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Chapter Seven

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« on: July 31, 2023, 10:38:25 am »

IT was after sunset before the Superintendent left Garthmere Hall, but Malcolm Garth had not yet returned home. Marion had said that he had probably gone up to the fells to see his bee-hives which had been taken up for the bees to collect the heather honey. “He often comes back late because he’s a poor walker and gets tired easily,” she told Layng. “When he gets up there as likely as not he’ll go to sleep in the heather. I’ve often known him do it.”

“Does he take a gun with him?”

“Goodness, no! Malcolm loathes guns. He’s like a gun-shy dog. He probably cleared out this afternoon because he dislikes the noise the guns make at the fox hunt. Malcolm’s like that. He never shoots. I doubt if he knows how to load a gun even.”

Layng pondered over this and other things he had heard at Garthmere as he got into his car and started on his way back to Carnton. He was conscious of a sense of irritation, a feeling that he had not done as well as he had hoped to do. When he had set out it had been with a feeling, “Here is my chance. I’ve been waiting for an important case and now I’ve got it.” Had he but known it, the very urgency of his ambition to do well and get results quickly had been responsible for the resultant sense of frustration. He had tried to go quickly when he should have fitted in to the slower temper of those he questioned. He thought of Mrs. Moffat, and dismissed her with an irritable exclamation of “old fool.” The fact was that Mrs. Moffat had been frightened, and the result of Layng’s sharp manner and abrupt speech had been to frighten her further into obstinate silence. When questioned in detail she got confused and had tended to contradict herself, parrying the Superintendent’s question with “I couldn’t be sure like.” True, she admitted that she had gone running to the office yesterday, when she heard a gun shot in the house, but her description of the incident had been hopelessly confused. First she had said that Charles and Malcolm had been in the office with Marion, then she had said that only old Mr. Garth was in the office—“swearing like.” Layng had next tried to question Janey, the fourteen-year-old maid, but the only result was a flood of tears. Mrs. Moffat had been called in again to assist, and had kept on reiterating “Her’s a weeper. Comes over her if you’re sharp-like.” Layng had felt exasperated, and thinking back to the ignominious scene he swore to himself over the time he had wasted with a half-wit. He turned sharply to Harding who was driving him.

“Get a move on. There’s no thirty mile limit here.”

Harding accelerated, and a moment later checked the “Damn it” which was half-uttered as some cattle ran unexpectedly out of a gate on his left. He rammed on his brakes and the car slewed on the dungy surface of the road and hit one of the beasts so that it fell sprawling on the road.

“Blast the fools!” exclaimed Layng, and Harding said:

“Someone’s left that gate open. Those are Mr. Garth’s stirks, quite a bunch he’s got. I’d better see if that poor beast’s hurt.”

He got out, and as he did so a tow-headed, red-faced boy appeared grinning at the gate.

“Tha’s shot ’im! Goody, goody!” he exclaimed. Harding made a lunge at him.

“Here, you young limb! What did you open that gate for?”

Jock feinted and leapt clear of the threatening hand, uttering a burst of raucous laughter as he bolted along the field inside the hedge.

“Here, go after him and bring him to me,” shouted Layng, and Harding went into the field in pursuit. While Layng sat waiting in the car a man came up from behind him and began to drive the scattered stirks into a bunch. The newcomer called to Layng with little respect:

“Hey, you! Happen you’ve let the beasts out on the road through leaving yon gate open, you’d better come and drive them in again.”

“I didn’t leave the gate open. Drive them in yourself,” retorted Layng, sitting obstinately in his place, but feeling a fool nevertheless. The stirks were excited and unmanageable and started playing hide and seek round the car. When at last they were persuaded to turn into the open gate, proceedings were upset by the reappearance of Harding, who puffed red-faced up to the gate just as the cattle were poking their noses towards the field. Harding’s appearance made them bolt again and the farmer who was trying to drive them into safety swore lustily. “Darn you---police or no police, haven’t you got any sense?” he roared.

Harding promptly began to assist in collecting the scattered cattle, and eventually they were herded into the field and the gate was closed. Layng, his face more sardonic than ever, looked at his chauffeur.

“Who was that?” he inquired, nodding towards the roughly-clad figure of the man who had been herding the stirks. “Is he one of the Garthmere labourers?”

