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Chapter Five

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« on: July 31, 2023, 07:59:07 am »

IT had seemed to Charles, who knew less about the violence of his father’s temper than did Marion and Malcolm, that it would be impossible for family relations to return to normal: Charles was wrong. Despite the old man’s imprecations and fulminations, by the end of the day he was behaving as though nothing unusual had happened. The reconciling force was a sick cow. Before dinner had appeared on the table Jem Moffat came into the house to seek the old man with a tale of woe about Bluebell---a heifer who was in process of calving. “Summat wrong,” said Jem. Old Garth cared a lot about his cows: he hurried out to see if he could assist her.

“Better get Miss Marion. Her’s champion with cows,” said Jem.

The old man did not reply, so Jem hurried in again to find Marion. Together she and her father toiled in the shippon, and at length Bluebell’s calf was assisted into the world and the cow dosed and wrapped in sacks to keep her from chill. Neither father nor daughter mentioned the scene which had occurred in the house: their only remarks related to the cow and her calf---it was a heifer calf, which gratified old Garth: bull calves were of very little value, but a heifer was a potential milking cow.

It was nearly tea time before Marion returned to the house and Charles saw her when she came into the kitchen, her clothes sodden with rain and dung, her face flushed and dirty but serene.

“How’s things?” inquired Charles.

“Oh, she’ll do. The calf’s all right too,” responded Marion, and Charles exclaimed:

“Well I’m damned---and what about the to-do this morning? Any police in the offing?”

“Don’t talk rubbish,” said Marion calmly. She was washing her hands at the kitchen sink.

“I see. All forgiven and forgotten,” jibed Charles. “Well, you’re a marvellous pair. Murder and shooting and denunciations one minute and all peace and goodwill the next.”

“You exaggerate things,” replied Marion. “Father lost his temper---nothing unusual about that---and when the gun went off under his nose he lost his head and said idiotic things. He’s got over it by this time.”

“And how was it that the gun did go off under his nose?” demanded Charles, lounging against the table.

“Because some idiot borrowed my gun and brought it into the house loaded,” replied Marion.

“I see. That’s that. Nothing more to be said, eh?”

“Talking about it won’t help matters,” replied Marion. “If I knew who used my gun without permission I might have had something to say---but I don’t know, and nobody’s likely to tell me.”

“Perhaps it’s as well,” observed Charles. “Though it does occur to one that you aren’t too anxious to have detailed inquiries made on the topic.”

Marion flushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said brusquely.

Tea time was a silent meal. Only old Garth, Marion, and Charles sat down to the loaded table, for Malcolm had not been in evidence since the morning’s excitements. The old man had propped a copy of the Farmer’s Weekly in front of him and sat studying it. Marion sat silent and Charles concentrated on putting down an ample tea, glancing from one to the other occasionally with twitching lips. At length the old man got up and stalked out of the room and almost immediately Elizabeth Meldon came in, flushed and pretty, her fair hair freshly curled, a rose pinned in the buttonhole of her neat suit.

“Mr. Thwaite gave me a lift back,” she said. “I’ll come and milk when I’ve had a cup of tea, Marion. How’s everything?”

“All right. Bluebell’s calved---a heifer. She nearly went west. I’m going out to see if she’s all right.”

Marion went out and Elizabeth turned to Charles who said: “Enjoy yourself? You looked pretty festive when I saw you in Lancaster.”

“Did I? It was a pretty foul day---poured all the time. I didn’t see you about. What’s all this about Bluebell? Marion looked rather hot and bothered.”

“It’s been one of those days,” said Charles. After a pause he told her of the excitements of the morning, and Elizabeth listened with a face which grew increasingly troubled.

“Oh dear!” she cried. “It’s simply awful---I just dare not think about it.”

“Well, don’t think,” said Charles. “It doesn’t help. I’ve tried it and I’m stumped. Have a cigarette.” He pulled out a packet of Players, but Elizabeth shook her head.

“I must go and change and help with the milking. Where’s Malcolm, by the way?”

“I don’t know: he’s cleared out since the fracas,” replied Charles. “There’s one bright point in the situation,” he added gravely, just as Elizabeth reached the door. She paused and turned back to look at him.

“Bluebell’s calf is all right,” he said. Elizabeth slammed the door behind her.


