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Chapter Six

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« on: July 31, 2023, 08:40:23 am »

WHEN Layng reached Garthmere Hall he went up to the great front door and pealed the heavy bell which hung beside the entrance. He had never been to the Hall before, and he had plenty of time to study the ancient door, set beneath a magnificent Tudor arch. The door was enriched with wrought iron spirals which sprung from the heavy hinges, and it was studded with square-headed bolts. The ancient, weather-beaten oak had its own tale to tell to an antiquarian eye, for it still displayed the bullet scars of Cromwellian days, when the Hall had withstood the siege of the Parliamentarians. Layng was no antiquarian, and the door did not interest him: he only thought what an unconscionable time the inmates took over opening it. There was a rattle of chains and creaking of bolts before the oak swung ponderously back at last: truth to tell it had not been opened for years, for the Garths always used one of the side entrances or else the kitchen door. It was Marion who opened the door. The sound of the clanging bell had startled her---it had not been heard for so long and the deep note seemed to have an ominous significance.

When Layng introduced himself briefly, she looked at him with no friendly eye, saying: “I’m sorry to have kept you so long, but this door is never used now. Will you come in. I am Marion Garth.”

Layng heard the rebuke in her tone and flushed awkwardly as he entered the dusty panelled hall. Marion pushed the creaking door and set her shoulder against it before it would close, and the two were left standing in the shadows.

“We use the other wing of the house. It’s less inconvenient,” she said abruptly, and walked ahead of Layng to a door beneath the great stairway at the back of the hall. She led him to the office and standing in front of him asked: “Whom do you wish to see first? John Staple is waiting---he wants to get back to his own work. Farming has to go on, you know, whatever happens.”

Her voice was abrupt, and Layng felt irritated. Marion had a dignity of her own, and she looked the Superintendent full in the face with an expression which Layng considered aggressive. Quite without justification he suspected her of trying to make him feel small.

“Other things have to go on as well as farming,” he retorted, “and the law is one of them. I will take your statement first, but will you kindly ring and ask for the officer who preceded me here. It is customary to have a witness when a statement is taken.”

She laughed. “The bells in this house are all out of order. If I rang one no one would take any notice. Bell ringing is no part of our routine these days. I will go and fetch your man. He’s in the kitchen.”

She turned swiftly and was through the door before Layng had time to reply. Truth to tell, he was nonplussed. The combination of the great house and Marion’s forthright speech and working clothes struck Layng as an anomaly. He sat down at the desk and waited until Marion returned with the officer. He heard her voice as she came along the echoing passage: “Yes. It’s a huge house. Most of it’s shut up these days. It would take an army of servants to keep it in order and we have no servants left save for an old lady in the kitchen and a child of fourteen who’s a bit weak in the head.”

She came into the room and motioned the officer to a seat with a nod of her head: then, standing with her back to the window, she faced Layng.

“Yes? What do you want to know?”

“Please sit down,” said the Superintendent, notebook before him. “You understand that I am a Superintendent of Police, and that I am conducting an inquiry into your father’s death?”

“Yes.” She uttered the word impatiently, but remained standing.

“I caution you to answer any questions accurately,” continued Layng, “though you can refuse to answer if you wish. Your full name, please.”

“Marion Elizabeth Anne de Lisle Garth. Age forty-five. Born on the tenth of July, 1898. Single. Occupation, farming. Only daughter of Robert John Stanton de Lisle Garth of Garthmere.”

Her voice was steady and impersonal, very clear in diction, and deliberate. Layng wrote swiftly.

“When did you last see the deceased?”

“At midday dinner. We eat at twelve.”

“Did he tell you what he meant to do this afternoon?”

“No. My father did not ever say what he intended to do unless he needed help or wished to make arrangements about the farm work.”

“Do you know what he meant to do?”

“No. I knew there was to be what we call a fox hunt, and he knew it. I assumed that he would go as the hunt was to be on his tenant’s land, but I did not know for certain that he would go.”