“Him? Gum, no!” exclaimed Harding, who was still startled out of his official stolidity. “That’s Mr. Lamb of High Fell. Farms nigh on two hundred acres. He’s well thought of hereabouts.”

Harding’s tone was a reminder to Layng---if he needed one---that he had made another mistake. He had forgotten the fact that the farmers hereabouts thought nothing of ancient clothes, dung-laden boots, and scarecrow hats. It would have been better to have been friendly to Mr. Lamb of High Fell. Layng turned on Harding: “And that half-wit you went after? You let him get away, I suppose?”

Harding nodded, very red in the face. “Yes, sir. Yon lad’s a racer---and a twister, too. He just disappeared.”

“Oh, all right. Go on---and don’t hit anything else,” snapped Layng.

Harding drove in resentful silence, and Layng sat back and pondered bitterly over his case. Mr. Garth had been shot---and to Layng’s resentful mind it seemed that the old man had chosen to get himself shot on the very day of all others which made discovery of the culprit most difficult. Every farmer in the district had been out with a gun. Layng enumerated them to himself as the car went smoothly on; nothing like memorising all the contacts in the case, he thought. Lamb of High Fell, Staple of Lonsghyll, Trant of Blackthorn, Hayman of Lower Stacks, Langhorn of Middle Field, Brough of Farrintake, Ashthwaite of Greenbeck; in addition to these had been the beaters, some of whom had guns, like Jem Moffat of Garthmere. Any one of them might have done it, thought Layng to himself, and how to prove which one might be a proper teaser. His mind then reverted to the Garth family themselves. “A rum lot,” was Layng’s reaction. Somehow he didn’t trust them, and admittedly he found them hard to deal with. Marion and Charles, for instance, both clad in working clothes, both bearing the mud and muck and stink of a farmyard about them, and yet each having a poise and arrogance which conveyed little respect for an urban Police Superintendent. “Garths of Garthmere---it still means summat”---so old Moffat had coolly told Layng. “Garths---ay, they came to these parts with Roger of Poitou”---where had he heard that? “Norman blood---bunk,” said Layng to himself. “I’ll give them summat.” What was Malcolm Garth doing?---and what about the Richard Garth who had quarrelled with his father twenty-five years ago and had gone to Canada? Layng thought again of the twenty-five cent piece he had picked up in the hull. He turned to Harding. “What was that you were saying about some of the farmers discussing Richard Garth the other day?”

Harding looked blank: he had been nettled by the Superintendent’s intransigence over the matter of the straying cattle and the pursuit of Jock, and, to put the matter in his own words, “he wasn’t feeling chatty.”

“Someone happened to mention him, just by way of talking about the family,” said Harding. “’Twasn’t nothing in particular. Just mentioned there was an older son who’d been abroad don’t-know-how-many-years.”

As it happened they had just reached a road junction, and an Army convoy was proceeding along it in the direction of Kirby. Harding concentrated almost obtrusively on his driving, observing due care and attention with great assiduity in solemn silence. Layng gave him one look and forbore to question him further. When they had reached their headquarters in Carnton, the Superintendent said to Harding:

“You are to go back to Greenbeck---Ashthwaite’s place, and find that idiot boy and bring him back to be questioned. That quite clear?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Harding glumly.

+++

Shortly after Layng had left Garthmere, old Bob Moffat repaired to the shippon where Bluebell was still tied up, convalescing after her recent difficult calving. Bob had once said to Elizabeth Meldon, “Aye, a cow’s company like,” and on the present occasion when feelings ran too deep for words and even Bob’s own wife could not gauge the depth of his emotional disturbance, Bob made for the shippon to commune with the always understanding but unobtrusive Bluebell. He patted her vast flanks and the creature turned her head and curled out her long tongue to caress his dung-sodden coat. “Mm, mm, mm,” she murmured comfortably, and “Cusha lass” growled Bob as he leant against her solid flanks and felt for his empty pipe. He was still standing thus, cow and man both ruminating in comfortable understanding, when Martin Lamb of High Fell appeared at the open door of the shippon and leaned leisurely against the door post.

“Well Bob,” he said. “’Tis a sorry mess.”