On the following day---Thursday---John Staple was returning from the “fox hunt.” Three foxes had been shot in Lawson’s Wood and the victims had been auctioned outside the big barn in the dales, bringing in a profit of five pounds for the Red Cross. Staple had not gone to the auction: he had gone down to the river in order to see the amount of damage caused by the flood, which was now subsiding. He was also keeping his eyes open for some cattle which had strayed from the Home Farm. The river had flooded the pastures, bringing down much wreckage in its path. Staple noted that there was a quantity of timber---fallen trees, gates, and posts, which would be worth carting for firewood. He had just turned upwards along a path which led up the steep sides of the valley when he saw a man’s figure on the far side of some gnarled old thorn trees. Staple recognised Bob Ashthwaite---Richard Garth’s father-in-law. Ashthwaite had been at the fox hunt, much to Staple’s surprise, for the former seldom came near Garthmere these days. Staple called a cheery greeting: “Good-day, Bob! glad to see you again. Did you get a shot up yonder?”

“Nay. Might’ve saved myself a walk. Never caught sight of the darned foxes at all,” returned Ashthwaite, and without pausing he continued his way towards the river. Staple looked after him, wondering a little. He doubted very much if it was the attraction of shooting foxes which had brought Ashthwaite on to the Garthmere land.

“That’s odd, that is,” said Staple to himself, recollecting his own meeting with Richard Garth two days ago. “Could it be that Richard’s hereabouts still?” he pondered.

His way led up a steep old lane, sunk between banks on which fantastic ancient hawthorns bent their gnarled branches from the prevalent west wind. The ground beneath his feet was but a squelch of mud, for the lane was used for the cattle who grazed in the lower pastures, and after the recent rains a runnel of water flowed down the steep declivity. At its upper end the lane turned abruptly to meet the road, but the road was concealed from Staple by a barn and a small ancient building called a “hull,” once used for housing a few cattle in the winter, now used as cover for any miscellaneous gear which could be conveniently packed into it. Staple noticed that the door had been left open and he went to close it with the instinct of the farmer, for if cows were driven up the old lane they would undoubtedly go into the hull if the door was left open, and thus cause trouble to the person who was bringing them in.

When Staple reached the hull and stretched out his hand to pull the rough door towards him, he suddenly stiffened and stood stock still. In the shadows at his feet a figure lay prone on the trampled mud of the floor: the head was against the further wall, the feet in their heavy muddy boots were just against the door. The hull was dark inside, and the long figure clad in drab raincoat, whipcord breeches, and leather leggings seemed of the earth, earthy. Staple rubbed his eyes, as though in very truth he could rub away a hallucination which had invaded his vision. Then he stood his gun against the outside of the rough stone hovel, and went in, squeezing past the door into the shadows of the hull. It was old Robert Garth who lay there, his gun beneath him, the stock sticking out from under his arm. Staple knelt down beside the man who had been his master for nearly half a century and touched the white head. There was blood on his hands when he withdrew them.

“He must have stumbled and the gun went off and shot him,” was Staple’s first reaction. Then he thought again. Old Garth carried his gun as a gun should be carried---barrel pointing down, stock under his arm. How then could he have been shot through the head with his own gun? There was sick horror and distress in Staple’s mind, but his common sense never deserted him. He looked at the still figure: it was lying just where it had fallen---not so very long ago, either. The face was chilling, with the swift chill of death, but the body was limp, not rigid. Within the last hour Robert Garth had fallen prone in the dank mud of the hull, shot at close quarters by a gun whose charge of shot had nearly blown the old man’s face away. He had not been moved since---where he had fallen, there he lay.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like it,” said Staple to himself. He stood there, pondering, his slow countryman’s mind at work on the ugly problem---how this had happened. He bent again to see if the button of the safety-catch on the gun was pressed home, and then he heard footsteps and a shrill cry. Looking up quickly, Staple saw Jock, the idiot boy who worked on Bob Ashthwaite’s farm. Jock was standing close to the hull, his mouth wide open in his round, pink face, blue eyes staring, tow-coloured hair on end all round his silly face.

“Killed ’im, shot ’im dead, hast tha?” said Jock. “Aye, shot him dead. Him’s dead. Goody, goody. Him’s dead. Dead as mutton.”

