three years. Tankers most often.”

“Tankers, eh? You’ll have seen a bit of trouble, then?”

Richard laughed a low, deep, quiet laugh.

“Trouble?” he echoed. “You’ve said it. I’ve been torpedoed three times and bombed too often to remember. They call me a mascot, because I always win through, and the chaps with me, too. Ten days in an open boat isn’t anybody’s idea of fun---- Lord, let’s leave all that out and talk about something else. How’s life with you, John? Still a bachelor?”

“Aye---and likely to be. Things are much the same as they always were, only the work gets harder and we don’t grow any younger. All this ploughing has meant a lot of work, and labour’s scarce. We’re always at it---never get a pause as we did in the old days. Harvest follows hard on Haytime in these parts.” He paused a moment, and added, “Your sister’s made a good farmer, Richard. She does a man’s share and does it well.”

“Lucky for the old man,” replied Richard Garth. “I bet he gets all the work he can out of her, unless he’s changed a lot since I knew him. He was a hard old devil.”

“Aye. He was a hard man, and he’s not changed,” admitted Staple, “but Marion---she can stand up to him. She works on the land because she wants to, not because your father drives her. Truth to tell, I think he scorns women farmers.” Staple turned and studied his companion. “You’ll be going home to see them, Richard?”

The other gave a laugh that held no sound of mirth.

“Not I! When the old man kicked me out, he’d done with me for good---and I with him. I haven’t forgotten, John. Some hates die hard.”

“Hate is a bad master, Richard.”

“Maybe. You remember Mary?”

John Staple nodded his grizzled head. “Aye. I remember her---and a bonny lassie she was. I was grieved when I learnt you’d lost her, Richard. It was a sorry business.”

“Yes---a sorry business. We went out to Alberta, you know, took up some government land and set to work from the word go---built our own shack and broke our own land. We didn’t have a child for the first four years---not until we’d got our house built and we were safely established. Of course, I hadn’t a cent, but things were going well---and Mary wanted a child. I didn’t send her into hospital---and things went wrong. She died, and her child died, for lack of some of that money that damned old father of mine could have spared without missing it. There are some things one doesn’t forget. He cursed me when I told him I’d married Mary. I remember----”

He broke off and stood staring out over the sunlit valley, and as he looked, his face softened.

“I didn’t come back here to brood over past days, John, nor did I come to see the old folks at home. I finished with them the day I walked out of Garthmere. I came here to see all this, and to have a tramp over Ingleborough and Giggleswick, and down into the Yorkshire dales. It’s land you don’t forget. When I was last adrift about a thousand miles from any land at all, I thought about all this---and I could have kicked myself because I hadn’t walked over the Pennines into Ribblesdale again before I died. They talk about the call of the sea. Damned nonsense---but I understand the call of the land. God! It smells good up here! I don’t wonder the bees are out for the heather honey.”

“Bees? Yes. They’re young Malcolm’s. You don’t know him, do you? You heard your father had married again---twelve months after you left home, it was. Malcolm was the child of his second marriage. He’s not a bad lad, but a weakling---he’s lame, and often ailing.”

“How does the old man like that? He wasn’t one of the soft-hearted kind: hated sickness of any sort.”

“Aye. He’s like that. Malcolm has had a rough time, but he’s got enough of his father in him to face things out, and he stands up to him in his own quiet way. He’s a bit of a poet, I believe.”

“Poet? God help him then, in that house. There wasn’t any room for poetry in Garthmere. Is Bob Ashthwaite still alive? I wrote and told him when Mary died, but he never answered my letter.”

“He was a poor hand at letter writing. Most of the farmers hereabouts get their wives to write their letters for them, and Bob’s wife died before you married his daughter. He was cut up about Mary’s death---he was fond of her in his own speechless way. Bob’s over at Greenbeck now. He left Farfell some three years ago. He came to loggerheads with your father---some matter of arrears of rent. It’d gone on for years. They had an agreement by word of mouth about reduction of rent when farmers were working their land at a loss. When agriculture looked up again, your father claimed arrears of rent, and Bob repudiated the claim. Mr. Garth took him to court at last and won his case. It seemed to turn Bob’s mind queer. He sold up most of his stock and went over to Greenbeck. He’s got a small holding there, and he works it all alone, save for a boy who’s weak in the head---a workhouse lad, with no kith or kin. They live together at Greenbeck---and it’s said they pig it like beasts in that lonely house.”