Bob Moffat grunted in melancholy agreement. “Aye,” he said, “that be a sorry mess, that be.”

Martin Lamb hitched himself more firmly against the angle stones of the old building. “Whiles we were shooting foxes, someone else had their own shoot like,” he said, “but who ’twas, dang it if I know. I’ve thought, but ’tisn’t likely----”

“Beats me to say,” said Bob.

They fell silent in the manner of countrymen, an acquiescent sympathetic silence, comfortable to both. Lamb pulled out his baggy pouch and offered it to Bob, who was still leaning against Bluebell’s flanks, his elbow on her neck. He filled his pipe with a gruff, “Thank y’, Mr. Lamb,” and at last got on to the epitaph which had been struggling to formulate itself in words.

“There been times when I’ve been main vexed with the old master,” he said, “but he weren’t so bad to get on with when you got to know him. Aye, he was a good master and I’m main sorry to see him go by sich a road.”

“Aye, ’tis a sorry mess,” reiterated Mr. Lamb, “and tell you what, Bob, no disrespect meant, ’tis a rum go, too. Happen it’ll take more wits than that ower smart policeman in his swell motor-car to see to the bottom of this.”

Bob spat---a firm, judicial yet comminatory spit, and Bluebell hiccoughed as though in sympathy.

“’Im?” he inquired. “Daft, I call ’im. Frightened our young girl till she was silly like and upset my misses so she mixed the beastings with the cream. Wants to make out we shot ’im ’ere---one of us in this house. What d’you make of that, Mr. Lamb?---one of us in this very house.”

The unaccustomed effort of so long a speech made Bob sweat freely, but he stuck to it manfully, waving a gnarled, wrinkled hand in emphasis. “Times was the master made me that mad I could’ve shot him myself,” he declared, “but see here. Thirty years I’ve worked for Mr. Garth and not shot ’im. Stands to reason I wouldn’t go and do it now all foolish like, with t’harvest in, and all fit for the ploughing again. Daft, I says.”

“Aye. That’s right that is,” agreed Mr. Lamb, who was able to appreciate this rural reasoning. “Tell you what. I was up the road just now, and them stirks of yours was all over the road, the gate being open. The Superintendent, he sits in his car like any lord. ‘You come and help drive ’em in,’ I said, ‘seeing you left the gate open.’ ‘Drive ’em in yourself,’ he says. Can you beat that---and the beasts all over the road? ‘Drive ’em in yourself,’ he says.”

“Aye. Reckon he would,” said Bob. “Is them stirks all right, Mr. Lamb, thanking you kindly for looking to them. Fourteen there was in Cruft’s intak.”

“Aye, fourteen I made it. Happen you’d better go and look them over yourself, Bob. Now it so happened I saw young Jock up there, running like the devil and all, with a policeman after him. How’d that be, Bob?”

“Nay, Mr. Lamb. ’Twon’t do. Jock, he can scythe proaper, and he can strip a cow, and the ewes trust ’im like he was one o’ themselves, but Jock don’t know t’other end from which when it comes to a gun or such like. He’s good with beasts and he can mow a tidy swathe, but ’e’ll muck up any gear ’e tries to ’andle. Silly like.”

Mr. Lamb nodded. This was an expert opinion and he accepted it.

“Ashthwaite?” he murmured, and Bob looked at him in rather shocked silence. This was being almost too explicit for a cautious mind. At length Bob gave judgment, though he preserved a decent anonymity.

“If so be as shooting was in ’is mind, he had cause to shoot twenty-five years past. Aye, and he had cause, maybe, three years come Lady Day, for he had to shell out more’n was reasonable. Hot blood, that was, aye, and he’d reason. But to let that pass, and do’t in cold blood. Nay. I wouldn’t swallow it.”

“But someone did it, Bob.”

The old man shifted his ground a little, and Bluebell flicked her tail and tried to turn round.

“Steady, lass,” grumbled Bob, ramming his weight against the cow. “Aye, someone did it, and ’twas a stranger, I reckon. Someone from furrin parts. No one in our house, nor in our village, neither. ’Tain’t raisonable.”

“Then ’twould have been some stranger who had a gey girt reason for coming here to do’t,” said Lamb, and Bob nodded.

