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Chapter Thirty-Four

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« on: June 19, 2023, 07:11:03 am »

MISS Silver looked at her watch. It was a little after nine o’clock at night. She was alone in the comfortable room. Mrs. Ball had apologized for leaving her, but she had promised to check over the accounts of the Boys’ Club with the Vicar.

“There seems to be a tiresome discrepancy, and you know how it is---once you have made a mistake you can pass over it again and again. John is even afraid he may have taken this one on last year when we came here. The late Vicar was an old man, you know, and things were in a shocking mess. The trouble is, we are neither of us really very good at figures, and John is so conscientious.”

Miss Silver did a little quiet thinking.

When she had looked at her watch she went up to her room, changed into outdoor shoes, and put on her black cloth coat and the black felt hat reserved for dark or rainy days. After which she slipped quietly out of the front door.

At first it seemed to be quite dark. She had in her hand the powerful electric torch which she invariably took with her when paying a visit to the country, but she did not want to turn it on. Standing just beyond the faint glow which came through the curtained upper half of the door, everything was plunged in featureless obscurity, but after a moment or two the shapes of trees and bushes began to emerge, and she could distinguish the path which led to the churchyard. Following it, she came through a shrubbery shadowed by overhanging trees to a gate in the churchyard wall. A few steps farther and she was clear of the trees. Before her lay the black mass of the church and the line of the yew tunnel, overhead the soft deep grey of the clouded sky, and all around her the glimmering shapes of tomb, and cross, and headstone.

She went on a little way, came to the mouth of the tunnel, and there stood. The air was mild, with very little movement. Sometimes it would be altogether still, sometimes it seemed to pass amongst all these memorials like a sigh. It made a quiet background to the thoughts which were in her mind. Two people had been murdered within a stone’s throw of this place. The murderer had come upon them by one of three ways---down the yew tunnel from the church, along the road from the village, or from the other side of the splash. The murders had been separated by no more than a week. They had both taken place on a Friday. They had both taken place in the dark. These were common factors. There were others. There was the knowledge shared by William Jackson and Clarice Dean. There was the fact that both were prepared to use that knowledge to their own advantage. In each case the scene had been set for murder in the space around the watersplash, with the church standing there above it.

When a stage has been set, the people come upon it to play their parts. The two victims, William and Clarice, and two other persons were known to have trodden that stage. At the time of both murders Arnold Random had been practising in the church, and Edward Random had come home by way of the splash. Edward admitted to having met William as he came up the rise. He said that he had spoken to him briefly and wished him good-night. He said that William was fuddled, but not drunk. There could have been more than that brief interchange. Edward could have turned, followed William down to the splash, and drowned him there.

He had no motive.

No motive had appeared.

Arnold Random had an alibi. Miss Blake had been at the church. He had walked back with her. They were old friends. Ruth Ball had not been in Greenings for a year without learning that there had been a time when the village, and perhaps Miss Mildred herself, had expected that she would become Mrs. Arnold Random. This and many other useful bits of information had been passed on in the confidential atmosphere of the Vicarage morning-room. The Vicar might disapprove of gossip, but if you live in the country and do not take an interest in your neighbours you might just as well be dead. Greenings took an interest, and so did Miss Silver. She did not feel any great respect for the alibi provided by Miss Mildred Blake. Arnold Random could have come down from the church to murder the servant whom he had dismissed, and who was certainly prepared to blackmail him. Edward Random could have turned and come back by the road. And by the third way, the dark rough track on the other side of the splash, someone else could have come---someone who knew that William must come this way, if indeed he meant to come home to her at all that night. A white-faced shaking woman with a bruise on the side of her head and fearful thoughts in her mind. She could have crossed by the stones, waited in the shadows by the lych gate, and followed him down to the pool which was to drown him.

There is no reason for murder, but even a crazy brain must think that it has a reason. Jealousy and fear and resentment could have pushed Annie Jackson into the murder of her husband. They are the oldest motives in the world. But why should she kill Clarice Dean? The answer came up quite clearly in Miss Silver’s mind. Clarice might have been a witness of the murder. She knew that Edward Random came home by way of the splash. She had been ringing him up at all hours. On the night before her death she had waited for him down by the splash. There might have been other times when she had done the same thing. The note which brought her to her death, whether written by Edward Random or by someone else, had certainly implied as much. And the witness to a murder stands in no safe place.