“You have not seen him since he left the house after his midday meal?”

“I have not.”

“What were you doing yourself this afternoon?”

“From one o’clock until about half-past three I was helping to lift potatoes. Elizabeth Meldon---our land-worker---drove the tractor and I gathered the potatoes. About half-past three I came back and lifted onions in the garden here.”

“By yourself?”

“By myself.”

“And then?”

“I came in about five o’clock and had tea. Miss Meldon and my brother Charles had tea with me. After that I went out to milk in the shippon: the cows had not been brought in and I went to the fold yard gate to see if Jem was in sight. It was then that the boy Jock rushed up, calling out that someone had been shot in the old hull. At least that was what I think he meant, though he’s difficult to understand. I went to the hull and saw John Staple, who told me that he had found my father’s body. He also advised me not to have the body moved, which was what I wished to do, and he told me to come back home and telephone for the police.”

The deep abrupt voice ceased and Marion stood in silence as Layng muttered: “Thank you,” while he wrote down the gist of her statement. He then asked: “Can you account for your father’s death in any way?”

“No. I can not.”

Layng went on: “Do you know if Mr. Garth had any enemies, or any one who harboured a grudge against him?”

“I don’t know,” replied Marion.

Layng protested: “Come, come, Miss Garth: surely you can say yes or no. It is a plain question; had your father any enemies?”

“I don’t know. If he had, he did not discuss them with me: neither did I discuss him with other people.”

“I will put in your statement that you knew of no enemies nor of any persons holding a grudge against your father,” said Layng. “Will you kindly tell me how many people reside in this house?”

“Seven---not counting my father: my two brothers, Charles and Malcolm, myself, Elizabeth Meldon, Mrs. Moffat and her husband, Bob, and the boy Jem who sleeps in a room over the stables.”

“To your knowledge no enmity existed between any of these people and your father?”

“I don’t know at all,” replied Marion. “I lead a busy life on the farm, and I don’t bother to be introspective over enmities and such like. It all sounds too much like melodrama. We are very plain folk here.”

Layng paused. “Your father has just been shot, Miss Garth, and the circumstances indicate that he was deliberately murdered. I am asking for any assistance you can give in discovering who is the murderer.” Layng paused, but Marion made no reply. She stood very straight and still, her face expressionless. Layng went on: “I think you have another brother—Richard Garth?”

“Yes. He is my eldest brother. He went abroad twenty-five years ago, and I have not seen him since.”

“He quarrelled with your father before he left home?”

“I believe so---twenty-five years ago.”

“Have you heard from him since then?”

“No.”

“Would you say that your father was a quick-tempered man?”

“It’s probable that other people would say so. He was my father, and I was fond of him. You can ask for opinions on that subject elsewhere.”

“Had any person in this house had any dispute with the deceased recently?”

“We always argue to some extent. My father was old-fashioned, and I have tried to persuade him to try more modern farming methods. I don’t know if you call that a dispute.” Marion paused, and then went on: “There was one incident recently which will probably be exaggerated when it is told to you---so you might as well hear of it from me. Yesterday my father and I were in this room, going through some accounts. When he got up he knocked his chair over and it fell against my gun, which was standing in the corner. The gun fell to the floor, and as it fell it went off. That is all. No one was hurt and the whole thing was a stupid accident.”

“I see. Your gun was loaded then?”

“Obviously, since it fired a shot into the wainscot.”

“And the safety catch was off.”

“Apparently---unless the shock of the fall jerked it back.”

“Do you usually bring your gun into the house still loaded?”

“I do not---but everybody is liable to forgetfulness some time.”

“Are you certain the gun was loaded when you left it in that corner?”

“Of course not---otherwise it would not have been left there.”

“Could it have been borrowed by somebody else, and put back loaded?”

“Yes. Any one could have borrowed it, but as we all have our own guns I can’t see the point.”

Layng paused and looked at his watch. “I will go into this point again later, Miss Garth. For the moment all that I want to know about it is where are the guns generally kept?”

