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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fell Murder (1944) => Topic started by: Admin on August 01, 2023, 08:35:06 am



Title: Chapter Fourteen
Post by: Admin on August 01, 2023, 08:35:06 am
MACDONALD stayed and talked to Elizabeth Meldon for well over half an hour, and it was almost dark before he drove on. About a mile from Garthmere he made out a man’s figure walking ahead of him in the gloom and he slowed up as he overtook and called, “Would you like a lift?”

“Thanks! Would I not! Footslogging isn’t my idea of bliss.”

Charles Garth scrambled into the car beside Macdonald saying, “I’ve come out for a drink. The fact that I’m willing to walk two and a half miles to a pub and then two and a half miles back may give you an idea of how much I want a drink.”

“You don’t care for your village local?”

“My God!” groaned Charles. “Think it out---and have a heart. If I go into the bar there’s a sudden deathly hush---and then they start talking about the weather in hearty tones. I know what they’ve been talking about---and I don’t blame them, but I’d rather not butt into an argument concerning the probability of my sister having shot my father, and variations on that theme.”

“But surely the farmers round here wouldn’t discuss your sister in such a way?”

“Oh, wouldn’t they! You don’t know them; they’d be careful enough over what they said in front of you, or any other stranger, but amongst themselves I’d lay a bet they’ve hanged one and all of us. Human nature’s the same the world over. The devil of it is they all know everything that’s gone on at Garthmere.”

“Such as----?” inquired Macdonald.

“Oh, use your wits. You’re not lacking in that respect,” said Charles. “They all know that Marion is a first-class farmer who wants to put modern ideas into practice, and they all know that the old man thwarted her in every scheme she thought out. I’ve no doubt they all know that he wouldn’t pay her a decent wage. If it hadn’t been for those damned hens and ducks and geese Marion wouldn’t have had a penny to call her own. It’s the same with Malcolm: he can’t do a full day’s work, poor devil, he hasn’t the physique for it, but the old man drove the boy till he nearly dropped at hay time---and then jeered at him in front of everybody because he writes poetry. My God! Do I want a drink? I ask you!”

“Yes. It must be pretty wearing,” said Macdonald. “By the way, what pub do you want? Will the Green Dragon do? I’m staying there, by the way, but I don’t think they’ve guessed who I am.”

“Oh, haven’t they! I bet every one knows who you are from Lancaster to Kirby. Yes, the Green Dragon’s where I was making for.”

He was silent for a moment and then broke out: “I’m in the deuce of a quandary, you know. You’ve been very decent to us---not rubbing things in. It’d be a relief to get a few things off my chest---knowing you’re not likely to jump to wild conclusions.”

“I take a conservative view of what I’m told,” said Macdonald. “If a statement is relevant, I follow it up; if not, it’s as though it hadn’t been made.”

“Good---then I can go ahead. I told you just now that some folk hereabouts are suggesting that Marion shot the old man. It’s damned rot and it makes me livid, but I know the real trouble is that there’s no proof. See here: you’ve got four of us, Richard and Marion and Malcolm and self. None of us has an alibi, I know that. You seem to have been putting your money on Richard. I can see your reasoning, but I don’t believe it. Neither do I believe Marion did it, though I was bothered about that business of her gun going off in the office that day.”

He broke off, and Macdonald, who had been driving slowly, pulled the car up, saying, “Sorry to delay your drink---but would you like to enlarge on that topic?”

“Well, it’s like this,” said Charles slowly. “Marion’s a sensible, methodical creature. She didn’t leave a loaded gun balanced against a table by mistake. Neither did she arrange a Heath Robinson pot-shot at the old man just when they were having a row the whole household could hear---cursing one another to high heaven. No. Whoever arranged that little incident, it was not Marion.”

“Then who was it?”

“My God! You may well ask. There’s one reason, and one only, why I’m telling you all this---because I won’t have it said that Marion’s the culprit. She’s quixotic, you know. Did you notice that she said ‘I was worried because I’d left my gun in the office’? She’s willing to shoulder that now----Yet when she came out of the office that day, after all the shindy, she was livid because she knew someone else had left that loaded gun there----However, I’d better get my bit said and done with it. It’s revolting enough in all conscience. You remember you asked if there was a vantage point whence one could see over the fields to Lawson’s Wood?”

“Yes---and there is.”

“You found a peep-hole in the hay loft. I thought of something else. There’s an old lumber room over the dairy. Malcolm uses it for his bee-hive junk. I reckoned the window in there would give a view up the river, so I went up and had a look. There was a lot of stuff piled up in a corner, and I knocked some of it over when I tried to get at the window----I picked an old crate up---as I did so I got hold of some filthy rag---which had been used for cleaning a gun barrel----” Charles Garth brought his fist down on his open palm. “Lord, I feel a skunk telling you this!” he groaned. “I went and told Marion----She just went up to the loft and took that rag away. I tell you she’d let herself be hanged rather than---see Malcolm suspected.”