“Aye. That’s right,” he affirmed, and then added, “And I’ll tell y’what, Mr. Lamb. I was sorry to see the old master go, but I’ll be mighty glad when that there Superintendent goes where he belongs, aye, and stays there, too.”

+++

As was to be expected, the Garth Arms was unusually full that evening. By nine o’clock the small bar was crowded to capacity, and the landlord---one Nathaniel Barrows, was anxious lest his limited supply of beer should prove inadequate to this important occasion. All the farmers on the Garthmere estate came in during the course of the evening with the exception of John Staple. His absence was much regretted by the company, who had hoped to get some first-hand information from him concerning the local tragedy.

A certain formality was observed during the course of the evening. Mr. Trant of Blackthorn was, by common consent, allowed to be leader of the conversation. For one thing, he was one of the oldest tenants in the sense that his family had farmed Garthmere land for generations, and the fact that he had organised the fox hunt which had been the prelude to the tragedy lent further reason to his unofficial “chairmanship.” Mr. Trant was one of the first farmers to put in an appearance; shortly he was followed by James Hayman of Lower Stacks and Peter Brough of Farrintake. Each of these uttered a sedate “Good evening, Mr. Trant,” while the farm labourers left the counter and stood respectfully against the walls. A couple more farmers from the higher fell district came next, and then Martin Lamb of High Fell came in and made proceedings more intimate by his “’evening, James; ’evening, Pete; ’evening William.” There was a murmur of “’Tis bad news”; “Aye, a heavy day”; “’Tis hard to believe”; and “I can’t think of him gone” as glasses were filled. Then, by common consent, William Trant was listened to in respectful silence. He spoke slowly, expressing the thoughts in the minds of all, achieving a simple dignity in his homely speech by very sincerity.

“Twenty-five years gone this midsummer; when my old dad died, I went to Mr. Garth and said to him, ‘You’ll be agreeable to me taking over the tenancy and farming Blackthorn, Mr. Garth?’ and he answered, ‘Aye, you take over, William. Your father was a tidy farmer and he served the land well, and I can trust you to do the same. You deal straight by me and I’ll deal straight by you.’ Reckon he did, too. Hard he might be, and gave me the rough side of his tongue often enow, but I knew where I was with him. Aye. He was straight, and he’d have no fancy dealing.”

There was a gruff murmur of assent, and Trant took a good pull at his tankard of beer before continuing. “Mark you, I knew him years afore my old dad died. I was no but a nipper when Mr. Garth inherited at the Hall, and I remember my folks talking on’t. ‘A bad heritage, debts, mortgage, and neglect,’ they said. ’Twas said the Hall itself was mortgaged before Madman Garth as they called him, drank himself into his grave. He had a rough row to hoe had Mr. Robert Garth, and he didn’t spare himself. These forty years he’s toiled, good years and bad years---and some on you know that dun’a’ many years have been mortal bad for farming---and I reckon he cleared debts and mortgage alike. No wonder he was hard---aye, he had to be hard to do what he did.”

“Aye, that’s right, Will.” Mr. Lamb spoke heartily. “He was a wun’nerful old man, too. This very harvest I seen him tossing hattocks up as sweet and clean as may be, always just where they should ha’ been, and it’s not many men past eighty can hope to do that. Aye, he was a good judge of sheep, too, and he could clip a ewe as neat as any shepherd. But hard---aye, hard as flint he was. Once he’d made up his mind nought could move him.”

Again there was a general murmur of assent, and at length Langhorn of Middle Field broke fresh ground.

“Nigh on half a century he’s farmed at Garthmere; he took the home farm on when the pastures was nought but bull-toppings and thistles and scarce a decent bite o’ grass in the lot---and as for the meadows, they wear sour right through. Now it’s a different story. A very pretty crop of hay he lifted this summer. Now who’ll be farming Garthmere from now on, Mr. Lamb? Who takes over?”

There was a general movement and a murmur of voices, and it was evident that the topic thus boldly mooted was in the minds of many. Martin Lamb tilted his old bowler forward and scratched the back of his head, and at last he said: “That’s hard to say. Richard Garth is heir---he’s the eldest son, but who’s to say where he is now? ’Tisn’t even known if he’s alive, I’m told. The lawyers, they’ll have to advertise like, and I doubt if this here war will make it any easier. For the moment, I reckon Miss Marion will carry on. She’s a good farmer, is Marion, and she knows the land. Garthmere won’t lose nought if she manages it for a season. She knows her tenants, too, and she’s reasonable. Meets your fair.”