“In a small room called the gun-room close to the living-room. There are racks there. You can see them for yourself.”

“Thank you. One last question. Did your father use the shed in which his body was found for any particular purpose?”

“I believe he dumped things there occasionally, when he had something which he didn’t want to carry about with him, and there were some tools and posts in there as well.”

“The fact was generally known?”

“I expect so. It was no secret.”

“Thank you. Will you kindly ask Mr. Staple to come in here now---and I shall want to see the other members of the household later.”

“Very well.” Marion’s voice was quiet and resolute, and she swung out of the room with vigorous but unhurried gait.

Layng sat meditating in silence, but the officer spoke: “She’s a character is Miss Garth. They say she’s a better man than either of her brothers, aye, and a better farmer than the old man was.”

“She’s a hard-looking woman,” observed Layng.

+++

John Staple gave his full name, his address at Lonsghyll Farm, his age as sixty-three, and his occupation as bailiff to Mr. Garth and farmer of ninety-three acres on the Garthmere estate. Then he waited to be questioned.

“When did you last see Mr. Garth alive?” asked Layng.

Staple considered this question and answered at length, “’Twould have been about three o’clock. The guns met at the High Barn, on the brow yonder. It is Mr. Trant’s land---Lawson’s Wood was where we shot. Mr. Trant, he arranged the guns. The wood was beaten from the valley upwards, and the better marksmen were placed where they were likely to get a good shot. Mr. Garth was midway, about fifty yards from me, and some way above me, in the gill.”

“He was there all the time during the shoot?”

“Aye. He left when the third fox was shot---half-past four it would have been.”

“Then you last saw him at half-past four?”

“Nay. ’Twas three o’clock as near as makes no difference. I heard Mr. Trant call to him at the end, ‘That’s about the lot, Mr. Garth,’ he called---but I didn’t see him, because he was above me in the wood and the undergrowth’s thick there.”

“Did he answer when Mr. Trant spoke to him?”

“I didn’t hear him answer. Trant shouted that they’d auction the foxes at High Barn, and after that I went down into the dales. The beaters were around below me, and I saw Mr. Lamb and Mr. Hayman as I went.”

“You’d better tell me exactly who was at the shoot,” said Layng, and Staple, taking his time, gave the following information. The guns had been Mr. Garth himself, Staple, Trant, Martin Lamb of High Fell, Bob Ashthwaite of Greenbeck, James Hayman of Lower Stacks, and Tim Langhorn of Middle Field. The beaters had been the youngsters—Jem Moffat of Garthmere, Matt Briggs of Lonsghyll, Jack Lamb of High Fell, Giles and Peter Hayman of Lower Stacks and Will Langhorn of Middle Field. In addition, Jock had been among the number.

“Jock who?” asked Layng.

“Just Jock. Likely he’s got a name, but I don’t know it. He’s simple, is Jock. He works for Bob Ashthwaite, and I’m told he’s a tidy worker, though he can neither count nor write his name.”

“Ashthwaite----” Layng pondered over the name and then turned quickly back to Staple. “This man Ashthwaite---Mr. Garth took him into court about some arrears of rent.”

“Aye,” agreed Staple stolidly. “Three years ago come Michaelmas that’d be.”

“Does he often come to shoot on Mr. Garth’s land?”

“Not so often---but this wasn’t a pleasure shoot. Mr. Trant wanted these foxes shot, and Bob Ashthwaite’s a good shot. Mr. Trant was free to ask whom he would.”

Again Layng pondered. Then he asked: “Did you see Ashthwaite again after the shoot?”

Staple hesitated; then he replied: “Aye. I saw him in the dales, down by Lawson’s close. After the hunt that was.”

“In the dales, eh? What was he doing there? His place---Greenbeck, that’s over beyond Middle Field, isn’t it? A matter of five miles away.”

“Three, if you take the bridle path over Brough’s land.”

