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15: Inside or Outside?

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Author Topic: 15: Inside or Outside?  (Read 31 times)
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« on: April 28, 2023, 12:37:34 pm »

RAMPLEFORD Assizes lasted for another week. To Derek, at least, it was one of the dullest weeks of his life. The long night watches, which Hilda continued to insist upon, although there did not seem to be the smallest purpose in them, had become a weariness to the flesh. His anxiety over Sheila had not been relieved by any message from her, and he spent the hours of watching in a state of gloomy impatience. By day, matters were not much better. The Judge was so aloof and Olympian as to be scarcely human, and since the incident of the dead mouse Hilda had become quite unsociable, preoccupied with thoughts and calculations which she did not choose to share.

Indeed, the only member of the household who seemed to be perfectly contented with his lot was Beamish. Rampleford, he confided to Derek, suited him. In fact it suited him Right Down to the Ground. Apart from the fact that the High Sheriff was a Decent Gentleman, he did not say in what the peculiar suitability of the town consisted; but Derek observed that he had formed the habit of slipping out of the lodgings soon after the party returned from court each day and coming back sometimes quite late in the evening in an unusually genial state. More from boredom than from any other motive, Derek found himself beginning to cultivate the clerk, or rather to allow himself to be cultivated by him. Against his will, he had to admit that he was quite an entertaining companion. He had a store of anecdotes connected with judges and counsel, which were a kind of servant’s hall edition of Pettigrew’s stories on the same themes. But what struck Derek chiefly about them was the underlying malice which seemed to characterize them all. Beamish’s pig-like little eyes never seemed to gleam with such pleasure as when he was recounting the story of someone’s discomfiture or humiliation. There was, Derek felt, a strong vein of cruelty somewhere in his conceited, self-centred little character.

One evening, after the Judge and Hilda had gone to bed, Derek, whose turn it was to take the first watch, was in the hall about to go upstairs when Beamish let himself in at the front door. He greeted him in the tone of mellow friendliness which Derek had learned to associate with his evening expeditions. It occurred to Derek that he was on this occasion slightly more mellow than usual. As a matter of fact, this had been a somewhat notable evening for Beamish. After a period of comparative failure, he had suddenly run into irresistible form at the darts’ board, and his defeat of the champion of the local Canadian forces had just been celebrated as it deserved.

“Come into my room a minute, won’t you, Marshal?” said Beamish. “Have a quiet chat and a pipe.”

“No, thank you very much,” said Derek. “It’s rather late, and I was just going up.”

Dominion hospitality had loosened Beamish’s normally well guarded tongue.

“Going up, eh?” he repeated. “Don’t tell me you’re going to bed, though. It’s your turn on, isn’t it?”

“What do you know about that?” said Derek in surprise.

Beamish chuckled.

“Good Lord!” he said. “D’you think I don’t know all about it? I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.”

So saying, he made his way to his sitting-room. After a little hesitation, Derek followed him.

“I should have been a pretty poor sort of clerk if I hadn’t spotted it, with all the goings on there’ve been this circuit,” Beamish went on, throwing himself into an arm-chair and filling his pipe as he spoke. “It’s a clerk’s job to know things, Marshal, don’t forget. I dare say I could tell you a thing or two you don’t know.”

Derek was always somewhat irritated when Beamish addressed him as “Marshal”. True, he had been careful to explain before that in doing so he was calling him by the title of his office and not by his surname, and that no disrespect was intended, but it continued to jar on Derek’s ear. So his reply was in somewhat sulky tones.

“I suppose everybody in the house knows all about it,” he said.

“Well, I wouldn’t answer for Mrs. Square,” said the clerk. “She's not interested in anything much outside her kitchen. And as for the two resident maids here, they wouldn’t notice anything if it wasn’t right under their noses. And they don’t even notice that, if it happens to be something that wants dusting. If her ladyship was in anything like her usual form she’d have been at them long ago.”

He gave up the attempt to light his pipe and closed his eyes.

“Where was I?” he went on suddenly, sitting up with a jerk. “Oh yes! Savage knows all about it, Marshal, you may be sure, and Greene too. Not that I’ve gossiped with ’em. I know my place, and I’ve taught them theirs. But in a small commun-community like ours, things get about, y’know.”

Derek said nothing. He was trying to think out the implications of this surprising news when Beamish began to speak again.