“Stop that, Jock. Go along to the house at once and ask Miss Garth to come here. Tell her there’s been an accident----”

“Him’s dead,” said the boy. He turned away, giving vent to his idiot’s chuckle. “Shot ’im dead! Goody, goody.”

A horrible misgiving arose in Staple’s mind. Jock was devoted to his master, Bob Ashthwaite, and it was more than probable that Bob had cursed old Mr. Garth long and loud in the boy’s hearing. Jock was shrewd enough in some ways, for all that he was classed as a mental defective and was in the habit of behaving like an idiot. Had Jock done this thing? As Staple stood there he remembered how Mr. Garth had threatened Jock with a thrashing if he caught the boy on Garthmere land. For once Staple stood irresolute: he felt that he could not go away and leave Robert Garth lying there, and yet Jock of all messengers was the most unreliable. He stood wondering what he ought to do, and then, to his relief, he heard his own name being called. It was Marion Garth’s voice, and he called back: “Yes, I’m here----” and then he broke off not knowing what to say next.

Marion swung down the bank which divided the lane from the road above.

“Is anything the matter? That boy Jock’s madder than ever. He says you’ve shot somebody.”

Staple stood between Marion Garth and the door of the hull. “Something bad has happened, Miss Marion, something very bad. It’s your father. He has been shot.”

“Father? Good heavens! Is he badly hurt? Where is he?”

“He’s in here. I’m sorry, my dear. It’s no use my making a long story about it---he’s dead, Miss Marion. Shot through the head.”

“Father---dead---Merciful heavens! Who shot him?”

The last words came out in a rush, and Staple saw fear in Marion’s eyes for the first time. He had known her all her life and never before had he seen her look like that.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I thought at first he had tripped and his own gun had gone off, but I’m afraid it’s not that. Maybe it was that boy Jock. He came with Bob to the fox hunt.”

Marion strode past him and stood by the door of the hull. Then, like Staple, she knelt down beside Robert Garth’s body, her face pallid. “Poor Father!” she said softly. “I can’t bear to see him lying there like that. We must get a hurdle and carry him home.”

“I’m afraid we can’t do that,” said Staple. “We shall have to report to the police. In a case like this one ought not to move anything. You see----” He broke off, and then added with an effort: “It will be the business of the police to find out who shot him. This wasn’t an accident.”

Marion stood very still, looking down at her father’s body. Then she said: “Jock---what was he doing here?”

“I don’t know,” replied Staple. “In any case it’s not for us to determine. The police must make inquiries.”

“How awful!” she broke out. “How utterly and indescribably horrible----”

“I know, my dear. Don’t think I don’t understand. I’ve worked for him nigh on half a century, and I cared for him in spite of all his harsh ways. I hate to let him lie there---but it’s got to be. Now I’ll stay here, and you go in and phone through to the Sergeant of Police at Carnton. Tell him Mr. Garth has been shot and ask him to come at once.”

Marion’s face contracted, and she stood for a moment as though she was going to argue, then she thought better of it and turned quickly away, leaving Staple standing by the door.

A moment after Marion had gone, Staple heard voices again, and the sound of Jock’s raucous chuckle. Then came the sound of Charles Garth’s voice, raised angrily.

“What the devil do you mean, you imp of Satan? If I get my hands on you, you’ll be sorry for it. Be off with you!”

Staple heard the shuffle of Jock’s running footsteps and his parting words, shouted out as he ran: “Shot him dead, goody, goody. In tha’ ould ’ull. You go and see.”

A moment later Charles Garth appeared from the roadway and jumped down the bank. He halted abruptly on seeing Staple.

“What the deuce is the matter---or is it all that idiot boy imagining things? He ought to be in an asylum.”

“Maybe he ought. I suppose we ought not to have kept him here,” said Staple wearily. Suddenly he felt exhausted and incapable of further explanation. He stood aside from the door of the hull and motioned to Charles to come and stand beside him. Shoulder to shoulder the two men stood, gazing down at the prone body, and at last Charles spoke, almost under his breath:

“My God! It’s happened, then. I was afraid of this. That gun didn’t go off by accident yesterday---I never thought it did.”

“What do you mean?”

Charles jumped and then stared at Staple. “Never mind,” he said slowly. “How did this happen?”

“I don’t know---any more than you know,” replied Staple. “I found him here as I came up from the dales. Your sister has gone to ring up the police.”