“But the dales are in the opposite direction. What was he doing down there?”

“I didn’t ask. Looking for some strayed cattle, likely. The heifers go mad for the fog grass in the dales in the back end. Good feed that is.”

“Perhaps it is, but have you ever known a heifer stray for five miles?”

“Ay. When they’re bulling they’ll go for miles.”

Layng snorted impatiently---stock raising did not interest him. “Did Ashthwaite say he was looking for strayed cattle?” he demanded.

“Nay. I didn’t ask him.”

“Had he his gun with him?”

“He had. He’d been shooting at the fox hunt.”

“Where was his place during the shoot? Above you or below you?”

“Above. Ashthwaite was at the top of the gill above Mr. Garth. Trant said if one of the foxes diddled all of us, Bob would be safe to stop him.”

“When you went down to the river, did you see Ashthwaite behind you?”

“No.”

“Where was he when you first saw him?”

“By the old thorns, just above the ford.”

“At the bottom of the lane leading down from that shed, eh?”

“Aye. How do you come to know that, Superintendent? That’s Mr. Garth’s land, that is.”

“Never mind how I know. If Ashthwaite had followed Mr. Garth to the shed, he could have reckoned on getting away down along the river without being seen.” Staple made no answer, and Layng went on, “About this boy, Jock. What was it he said when he first saw you standing over Mr. Garth’s body?”

“He said, ‘Tha’s shot him.’”

“Are you sure he didn’t say, ‘He has shot him’?”

“That he did not,” replied Staple, “though it would have been all the same if he had. The boy’s a natural: what he says can no more be relied on than an idiot’s babble.”

Layng was silent for a minute or so, writing very swiftly. Then he said: “Were any other members of this household at the shoot, or fox hunt, or whatever you call it?”

“You’d better ask them. If I’d seen them I should have said so.”

Layng leaned back in his chair. “Do you know anything about Mr. Garth’s eldest son, Richard?”

Staple stared blankly in front of him. “I knew him as a boy and as a lad,” he replied. “He left home close on twenty-five years ago, and I haven’t heard any one name him since.”

“He quarrelled with his father before he left home?”

“Maybe he did. ’Twasn’t my business to inquire.”

“Have you heard any one speak of him lately?”

“Nay. Not for years. Twenty-five years is long enough to forget---and to be forgotten.”

“Now, Mr. Staple,” and Layng faced the other squarely. “Mr. Garth has been shot---murdered so far as appearances can be relied on. Can you make any suggestion as to who had any motive for shooting him?”

“No, Superintendent. I’ve no suggestions to make. I found Mr. Garth, as I told you, lying in the mire in the hull. I don’t know who shot him, though I can tell you straight that I’m not the one who did it. Neither do I believe Bob Ashthwaite did. It doesn’t make sense to nurse a grudge for years and then go and shoot a man on his own land when every one knows you’ve a gun handy.”

Layng paused again. “Did you know that Mr. Garth kept some gear in that shed?”

“In the hull? Aye. I knew that well enough.”

“It was general knowledge? Every one knew?” asked Layng.

“You’d better ask them, Superintendent. It’s not for me to answer for everybody. You’re town-bred, and maybe you don’t know country ways. That hull’s on Mr. Garth’s land, on the home farm. Farmers don’t often go on each other’s land, nor go meddling with gear in other folks’ buildings, be it house or barn or hull.”

“Thanks for the information.” Layng’s voice was sarcastic, though he should have known that it was a mistake to be sarcastic with a man like Staple. The Superintendent went on:

“Perhaps you can answer the question if I put it this way: would every one in this house have known that Mr. Garth kept his gear in the hull?”

“Nay, I can’t tell you. Better ask them yourself,” replied Staple.

Layng was beginning to lose patience. “You’re the Garthmere bailiff, aren’t you? What does that imply?”