“Personally, I think you’re wasting your time,” he said. “And I’m sorry to see a young gentleman like yourself losing your beauty sleep for nothing. Not but what you may not have other things to keep you awake o’ nights, for all I know.” There was a knowing leer in his face as he said this that brought the blood to Derek’s cheeks. “Y’see,” he went on, “it’s like this, Marshal. Either this is an outside job, or it’s an inside one---if it’s a job at all and not just a hallu-hallucination. If it’s an outside job, what are the police for? They’re all on the Kee Veev---the Close is stiff with ’em this minute. And if it’s an inside job, well there’s only me and Greene and Savage to do it, and what any of us would want to lose our position for, I don’t know. However, if it amuses her ladyship, I suppose it’s all right. And if she was to get another black eye one of these nights, as the result, I for one wouldn’t grieve.”

He shut his eyes again and Derek began to think that he had gone to sleep. But presently he added, with his eyes still closed: “And in any case, Marshal, I could ’ve told you in advance that nothing would happen this assize. There’s one great diff’rence between this assize and any other so far. Great diff’rence.”

“What difference?” Derek asked impatiently.

Beamish opened one rather bleary eye.

“Can’t you guess?” he said thickly. “The diff’rence in the comp-composition of the Bar. Pettigrew isn’t here. Thats all.”

“What the devil do you mean?” Derek shouted at him angrily.

“Y’needn’t make s’much noise, Marshal. I’m just making a nobservation, thats all. There’s Bad Blood between those two---always has been. Known it a long time. Clerks know---everything. Their business, know everything. Bad Blood. . . .”

This time Beamish was certainly asleep.


Neither on the next day, nor on any subsequent days did Beamish by word or sign allude to this discreditable episode. Derek, for his part, was only too glad that it should be forgotten---which meant, of course, that it remained in his memory, along with that brief instant at the railway station, as something that refused to be altogether forgotten. To Hilda, naturally enough, he said nothing at all; except, indeed, to suggest diffidently that the watchkeeping system might be relaxed---a suggestion which was promptly turned down.

At all events, Beamish proved right, so far as Rampleford Assizes were concerned. Nothing whatever occurred to vary the monotonous course of Justice. Nothing, that is, except for two incidents, the one so trivial that in normal circumstances it would have escaped notice, the other so late in time as barely to belong to the assize at all.

Two days after Beamish’s alcoholic confidences, and the day before the assizes were due to end, the Under Sheriff called as usual to escort the Judge to court. Criminal business being at an end, he came alone, but apart from this the procedure was exactly the same as it had been on every previous day. Punctually at ten o’clock, the Under Sheriff would arrive, be received by Greene and shown into a small room on the first floor which was used apparently for this purpose only. Here he would be engaged in conversation which, as the days went on, became more and more desultory, by Derek and, if she chose to appear, by Hilda. Savage, meanwhile, would be in his lordship’s room, arraying him in wig, bands, gown and that odd, transverse piece of material known to initiates as “the gun-case”. After the proper interval of time, the Judge, in the full panoply of his office would descend to his expectant acolytes. The Lodgings being built on several levels, the corridor in which Barber’s room was situated communicated directly with the waiting-room, by a short flight of steep stairs. Down these it was the Shaver’s custom to descend with slow and solemn gait and a ceremonious expression on his face as though to emphasize the fact that whereas at breakfast a short hour ago he had been merely a rather peevish elderly gentleman, he was just now His Majesty’s Judge of Assize. It was evident that the little ceremony gave him a good deal of harmless pleasure.

What happened on this particular occasion can be very briefly told. The Judge was about four steps from the bottom in his progress, one hand clasping his white kid gloves, the other delicately hitching up the skirts of his robe when Hilda, who happened to be present, gave a sudden cry of alarm and dashed forward just as he lost his footing and pitched head first into the room. For a moment it looked as if there was going to be quite a nasty accident, but his wife’s presence of mind prevented what would have been an ugly fall for a heavy, stiff-jointed man. As it was, she was in time to receive his weight on her shoulder, and the pair of them tumbled ignominiously but unhurt to the floor.

The Marshal and the Under Sheriff helped them to their feet, the Judge’s wig was recovered from the floor and restored to his head, his gown was hastily brushed down, and the usual ejaculations were made by those present that are commonly made on occasions of minor disasters. Hilda, however, did not ejaculate. After assuring herself that her husband was unharmed and having answered rather petulantly to inquiries that she was all right but her dress wasn’t, she cut short the flow of commiseration and congratulation by saying firmly, “What I want to know is, how did this happen?”

She was answered from the head of the stairs, where Savage had all this time been a spectator of the mishap.

“I think a stair rod has come away, my lady.”

“But why on earth should a stair rod come away?” she asked, going to the foot of the steps to see for herself. Nobody was in a position to answer this.