Charles pushed past him and went inside the hull. “Accident?” he queried. “He often left his gear in here when he was going round the farm. Could he have tripped?”

“Look at the way he’s holding his gun,” replied Staple.

Charles lit a match and peered into the dark recesses of the little building and went right into the further corner.

“There are some snares here,” he said. “Father often set them himself. He was cunning at it---always spotted the rabbit runs. He must have come in here to fetch them and been shot just as he opened the door---point blank.” He paused and added, “What about this for an idea? That boy, Jock---say if he came in here to pinch one of those snares and was caught by Father. He might have shot if he’d got a gun with him. You were at the fox hunt, weren’t you, Staple?”

“Aye. I was there. Jock was with the beaters. He hadn’t got a gun.”

“Ashthwaite had, though. I wonder if he carried his own gun back with him---or gave it to the boy to carry.”

“Bob Ashthwaite’s odd in some ways, but he’s not fool enough to give a loaded gun to Jock,” replied Staple. “I saw Bob just now, down in the dales. He’d got his gun with him.”

“What was he doing in the dales?”

“I didn’t ask him.”

The two men fell silent, and Charles asked: “You’re sure he’s dead?”

Staple felt suddenly exasperated.

“D’you think I’ve been standing here wondering if he’s dead?” he demanded. “He was dead before I found him. It’s not because I like it that he’s lying there, like a beast that’s been slaughtered. I’d move him if I had my way, but the police won’t thank us for moving him. They’ve got to see him as he lies. This isn’t an accident, Charles Garth. It’s plain murder. Someone shot him as he opened the door---and it’s the police have got to find out who did it.” He paused a moment and then added slowly: “I tell you I wish it were me myself lying there in the mud. This is an awful thing---and I don’t dare think of the consequences.”

“You’re right,” said Charles soberly. “It’s an ugly thought, Staple. The police will find plenty of mud about the place---My God! it’s a grim prospect----”


Superintendent Layng was an able and energetic officer. He was not popular in his district, but that fact was due to a variety of circumstances, not all Layng’s fault. First, he was not a local man, and he had never got on to terms of real understanding with the folk around Garthmere who had an innate distrust of those not natives of their own valley. Secondly, Layng had a slightly pompous manner and a tendency to regard the shrewd farming folk as being slow of understanding because they habitually spoke slowly and thought for a long time before they gave vent to speech. Layng had been born in a big midland city---he had never quite realised that the slowness of speech which often irritated him in these north countrymen was not a symptom of stupidity: far from it---their minds were as shrewd as Layng’s own, while their knowledge of their neighbour’s potentialities was far wider than anything that Layng could achieve by the exercise of an inquiring mind and an observant eye.

When Layng first questioned Staple by the door of the hull in the grey September evening, the superintendent shouted out his questions sharply, in a somewhat hectoring and military manner. The sharper and quicker the policeman, the slower and more terse became the bailiff. Staple, who had suffered a very real shock when he found his master’s body, unconsciously put up a “defence mechanism” of obstinacy and slowness when he felt that he was being brow-beaten.

After a series of questions Layng dismissed Staple abruptly, saying: “Go up to the Hall and wait for me there. I shall come there immediately I have finished investigations here, and I shall want to see everyone in the house. Meantime, I caution you not to discuss this matter with anybody. I don’t want to waste time over hearsay evidence. You can leave your gun here. I will see to it.”

Staple thrust his hands into his pockets and turned away with his shoulders hunched up, walking slowly and heavily. Layng turned to one of the constables he brought with him.

“You can go up to the house and see to it that everyone is there when I want them.” He turned to his younger assistant, who had acted as his chauffeur, saying: “We should be here all night before I got any facts out of that old fellow. Can’t answer yes or no without five minutes time lag between question and answer.”