“Not that I manage the home farm,” replied Staple in his most stolid voice. “I see about letting the farms if they fall vacant: I collect the rents, I report on repairs and see they’re done if need be---and I see that the tenants keep to their agreements: that they don’t sell oats or hay to be consumed off their land, and that they keep the hedges and gates and ditches in order, and keep the land in good heart.”

There was a pause, a deliberate silence on Layng’s part, and then he asked: “Then it amounts to this: you can give no assistance or make any suggestion in the matter of discovering your master’s murderer?”

Staple sat very still, his grey eyes bright, his face showing more colour than his wont, but his expression did not alter. “There’s no help I can give, for I know nought about it,” he replied, “and as for suggestions, you’ll get no suggestions from me that may put a halter round an innocent man’s neck. You can suggest I shot Mr. Garth, or Bob Ashthwaite shot him, or Jock---and it’d be the devil and all to prove we had no hand in it. I know naught about it, and as God heard me, that’s true.”

+++

Charles Garth was the next to be interviewed by the Superintendent. “Charles Laurence Philip de Lisle Garth, aged forty-seven, late of the Maramula Estate, Malaya, second son of the late Robert Garth. Landed in England in January last.”

Layng made a small deviation from his precise manner of question and answer here.

“You were in Singapore, sir?”

“I was. I left in a Chinese tramp steamer with about a hundred others—one of the last boatloads to escape.”

“It must have been a shocking experience,” observed Layng.

Charles studied him coolly. “Undoubtedly---but it has no bearing on the matter in hand, Superintendent.”

Layng took the implied snubbing quietly, and went on: “All the same, I should be very interested if you would tell me by what route you reached England.”

“Via a nameless atoll in the Java group, where we lay exposed for seven bloody days, then via Java itself, Port Darwin, Sydney, Melbourne, Durban, Cape Town, St. Helena, and Southampton.” Charles studied the police officer with raised eyebrows. “Geography seems to me to be a little wide of the point, if I may say so,” he added. “Correct me if I am wrong.”

Layng mumbled something that sounded like an apology, then cleared his throat and said: “I have been trying to find out what the members of this household were doing during the course of this afternoon, sir. Did you join the shooting party?”

“Meaning the fox hunt? I went to have a look at the arrangements, to see how the guns were posted, but I didn’t stay. It looked a slow business to me---and in point of fact I haven’t got a gun of my own here, and I can’t get on to terms with the antiques I’m offered. I came back here before the shooting began.”

“You were in the house for the rest of the afternoon, then?”

“No. I was not. I was out at the back, in the shippons. As you may have observed, there are farm buildings at the east end of this peculiar house. It’s never made up its mind if it’s a castle or a farm. Actually I was doing some lime-washing in a shippon close by the kitchens.”

“Is there any independent confirmation of that, sir? It will simplify the inquiry if such points can be settled by additional witnesses.”

“Thanks for explaining,” said Charles. “You can ask the old Biddy in the kitchen if she noticed me in the shippons, or thereabouts. She’ll probably complain that each time I came inside the door I spilt lime wash on her damned kitchen flags.”

“Thank you. You were about the place until----?”

“Until tea time, when I came in and had tea with my sister. She went out to milk, and when I followed her, some minutes later, I heard that idiot boy shouting something about the old hull. I went along there and found Staple beside my father’s body.”

“Thank you. I think it will be accepted that Mr. Garth was shot within an hour of Staple’s discovery of the body. The fox hunt broke up about half-past four, I gather, and most of the guns then went to the auction of the foxes at the High Barn. Mr. Staple went down to the river, he tells me. Can you remember hearing any shot between half-past four and half-past five?”

“I shouldn’t have noticed it if I had,” replied Charles. “There had been shooting all the afternoon, and one shot more or less wouldn’t have been noticeable.”

“This would have been one isolated shot.”

“In any case, I didn’t notice it. Actually, I believe Jem Moffat did some potting at rabbits after the hunt was over. He doesn’t often get a chance of being out with a gun and he was enjoying life. Anyway, I didn’t register any particular shot. I just didn’t notice.”