“Steady on,” said Macdonald quietly. “Evidence can be interpreted in more ways than one. If one of the guns in your gun-room was used for this job, it had to be cleaned before it was put away. That lumber room isn’t locked, I take it?”

“No. Nothing’s locked in that house, barring the old man’s desk and chest. My God! This is a rotten business!”

“A rotten business it is,” agreed Macdonald. “The only way of clearing it up is to get at the truth. I’ll tell you one thing, though I’m chary of making such assertions as a rule---it’s too easy to make mistakes---but I don’t believe your sister had anything to do with the crime.”

“Thank God for that,” replied Charles, and then added: “By way of anti-climax, I said I wanted a drink. I want one more than ever now.”

“All right. I’ll drive you to it,” replied Macdonald, feeling for his gear handle. “There’s one thing I should like to ask---although you needn’t answer it if you don’t want to. You said to the Superintendent, ‘It doesn’t make sense,’ and you repeated it more than once. Do you mean to imply that there’s more than one unbalanced person in this case---Jock being the one?”

“The Lord knows. Can you wonder that I’ve asked myself the same question?” groaned Charles.

Macdonald drove Charles Garth up to the Green Dragon, but he did not then seek to garage his car in the stable used for that purpose. He drove on to Carnton to Layng’s headquarters, and found the Superintendent waiting for him.

“Well, I reckon it’s simply a matter of running the fellow to earth,” said Layng. “There’s a message for you from the Merseyside authorities. Richard Garth, seaman and ack-ack gunner, did not rejoin his ship before she put to sea this morning. Seems silly to me---but I suppose he knew we’d get on his tracks before he reached New York. A ship’s as good as a rat-trap to a criminal these days.”

Macdonald nodded. “A very fair analogy. Did you get on to the Ingleborough Ramblers, or whatever they call themselves?”

“Yes. They’re the Pot Hole enthusiasts. Ever heard of those pot-holes---Gaping Ghyll and the rest?”

“Yes. I’ve heard of them.”

Layng stared at Macdonald’s non-committal countenance.

“Well, these lads are game to do their stuff for you, to-morrow being Sunday. They’ll beat the whole hillside between them---and bring you anything they find, from a bus-ticket to a shotgun.”

“Very kind of them. I shall probably go over to have a look-see. How long does it take to walk to Panstone from Garthmere?”

“Walk? Rather you than me. A matter of three and a half to four hours.”

“Thanks---and you can get a bus from Ingleton to Lancaster?”

“On week days you can.”

“Right. Now let me use your phone---and after that I’ll tell you my own ideas of this case according to the evidence, strictly in camera---and if I’m wrong you’ll have one good story to laugh over for the rest of your days.”

“Story? Well, it’s plain enough, isn’t it?” said Layng indignantly. “Even a blockhead like me would have cleared it up if I’d been given the chance---though I’ll admit you’ve been pretty snappy.”

“Keep the bouquets until they’re duly earned,” said Macdonald, lifting the receiver. “Garthmere, 92,” he demanded.

Layng sat and listened to Macdonald phoning. “Decent chap,” he thought. “More considerate than I am by a long chalk.”

Macdonald was saying, “Is that Miss Garth? This is Macdonald speaking. I’m a bit worried over that boy, Malcolm.” There was a slight pause while Marion answered and then Macdonald went on: “I’m glad he’s better, but all the same I think he’s over excitable and capable of doing himself an injury. Will you undertake to stay with him to-night? If you feel you’d rather not, I can send a nurse.”

There was another interval, during which Layng could just hear the murmur of Marion Garth’s voice in the receiver. Layng murmured, “All very nice---and where the deuce do you think you’re going to get a nurse? I haven’t got one up my sleeve.”

“As you will,” said Macdonald at the phone. “I don’t want to worry you, but I do think it’s important that the boy shouldn’t be left. I wouldn’t stress it if I didn’t think it was essential. If you’ll undertake to do it, I’m perfectly satisfied.”

“Doing the bed-side manner?” inquired Layng with a grin as Macdonald hung up the receiver. “We don’t handle ’em quite so gently up here as a rule.”

“I don’t like making more trouble in the world than I can help,” replied Macdonald, “and that boy went off slap into a fainting fit when I was questioning him. He’s a neurotic type. However, you want to hear what I’ve been doing---and thinking, so here goes.”

+++

After Macdonald had rung off, Marion Garth went back into the kitchen where Elizabeth was just making a pot of tea; Marion stood and watched the girl as she set the teapot and milk and sugar on the table, and poured out the tea.

“It’s a good brew,” said Elizabeth. “Why not have a spot of rum in yours? It’d do you good.”