Turning on a powerful electric torch, Layng examined the ground inside the hull. It was very damp, the mud heavy and squelchy, for the rain-water had drained through it in the recent storms, soaking through the unmortared walls and seeping in at the ground level. Obviously some sheep had been temporarily folded there not long since and there were plenty of fresh footprints. Marion had worn gum boots: Charles Garth and Staple had both moved about inside the little building, and Charles’s footprints were plain in the far corner. Layng gave a snort of disgust. He had learned from Staple that three people had been inside the hull since the body was discovered---Staple himself, Charles, and Marion. “Galumphing around and confusing all the traces,” said Layng. He soon arrived at the same conclusion which Charles had formed---that old Mr. Garth had been shot just after he stepped inside the door of the hull. Layng was a tall fellow---close on six feet, but the dead man had been taller still. Layng had to bend his head to get inside the door, and Mr. Garth would have had to stoop still further. It was probably that fact which accounted for his prone position: he had been bending right forward as he came in at the door and consequently had fallen forward on his face instead of going backwards as might have been expected when struck by a charge of shot at close quarters. If this argument were right, there seemed to be only one place where the murderer could have stood---in the corner of the hull diagonally farthest from the door. Examination showed that there was a pile of peat moss on the floor in that corner---probably put there long since as bedding for some sick beast. Its drawback from Layng’s point of view was that it showed no footprints. Here the murderer could have knelt or sat---the sloping roof would have prevented him standing upright---and have left no trace on the resilient peat moss. Flashing his torch round in the dark corner, Layng pounced on something which reflected the light: he bent down with a pair of forceps and carefully raised his find without fingering it. He thought at first that it was a shilling, but closer examination showed it to be a twenty-five cent piece, the “quarter” of American currency. Layng put the coin away carefully in an envelope. How an American coin came to be lying in such a place Layng could not imagine, but he felt that he had found something of first-rate importance. He noticed the rabbit snares, too, and tucked away into a corner was something which Charles had missed. It was an old haversack, containing odds and ends such as pieces of wire and twine, pliers and a jack-knife, as well as a heavy hammer. Staple had said: “Mr. Garth often left some of his odd gear here when he was going from place to place on the farm.” Layng nodded to himself. He felt that he could guess what had happened. “Who?” was the next question. He came outside and spoke to the constable.

“You know a bit about the family at the Hall, Harding. Isn’t there a son who has recently come back from abroad?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Charles Garth. He was in Malaya, and got away to Australia just before the Japs took Singapore. No end of a time he had---got wrecked on one of those tropical islands and had a fearful time.”

“He did, did he? Have you talked to him yourself?”

“No. I’ve only heard about it in the village yonder. Mr. Charles Garth isn’t given to talking freely to anyone if you take me.”

“Snob, eh? Did you hear if he came home via America?”

“I’ve never heard say so, sir. Maybe he did.”

Layng stood and considered for a moment. “There’s the surgeon coming out here, and the ambulance as well as a photographer. You are to stay here on guard until further instructions.”

“Very good, sir. I’ve just remembered something you might like to know. Mr. Garth’s eldest son, Richard, went to America years ago. Folks say he quarrelled with his father when he married Farmer Ashthwaite’s daughter---him over at Greenbeck.”

“Ashthwaite?” queried Layng, standing still and pondering for a moment. Then he inquired, “This eldest son, Richard, has he been back in these parts?”

“Not that I know of,” replied Harding. “He left here before I was born, I believe. The only reason I know about him is that I heard two Gressthwaite farmers talking about Richard Garth only yesterday. I went past Howland’s farm while his sale was on and I looked over the cars parked outside---just in case of any irregularity---and I heard two Gressthwaite chaps talking about the Garths. Funny how it should have cropped up just then.”

“Very funny,” agreed Layng thoughtfully. “You can tell me more about it later. I’ve got to go up to the Hall and get statements now. See to it that you don’t let anyone near this place. What the devil’s that?”

“That” was Jock’s chuckle: a few seconds later his round, red face appeared round the corner of the hull.

“Shot ’im dead, ’e did, goody, goody!” he exclaimed.

“Come here, boy! Who shot him?”

“Mr. Staple shot ’im, shot ’im dead!” cackled Jock. The next instant he had bolted down the old lane past Layng, who gave an exclamation of anger.

“Hi! Come back!” he shouted, but Jock, who had an unexpected turn of speed, had already disappeared down the steep winding lane.

“He’s a natural, sir,” said Harding. “Dotty as they make them. He works for Mr. Ashthwaite at Greenbeck. He can’t even count, or make a mark beside his name, but I’m told he’s clever with beasts and a wonderful milker.—That bit about Mr. Staple now, he’d just have made that up.”

“Would he? Well, we’ll have to see about that later on,” said Layng, and turned away towards the road, intent on reaching Garthmere Hall.

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