“Can you make any suggestion at all as to who might have held a grudge against Mr. Garth, or been at enmity with him?”

Charles shrugged his shoulders. “No. I can’t,” he said bluntly. “You’ve got to remember that I have only been back at home for a few months, after years spent abroad. I simply don’t understand what might be called feudal politics. Anybody in this district will tell you that my father was a hard man; some call him mean, and every one knows he was obstinate, but I believe he was generally respected. He was over eighty, but he still took his share in the farm work, and believe me, he worked without sparing himself---and expected others to do the same. You can say if you like that he was a harsh old curmudgeon, always ready to abuse others, but to get him into focus you’ve got to remember his age and his position. He may have been a tyrant, both to his own family and to his tenants, but he’s been the same for sixty years, I gather.” Charles paused, and added at length: “No. I can’t help you. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Layng turned back a page or two in his notebook, and then said: “Miss Garth tells me that there was some sort of accident with a gun yesterday---a gun was knocked over and went off unexpectedly.”

“Yes,” said Charles, looking the other full in the face. “You say my sister has told you about it---so you know as much as there is to know. I wasn’t in the room when it happened---but even if I had been, it’s not likely that my description of the matter would deviate from my sister’s. It might help you in your researches if you get it firmly into your head that my sister is not only an accurate person, she’s a strictly truthful one also.”

Layng flushed a little and replied stiffly: “I had no suggestion to the contrary. As I explained before, we always try to get corroboration of evidence where possible. Were you in the house when this accident happened?”

“I was---and I came running to this room when I heard the shot. What had happened was plain enough. My father, who is---or was---an impatient man, had pushed his chair back in such a manner as to knock over the table against which the gun had rested. In falling, the gun had gone off. My father was furious over it—as any other man would be furious if a gun had gone off under his nose. He was swearing like a trooper. However, you will find out on inquiry that his rage soon evaporated. He and my sister spent the afternoon together assisting a heifer with its first calf. His rages were soon over---that was one of his outstanding characteristics.”

“Thank you,” said Layng. “In conclusion I ask you again---have you any suggestion to offer which may help the course of this inquiry?”

“I’m sorry, but I have no suggestion at all to make,” replied Charles. “As I observed before---the thing doesn’t make sense---that’s as near a suggestion as I care to get.”

Layng laid down his pen and studied the other deliberately. “I don’t quite gather what you mean, sir,” he said. “Are you implying that the murder was the work of an idiot---a mental defective, in fact?”

“Possibly,” said Charles. “It’s not for me to make assumptions. That’s your province.”

Layng glanced down at his papers. “You have an elder brother,” he observed. Charles waited for the Superintendent to go on. “When did you last see him?”

Charles hitched an eyebrow---a habit of his.

“When did I last see Richard?” He seemed to ask the question of himself. “Sometime early in 1919. I can’t tell you the exact date.”

“When did you last hear news of him?”

“Later in the same year---1919. I heard that he and his wife went to Canada. In 1920 I went out to Malaya, and I heard from my sister a few years later that Richard had lost his wife. Since then I have heard nothing of him---and neither has any one else in these parts, so far as I know.”

“He quarrelled with your father before he went away?”

“I believe he did---but your detection seems a bit hoary to me, Superintendent. Tell me, how much do you remember of your own quarrels of twenty-five years ago? Are you prepared to commit murder on motives a quarter of a century old? Once again, to use my previous expression, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

“And you have no sensible suggestion of your own to offer?”

Charles merely chuckled at the sarcastic tone. “None whatever, Superintendent. Don’t think I’m frivolous. I’m not. I take things seriously. If I could help you, I would.”

“Thank you, sir. Now might I see your younger brother, Mr. Malcolm Garth.”

“My half-brother. He’s not in the house at the moment and I don’t know where he is. He often goes out on his own and we expect him when we see him.”

“Then I will see Mrs. Moffat next.”

“Right. I’ll send her in to you.”

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