“I can imagine it. Doesn’t sound too good. I’d thought of looking Bob up. I’ve got a few things of Mary’s which he might like to have. He was a good father to her.”

“You’ll have to do as you think best about that. Bob’s queer these days, as I’ve told you. He and I were good friends once, but now if I pass him on the fell he won’t speak to me. I suppose he blames me as bailiff for the trouble over his rent, but it wasn’t my fault. I’d no word in the arrangement he made with your father originally, and I did my best to ease things, but I couldn’t move your father.”

Richard Garth laughed again, the same bleak, unmirthful sound.

“No. I bet you couldn’t. What’s the betting my old devil of a parent just bided his time until he could get back on Bob because his daughter married me? It would have been typical of Father to nurse a grudge for twenty years before venting his spleen.”

“I don’t know,” said Staple slowly, chewing a straw he had picked. “After you left, Bob Ashthwaite went up to see your father, and they had it out, fair and square. Bob said he didn’t want a Garth for his son-in-law---it was no fault of his that Mary had gone and made a fool of herself, and she could have done better than marry a Garth. Oddly enough, your father took that quietly, as though he understood it. I’m told they cursed one another long and strong---but Bob went back to Farfell and went on farming it, and your father never said a word about concluding the tenancy. Bob Ashthwaite was a good tenant, of course: farmed his land well and kept it clean.”

“Yes. Suited the old man to keep him on---and then when he could conveniently do it, the old devil broke him: quite typical.”

“Nay, lad, you’re over hard. Your father’s got some good qualities in him, for all that he can be a bitter enemy when he’s lost his temper. By and large, he’s been a good landlord. I’ve worked for him these thirty years and there’s not much I don’t know about him. He’s an old man now---eighty-three come Michaelmas, and most men get difficult when they’re old. Come to that, you mayn’t be too easy yourself, Richard.”

“Oh, I’m all right when I’m away from the subject of my own kith and kin. You can’t expect me to take a charitable view of my father’s dealings. As a boy, I saw him killing my mother---killing her slowly by bullying and hectoring. When I was grown to a man and stood up to him, he cursed me and kicked me out---and cursed my wife to my face. I often wonder I didn’t kill him for that.”

John Staple moved uneasily against the wall, and buttoned his coat up closer. “The wind’s keen up here, Richard, and I get plagued with rheumatism. I’d better walk on. I was going to look at those ewes up on the fell side. Come along with me and then come back to tea. I can give you a good meal for all that I’m a bachelor---farm butter and home-cured ham, and as many eggs as you fancy. More than you’ll get in a hotel these days.”

Richard Garth chuckled, and his face was gentle again, his eyes affectionate. “Good old John! Many’s the good meal I’ve had with you, and I’ve not forgotten them---but I won’t come home with you now, thanks all the same. I want to walk, and I reckon I can get on to Ingleton before bedtime, stay the night there and carry on over Holmboro’ in the morning and down into Sleydale. I’ve only got a couple of days to spare, and I’ve promised myself a good tramp. I want to see it all again---see it and smell it and listen to it.”

“As you will, lad. If ever you want a bed you can have one with me and welcome. Come when you will, and stay as long as you like.”

“Thanks. I’ll take you at your word one day---if I live long enough. Is that inn outside Ingleton still functioning---the Wheatsheaf, wasn’t it?”

“Aye. You can get a bed there if you want one. Matt Hodges is the landlord---the son of old Nathaniel. Can you see that man down in the dales there---walking towards the old barn?”

“Yes. I can see him all right---why?”

“That’s your brother, Charles. He’s living at home, at Garthmere, now. He was out in Malaya, and he got away to Java and then to Australia. Lost everything he possessed, and came back to England with the clothes he stood up in, and nothing else. He helps with your sister on the home farm.”

“I hope he likes it. Does the old man pay him---or just let him work for nothing and curse him at intervals?”

John Staple chuckled. “That I can’t tell you. I know Mr. Garth has his own ideas about the war like he has his own ideas about everything else: he says a few bitter things about letting the Japs get Singapore---but Charles puts up with it for his own convenience. He’ll be surprised when he hears you’ve been home, will Charles.”

“He needn’t hear, John.” Richard Garth turned and faced the older man. “I told you I didn’t come home to see my family: they’re nothing to me, nor I to them---less than nothing. You can forget you’ve seen me, John. Don’t tell any of them. Promise me that, for old times’ sake.”

“If you ask it, I’ll promise---but you’re wrong in saying that you’re nothing to them. You’re the heir to Garthmere, Richard. The entail still holds. All this will be yours one day---and you care for the land, you’ve admitted it.”