When all these things were clear in her mind Miss Silver entered the yew tunnel and began to walk slowly down the incline. She was obliged to switch on her torch. Centuries of growth had locked branch and twig and leaf in an impenetrable mass. Even at midday the place was dark, and at this hour of a November evening the gloom was absolute. If the murderer of William Jackson had come from the church, he too would have needed a light. Or would he? She thought even the most accustomed feet might stumble on this winding path. And murder must go silently.

Her mind was now occupied with the question as to the actual means by which William and Clarice had been killed. In Clarice’s case the back of the head had been bruised. In the case of William Jackson the medical evidence was silent. He might have been pushed, or there might have been a bruise which had not been noticed. She had considered whether the murderer could have snatched up a stone or some broken piece of masonry, but a careful daylight examination had afforded no support for this. The churchyard was beautifully kept, and as far as the road was concerned the soil was a soft loamy clay upon both sides of the splash. As she followed this path from the church she was doing what the murderer must have done if he had come this way. Light and shadow play strange tricks. They are also sometimes unexpectedly revealing. Walking slowly down towards the road, she turned the ray of the torch here and there, her mind alert and clear, but the old yews gave up no secret. She came to the lych gate and found it empty under the timbers which had protected it for three hundred years. There was nothing here except deep shadow and the weathered oak.

She passed out on to the road. On either side of the gate there was a stretch of low stone wall. Since the village children had developed a tendency to play such games as King of the Castle upon the flat convenient top of this wall, the late Vicar had caused an iron railing to be set up on it. Mrs. Ball had been informative as to her husband’s dislike of this addition.

“It’s quite hideous, and John can’t bear it. Like those dreadful little railings you used to see in the suburbs. John is only waiting until we have been here rather longer to have it taken away. He says he doesn’t think it would be tactful until we have been here at least three years. Fortunately, the gilding is wearing off.”

Miss Silver did not share the Vicar’s repugnance. She considered the railings very neat and tasteful, the dark green of the paint harmonizing pleasantly with the grass in the churchyard beyond, and the touches of gilding really quite subdued. But it was not with its artistic merits or demerits that she was concerned as she turned the ray of her torch upon the series of arrow-heads which defended the wall. If one of these spikes was loose----

She was testing them with her free hand, when a voice said from behind her,

“Oh, no, it wasn’t one of them.”

If Miss Silver had come near to starting she showed no trace of it. She turned with her usual composure and spoke to the dark shape which stood on the grass verge between her and the road. Transferring the torch to her left hand and letting it hang down, she said, “Was it not, Annie?”

The shape went back a little.

“Oh, no, it wasn’t one of them.”

“What makes you so sure about that?”

“What makes anyone sure about anything?”

“We can be sure of what we know.” Miss Silver’s voice was quiet.

For a moment everything was so quiet that they could hear the water moving down towards the splash. It had cut itself a channel below the slope of the churchyard before it widened out and shallowed to take the stepping-stones. It moved all the time, and the mild air moved above it. The sky was thick with cloud.

Annie said, “What anyone knows is their own business.”

“Not always. When murder has been done, everyone has a duty to tell whatever they know. Two people have been murdered.”

Annie said, “Two----” on a caught breath. And then, “Things go in threes, don’t they? Next time it might be you---or me----” Her voice was like a ghost’s voice---weak, and worn, and with no feeling in it.

Miss Silver put out a hand towards her, and she stepped back. She had been a dark shape, but now she was so little distinguishable that she might have been part of the darkness itself; Miss Silver made no attempt to follow her. She drew her hand back again and said,

“I will not touch you, Annie, but I would like you to listen to me. Your husband knew something. If he had spoken of it to those who had a right to know he would not now be dead. Miss Dean also knew something, but like your husband she tried to use this knowledge for her private advantage. I think that is why she died. If there is something that you know, I beg you very earnestly to consider that you are endangering your own safety by not being frank with the police. I said this to Miss Dean, but she did not take my advice. Now I say it to you. Pray think about what I have said. And now let us go in. I do not feel that you should come down here alone in the dark, and I should like you to promise me that you will not do so again.”

Annie said on a grieving note, “Time was I’d have been afraid. You get used to being alone.” Then, after a pause, “I heard you go, and I came after you.”

“Then we will go home together,” said Miss Silver with cheerful firmness.

Avoiding the yew tunnel, they took the open way of the Vicarage drive. It was when they had almost reached the house that Annie, a little way in front, turned her head and spoke.

“You didn’t find what you were looking for---nor you won’t.”

Miss Silver let a moment go by before she said,

“How do you know that I did not find it, Annie?”
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