“Aye, and she’ll lend a hand when she can,” agreed Langhorn. “It was Miss Marion offered to help Staple cart his last bit of oats just before the river rose.”

“And her father helped, too, tho’ he’d done a man’s day in his own fields already,” said Martin Lamb. “That’s neighbourliness, that is.”

“Aye, she’s a proper good sort---but she’s not heir,” objected Langhorn, and Mr. Brough of Farrintake said simply:

“More’s the pity. Richard Garth’s been away too long, and as for Charles----” Mr. Brough scratched his head to find a suitable expression, and then he said: “Charles Garth now, he’s what I’d call a watch and chain man, if you take me---he’s no worker.”

A rumbled, subdued laughter greeted this effort, and a general murmur of agreement indicated that Brough had hit the nail on the head.

“Been out in furrin parts with gangs of lackeys to wait on him, I reckon,” said Giles Hayman from his place by the wall. “I met him on the road one day when he was having trouble with Jessie, the ould mare, who’s as quiet as any lamb. Got his load right athwart t’road, he had. ‘Boy,’ he shouts at me, ‘shove behind this outfit,’ he says. I just gave ould Jessie a chance and she righted t’cart in two twos. As for ’im---I didn’t waste no words on him.”

“Aye, that’s right! ‘Boy this’ and ‘boy that,’ he says,” agreed young Matt Briggs. Giles Hayman nudged him to indicate that silence on their parts was indicated again as Mr. Trant raised his voice.

“I’d like to say this,” he began. “If Miss Marion carries on---as she’s sure to do---until things is settled, reckon we’ll help her where we can and stand by her---and play fair by her as we’ve played fair by her father.”

“Aye, that’s right,” murmured several voices and Martin Lamb allowed himself a chuckle.

“Reckon if you don’t play fair by Miss Marion you won’t get no further than you would have done with her dad. She’s got all her buttons on.”

+++

At closing time the landlord, Nathaniel Barrows, murmured a word or two in the ear of Mr. Trant and Mr. Lamb, indicating that Mrs. Barrows would be happy to have a word with them in the parlour if they could spare her a moment. This was a formula, well understood between them, indicating that the talk could be continued between the principals, as it were, in the landlord’s private quarters after the house was closed. In short, the meeting went into committee, the latter consisting of three old cronies, Nathaniel Barrows, Martin Lamb, and William Trant. The two farmers were both big men, but they looked older than their years, respectively fifty-eight and sixty-one. Their shoulders were bent, their hair grey and their faces furrowed. Nathaniel was also tall, but he was stout and rubicund, his bald head having a spare fringe of reddish hair just above his collar.

There was a pleasant fire in the parlour, and Mrs. Barrows was officiating with a kettle and glasses.

“I’m sorry there’s no lemon, Mr. Lamb,” she said, uttering words familiar to all during this ritual, “but otherwise I think you’ll find it to your liking---and you too, Mr. Trant.” Having thus vindicated Nathaniel’s truthfulness, Mrs. Barrows tactfully retired.

It was Martin Lamb who came to business first, glass in hand.

“I don’t like it, Will,” he said---and it was not to his hot toddy that he alluded.

Trant nodded. “Aye,” he said lugubriously.

“What’s this they’re saying about Ashthwaite? Did you name the fox hunt to him, Martin?---because I didn’t.”

“That I did not,” replied Lamb. “Seeing how things was I shouldn’t have expected Ashthwaite to come shooting where he’d see Mr. Garth for certain. Let sleeping dogs lie, I say. Nay, ’twas a surprise to me when I saw him there.”

“He’d never have come---for that----” said Trant unhappily. “’Tain’t sense. If he’d wanted to do that, why he could have done it any day and never been noticed. Mr. Garth was always about on the farm.”