“Yes. I care for the land, but not in the sense of owning it---not the usual sense, anyway. I do own it, because I’ve remembered it---every wall and field, every gill and beck, every fell side and copse. I’ve come back to renew that ownership---to prove to myself that memory hasn’t played me false. But as for living at Garthmere Hall and all that that involves---no. I’ve no use for it.”

He paused a moment, staring out towards the Langdale Pikes, his shaggy brows knitted in thought. “The system of land tenure we’ve got in this country is all wrong,” he said. “It’s a remnant of feudalism, its usefulness outgrown. It isn’t that I don’t care about the land hereabouts. I care for it all the more that I’ve been away from it so long, but the system’s all wrong. Anyway, it’s a system that’s passing. Maybe I’ll come back here to live one day---if I don’t get blown sky high on a torpedoed tanker---but I don’t want to live at the Hall, and carry on the bad old tradition. My father liked owning things, whether it were land or cattle or his own family. He reckoned he owned us all---but he made a mistake.”

Staple shrugged his heavy shoulders. “You’ve got a bee in your bonnet, lad---but I’ll not argue with you. One day the land will be yours---and then we’ll see. If you come back this way, remember you’ll always be welcome at Lonsghyll. As long as I live you’ll find me glad to see you.”

“And what would my father say, if he learnt I was staying with you, John Staple?”

“That’s between him and me, lad. One thing I’ve never been afraid of, and that’s speaking my mind to him. I told him, years ago, that he was doing wrong when he quarrelled with you for marrying Mary Ashthwaite, and that, like as not, he’d rue it one day. Mayhap he has rued it. He’s got Marion---she’s never married. Then there’s Charles---his wife died and he has no children. Malcolm---well, I doubt if he’ll ever rear a family. No children about the place. A pity. Aye. He made a mistake.”

“Perhaps: perhaps not.” Richard Garth stared out across the river valley, his face furrowed in thought. “Don’t you think we’re all given to over-estimating our own importance?” he inquired. “We, as individuals, matter so little. All this---the land, the river, the hills---these endure, but we pass on. Our family---how I had it dinned into me when I was a kid, the importance of the Garths. A Garth does this, and a Garth does that. All damned rubbish and pretence. We’re an old family---too old. We’ve outlived our usefulness, and it’s time we were finished, time we gave place to something more in tune with the needs of the day. In that sense it may be a good thing that there isn’t a rising generation to carry on the Garth tradition. As I remember it, the tradition was made up of outworn tyrannies.”

“Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong,” replied Staple. “For my part I find it hard to think of Garthmere without one of the Garths living there---and because a thing is old, it’s not of necessity bad, any more than it’s good because it’s new. One day I’ll hope to see you living at the Hall, Richard---aye, and your children with you.”

“You’re a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, John,” laughed the other. “I’m glad I met you. It wouldn’t have seemed right to have walked over these fells without seeing you. Now I’ll push on---I must hurry if I’m to get to the Wheatsheaf before dusk, and next time I happen along here I’ll come and stay with you and we’ll talk things out. You’ll have to make some allowances for me, though. A man can’t live for twenty-five years in a new world and come back unchanged.”

A moment later Richard Garth was striding away eastwards, his face set towards the great limestone mass of Ingleborough which closed in the valley to the east, and John Staple walked on slowly westwards looking for the ewes pasturing on the fell side. His mind was not on the business of his flocks. He was thinking of Richard Garth, and the family at Garthmere Hall, and he felt heavy-hearted. John Staple was essentially loyal, and despite the fact that he admitted that old Mr. Garth was a hard man and a stubborn man, a man moreover who set his face against reform and change, yet Staple was deeply devoted to him. It was true, as Richard Garth had said, that Staple was a traditionalist: the bailiff wanted to see a Garth living at the Hall, carrying on the traditions of landowner and farmer. He had often hoped that Richard would come home one day and enter into the heritage which should be his.

It was not until the sheep dog started rounding up the sheep and came to ask his master for instructions as clearly as a dog could that Staple brought his mind back to the business in hand. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said to himself, as he whistled to the dog, directing him to round up the sheep in the sheltered corner of the stone wall.

A few minutes after Richard Garth and John Staple had gone their separate ways, another figure rose from behind the wall where they had stood. A tall lanky lad with a fine head and untidy dark hair stood and looked out over Lunesdale.

“So that was Richard,” he said. “I often wondered what he was like.”