“Dangerous things, stair rods,” observed the Under Sheriff, “I remember----”

“Mr. Under Sheriff, if you are ready, I think we ought to be going,” said Barber, who was in no mood to listen to reminiscences of other people’s accidents.

“I don’t think I shall come to court this morning,” said Hilda.

“As you please, my dear. I dare say you would like to lie down, for a little. You must have been rather shaken, I’m afraid.”

“No, I’m perfectly all right, as I’ve said already. I’ve just changed my mind, that’s all.”

As the party left the room, Hilda caught Derek’s eye and gave him what is generally described as a meaning look. Derek had no difficulty in recognizing it as such, but unfortunately he was not able to determine for himself exactly what it meant. She certainly looked very purposeful, and somewhat excited, but what about? Surely she could not have got into her head that this accident had anything to do with the supposed conspiracy against the Judge?

But this, it appeared, was exactly what Hilda had got into her head. That evening, she took him aside.

“Derek, I want to talk to you,” she said seriously. “I looked at the stair rods very carefully this morning. They were all perfectly firm. They were quite difficult to move. This one had been deliberately pulled right out.”

“But that’s not possible,” Derek objected. “Who on earth could have wanted to do such a thing?”

“That is what I am asking myself,” said Hilda solemnly.

“Well, I can only suppose it must have been the housemaid. They have to take these things out to clean them, don’t they?”

“I have spoken to the housemaid. She is quite positive that she has not touched the stair rods since we have been here.”

Derek, remembering Beamish’s comments on the servants in the Lodgings, had to admit to himself that this sounded probable enough. He tried to reckon up the possibilities, supposing that Hilda’s astounding suspicion was well founded. The last person to use those stairs had, presumably, been Savage. Would he not have noticed the missing rod? Not necessarily, perhaps, if he was going up them. He certainly looked astonished enough when he witnessed the Judge’s fall from above. Or was it really astonishment that he had shown? It was hard to remember a man’s expression afterwards. Perhaps there had been something peculiar about it. . . .

“Now do you see why I feel that we must always be on our guard?” Hilda was saying. “We know now that we must be prepared to meet danger from within as well as without. It’s a horrible situation, and I don’t know whom I can trust.”

Again Beamish’s remarks came back to Derek’s mind. “An inside job” or “an outside job?” And if “an inside job”, then why not Savage as well as another? But why Savage any more than anyone else? What did he really know of these people with whom he had been leading a peripatetic existence during the past few weeks? What really lay behind Greene’s taciturnity, Savage’s humility, Beamish’s familiarity? Or was the whole affair, to borrow Beamish’s expression again, a hallu---hallucination? Certainly it seemed too absurd to be true, the incidents too unrelated to each other, the theory too unrelated to ordinary life. The one undoubted fact was that her ladyship was in a highly nervous condition. A little more of this and he felt that he would be not much better himself.


Derek was heartily glad to leave Rampleford. His last day there had been distinguished, if not greatly cheered, by a letter from Sheila, in which she told him that she found it Too Difficult to explain in a letter, but if they could only Meet Soon, she would be able to tell him Everything. The move was at least a stage on the road towards that desirable, if anxious moment, and not even the fact that Beamish tersely described Whitsea, their next stopping place, as “fierce”, prevented him from looking forward to it with impatience. It was therefore with genuine relief that he found himself once more in the reserved carriage, watching through the window the inevitable guard of police and the Under Sheriff dutifully making conversation against a background of Canadian soldiers who seemed to find the whole spectacle a source of great amusement.

The whistle had been blown and the last of the unprivileged many had been stowed somewhere in the overcrowded train when a police officer appeared running on the platform. He saluted the Chief Constable hastily, handed something to him and said a few inaudible words. The Chief Constable in his turn hammered on the Judge’s window which Derek had just shut.

“This has just come from the lodgings, my lord,” he said, when the window had at length been persuaded to open again. “It must have arrived after you left. I hope it is nothing important.”

Through the window he handed a letter. The Judge took it, opened it, and glanced at its contents.

“Here!” he cried angrily. “How did this. . . ?”

He was too late. The train had started. The Chief Constable, his hand at the salute, a fixed grin on his face, had glided backwards behind them. The Under Sheriff, thankfully replacing his topper on his head, was already almost out of sight. And on the Judge’s knees lay a little typewritten slip of paper, and an envelope without a stamp.

Hilda picked up the paper. It did not take long to read. It ran:

You’re not going to get off as easy as this again, you know.

Once more Hilda gave Derek a meaning look. This time it was quite simple to see what it meant.

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