“If he’d been so minded, he could have done it at the fox hunt. Dang it, by gum!” Lamb shouted, as though a great light had dawned on him, “that settles this nonsense about Bob Ashthwaite! If he’d wanted to shoot Mr. Garth he could have done it at the fox hunt, and no one any the wiser. Bob was above Mr. Garth and behind him, and there was others up there too, watching, some of them was. Brough was up at the top with his gun, and now I come to think of it old Joe Harrison potted a rabbit that bolted up the gill. Now if Ashthwaite had wanted to do that job, reckon he could’ve done it safely. He’s a dead shot---and who was to know what gun the shot came from?”

“Aye. I see that,” said Mr. Trant. “Come to think of it, I’m glad he didn’t. ’Twould have been a gey bad job at the hunt and all.”

“That ’twould---but Will, if so be as Ashthwaite didn’t do it---and I can’t see that he did, well then---who did?”

“Dang it if I know,” said Mr. Trant, and then Nathaniel Barrows took his turn.

“If you’ll pardon me, Mr. Trant, there was something I wanted to tell you.” He lowered his voice and leant forward. “I don’t like gossip,” he said, “and you’ll bear me out when I say I’ve never stood for any mischievous chatter in my bar. There’s summat I’ve heard which it’s right you two should hear, knowing I can trust you not to let it go any further if you don’t think fit.” He paused and leaned still closer towards the other two.

“You mind old Hodges at the Wheatsheaf over by Ingleton, Mr. Trant? He’s an old friend of mine, and we meet and have a word now and then. I saw him in Kirby market the day before yesterday, and he told me he’d had a chap putting up for the night last Wednesday. You know how visitors has to register their names these days---that’s a police regulation, that is. The chap I’m talking of registered his name as Richard Garth, Merchant Navy.”

The effect of the landlord’s words was electrical. Martin Lamb, who seldom took the name of the Lord in vain, exclaimed: “God a’mighty!” as he slammed his glass down on the table, and William Trant groaned aloud.

“Deary me----” he said; “deary, deary me---- I don’t like it, Nat, I don’t like it.”

“That’s just it,” said the landlord. “I feel fair moithered, Mr. Trant. ’Twas the first thing jumped to my mind when I heard the news about old Mr. Garth. They quarrelled bitter, those two, and it’s the first time I’ve heard of Richard Garth being home in all these years---and that’s happened. Now what I want to know is this---what’s my duty? Ought I to tell the police?”

There was a dead silence, and at length Trant said slowly: “I mind Richard Garth as a lad: I taught him to throw a cast and set a snare; aye, I taught him to shoot, too. Many’s the time that lad came and tried his hand at potting rabbits in my roughs. I liked Richard, and I grieved when his dad treated him so hard over his marriage. Mary Ashthwaite was a right good lass. I’d find it hard to believe that Richard Garth did a thing like this. Shooting his own father? Why, ’tis against nature.”

“Are you sure it’s the same Richard Garth?” inquired Martin Lamb. “Maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“I taxed ould Hodges with that when he named it to me,” replied the landlord. “He said the chap was getting on---nearing fifty may be, a hefty fellow and he’d the look of our old man here. Hodges tried to have a word with his visitor, but he was a close kind o’ man and had nought much to say.”

Martin Lamb, whose mind was more inquiring than Trant’s, then asked: "How long did he stay and how did he leave? Did he ask about buses and trains?”

“Nay. He left afoot, saying he was hiking a bit; left early, as soon as ever he’d put away some breakfast---and that was the last Hodges saw of him---or heard, either.”

“Eh---but that looks as though he didn’t come near these parts,” said Lamb shrewdly. “If so be he’d walked this way he’d have come by way of Burton, and Melling likely, and many’s the folks who might have noticed him, he being a stranger and yet favouring the Garths. ’Tis likely he went on into Yorkshire.”

“Maybe he did, but that’s nought to do with our problem,” said Trant unhappily. “Is it our duty to tell the police about this?”

There was a lengthy silence. At last Martin Lamb spoke.

“I see it like this, Will. We’ve no proof the man was our Richard: we don’t know he came this way, and we don’t believe he’d have shot his dad. Let the police do their own job. I say---say nowt. Least said’s soonest mended.”

“Aye. Reckon you’re right. We’ll say nowt,” agreed Trant, and the trio lifted their glasses with deep sighs of relief.

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