“The rum’s finished---or else it’s evaporated,” replied Marion. “That was the Chief Inspector, Elizabeth. He rang up to say that he was worried about Malcolm. He wants me to sit with him to-night.”

Elizabeth put the teapot down and then looked up at Marion. Their eyes met and they stood in silence, each troubled but perfectly self-controlled. At last Elizabeth said: “If you do that Malcolm will get frantic. He’s all right now---but if you insist on stopping with him, he’ll---imagine things.”

“I know---but what can I do? Macdonald said that he would send a nurse, and I promised that I would sit with Malcolm myself. I couldn’t bear the idea of a nurse. Anyway, I’ve promised, so I’ve got to do it.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes. I see. I do hate it, though. I tell you what we might do. I’ve got some Thalmane tablets upstairs. I’ll take him up a weak cup of tea and two of the tablets. They’ll make him sleep, because he’s not used to taking them. Then you can go in quietly when he’s asleep.”

Marion sat in silence, without replying, her face brooding, and at last Elizabeth could bear her silence no longer.

“Oh, Marion, do say something!” she cried. “You know I wouldn’t hurt Malcolm. I’d do anything for him.”

“I know you would---but I’m all at sea, Elizabeth. I just don’t understand. Am I to sit with Malcolm as a gaoler---in case he runs away---or is it because he may try to kill himself, or because somebody might try to hurt him? It must be one of those things; it’s not because he’s ill.”

“I don’t know.” Elizabeth’s voice was quivering. “If you’ve promised, you’ll have to do it. I’ll go and get that packet of Thalmane. It’s a new packet, unopened---so you needn’t be afraid. Heaps of people take it. An aunt sent it to me when I had that go of toothache, but I never opened it.”

She hurried out of the room, and still Marion stood by the table, staring down at her cup of tea. Elizabeth came back and gave Marion the packet of tablets, saying:

“I’ll pour out some tea for him. Will you take it up, or shall I?”

“You can. Malcolm trusts you.”

Elizabeth’s usually steady hands were shaking, so that the teacups rattled against the saucer.

“Marion, this is just the most ghastly thing that ever happened----What do you mean?

“Just what I say. Pull yourself together, Liz. If I told Malcolm to take those tablets he wouldn’t do it. He will if you give them to him. I’ll come up after you quietly and wait outside the door. Leave it open and I’ll slip in later. It’s the kindest thing we can do.”

+++

Elizabeth Meldon came downstairs again and sat in the kitchen. She couldn’t bear the thought of going to bed. To keep her hands occupied she found a jumper which she had meant to reknit and she sat unravelling it, glad of the mechanical occupation. It was nearly midnight when she heard footsteps on the flags and her heart jumped with a sickening apprehension. When the door opened and Charles Garth appeared, she nearly laughed aloud in a hysterical sense of relief.

“Good lord! What on earth are you doing at this hour?” he demanded. “Do you mean to make a new jumper before morning?”

“Yes,” replied Elizabeth. “I sometimes get a fit of industry, you know.” She was surprised that her voice was so normal. “As a matter of fact, Malcolm’s rather poorly and Marion’s sitting with him for a bit, so do be quiet as you go upstairs.”

“Is that it?” said Charles. “Poor devil---he was always a nervy kid. I’ll go up and tell Marion I’ll take over for her. She’s had enough to put up with lately, without sitting up all night.”

“Don’t do that, you’ll only wake him up,” replied Elizabeth. “I offered to do it, but Marion said she would. If you interfere she’ll be furious. Malcolm needs a good long sleep, and he won’t get that if you start arguing.”

“‘A good long sleep,’” Charles quoted her quietly. “Well---one needn’t grudge him that, poor kid. It’s a bad show, Lisa. I met the Chief Inspector this evening.”

She looked at him steadily. “Did you. I don’t want to hear about it, Charles Garth. Things are quite bad enough without talking about them. Go to bed and leave me in peace.”

“Well, well! Whose kitchen is this, my dear?”

Elizabeth got up and took a step backwards, still with her eyes fixed on him. “It’s Richard Garth’s kitchen,” she said, “and when he tells me to clear out of it, I shall. Do you think he’s likely to?---because I don’t.”

“I can’t tell,” replied Charles. “Has he a soft spot in his heart for you too?”

“Listen to me,” said Elizabeth quietly. “I give you half a minute to get out of this room. I don’t like you, and I don’t like the smell of whisky. If you stay here any longer you’re going to get exactly one gallon of cold water thrown right over you. I’m very strong, you know, and the pail’s just handy.”

Charles studied her thoughtfully. “God save us! Farming does coarsen a woman, doesn’t it? Good-night, Lisa. We don’t want any more rough stuff here. We’ve had too much already.”

He went out of the room quite quietly, and Elizabeth sat down to her unravelling again, conscious that her eyes were smarting with tears.