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Chapter Nine

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« on: July 31, 2023, 11:49:02 am »

IT had been on Monday, September 20th, that Staple saw Richard Garth on the fell side. On the following Thursday, the 23rd, the fox hunt had occurred and old Mr. Garth had been shot. Major Havers had his way over arrangements for the Inquest, which had been a brief, colourless affair, in which only the actual evidence of identity, death, and discovery had been taken before a prompt adjournment “pending further investigations.” Meantime, the Commissioner’s Office had agreed to send a C.I.D. man to take over the investigation.

Thus it came about that on a fine, clear September afternoon Chief Inspector Macdonald, C.I.D., arrived at Lancaster station---choosing that route in preference to the more indirect and tiresome journey to Carnton. A police car met him at the station, and Layng greeted him somewhat gloomily.

“I’m sorry we had to bring you away from London to deal with our hayseeds up here,” said Layng, and Macdonald replied: “Very kind of you, but I don’t look at it that way. I’ve often been through Lancaster, but I’ve never really seen the place. I like your castle.”

Layng grunted noncommittally, and as they turned over the bridge Macdonald leant forward to study the grand profile of castle and parish church, clear-cut against the sky high above the River Lune, reflecting that it was the best thing in the way of a view which he had seen since he was last up north. Edinburgh, Stirling, Durham----Lancaster was not so tremendous as these but more impressive than anything in the south to his mind. He glanced at Layng, tempted to ask him if he quoted “Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster” when he saw the castle---or if he carefully avoided those famous lines. Seeing Layng’s expression, Macdonald said nothing. Layng broke the silence.

“The case in question doesn’t concern Lancaster,” he explained. “Garthmere is miles out in the country---the back of beyond.”

“Good,” said Macdonald. “I shall enjoy pitting my wits against the farmers. The folk in your valley resemble my own folk over the border, I expect. They’re clannish, suspicious of southerners, and slow to answer questions.”

“Slow,” groaned Layng. “You’ve said it. I’m town bred, and these rustics try my patience. I’ve got a full report ready for you, of course, but if you’d like to have an outline of the case verbatim, I’ll start straight away.”

“Do,” replied Macdonald cordially. “That will probably help me more than the official report. You can convey things in words which you could never put into a report. Hunches aren’t evidence---but they’re often quite as valuable.”

“The trouble is I’ve got too many hunches,” said Layng, with a glance at the long-jawed, dark-haired fellow beside him. “Decent sort of chap,” the Superintendent thought. “Not condescending, anyway.”

With a feeling of relief because he sensed fellow-feeling in the man beside him, Layng told his tale. He did it well, having a gift of orderly narrative which placed events in their right sequence and did not over-emphasise his own opinions.

At one point in his narrative, Macdonald nearly interrupted the Superintendent. This was when they had breasted the hills north-east of Lancaster and saw before them the whole stretch of the Pennine Chain, with Ingleborough like a titanic lion couchant clear-cut against a wind-swept sky, and the sun-flecked shoulder of Pen-y-gwynt beyond. Macdonald loved hill country, and the wide prospect in front of him roused keen delight in his mind.

“Hoi---stop just a minute and let me take this in,” he exclaimed.

Layng, quite uninterested in hills, assumed that the Chief Inspector had missed his last point: “the boy could hardly have owned a gun,” he repeated, and continued talking. Harding, who was driving---and listening---slowed up and cast a quick glance over his shoulder. “Ingleborough,” he said---and Macdonald chuckled silently.

When they arrived at Carnton, Macdonald found Major Havers awaiting him.

“Glad to see you, Chief Inspector, glad to see you! You probably wonder why it is that we country bumpkins say we’ve got too much to do. I expect you think life up here is pretty leisurely in comparison with town---it’s all this extra inspection due to agricultural and marketing regulations. Small things, I know, but we can’t let ’em slide. I thought if we were going to ask your department to take over we’d better call you in at once.”

Macdonald replied courteously, but Layng observed the way in which the C.I.D. man checked Havers’s garrulity and kept to his point. Macdonald pocketed Layng’s report, produced an Ordnance Survey map of six inches to the mile which he had already studied, and asked Layng to underline all the strategic points for him. He then said:

“There’s still a couple of hours of daylight. Can you lend me a push bike? If so, I should like to put it on the back of the car and Harding can drive me to the approaches of Garthmere---the pointer on the main road would do---and I can find my way about. Is there any inn within a mile or so of Garthmere where I could get put up?”

Havers contested all these points: the Chief Inspector could have the car, he could put up at the Carnton hotel, he could----Very politely Macdonald kept to his point, and shortly he was in the car with Harding again, having booked a room by telephone at the Green Dragon, a good inn some two miles from Garthmere on the main road.

“I can leave my suitcase here and take the haversack,” he said. “That will leave me quite mobile, as they say nowadays.”

While Harding was driving him, Macdonald spent his time studying the big map, sitting in the back of the car asking questions at intervals.

Harding pulled up at the signpost which pointed to Garthmere, and helped Macdonald untie the bike from the back of the car.

“Lucky the signposts are back again, sir. It saves a lot of trouble. We’ve got them all back hereabouts.”

“More than we have in the south,” replied Macdonald. “Thanks very much and good evening to you.”

The Chief Inspector mounted his bike with a keen sense of pleasure. This was one of detection’s good hours. Free from streets and crowds, free from the smell of petrol, free from the sound of planes, so predominant in the southern counties, free to enjoy the keen sweet air and the silence of this sparsely populated hill country---Macdonald whistled as he spun down hill, and continued whistling as he pushed his bike up the opposite rise. On the breast of the hill he paused to survey his surroundings.

The low stone walls and occasional ancient thorn trees which edged the road did not interrupt the view. Macdonald’s road ran parallel with the river valley, halfway up the scarp. A mile in front of him he could see Garthmere Hall, set on a level stretch some two hundred feet above the river. Above the great house and its outlying farm buildings the ground rose again to the crest of the fells, five hundred feet above sea-level. The pastures on either side of the road were known as “intaks”—Harding had provided this information; “intakes” from the fell, brought into cultivation throughout centuries of farming. Below and beyond the Hall, separated from it by a stretch of park land, the village stood just above the river. At intervals in the valley were patches of woodland, the trees lining the gills or watercourses, whose becks (Macdonald called them burns until he was corrected) ran down to join the Lune. The river was still high, and its shining curves wound in serpentine fashion westwards towards the sea.

The Chief Inspector remounted his bike and rode on towards Garthmere. Half a mile farther on, the road forked, the higher right fork being the major section. The left fork, which dropped down to another gill, led to Garthmere Hall, and it was by this smaller road that the old hull stood, and the lane ran down to the river. Every barn and farm building was marked on the Ordnance Survey, and Macdonald picked out the High Barn where the foxes had been auctioned. This stood in a field on the higher road fork, and it was obvious that no one going from the High Barn would have needed to use the lower road fork unless they wanted to go to Garthmere Hall itself. Macdonald knew enough about farmers to realise their reluctance to trespass on other farmers’ land, and though the old lane was marked as a public path on the survey map it ran exclusively through the Garthmere Home Farm.

Macdonald jumped down the small bank at the roadside and considered the hull, opening the door and observing its muddy interior. He agreed with Layng’s observation: there was a probability amounting to a certainty that the murderer had crouched in the far corner of the dark little interior, and shot immediately the old man opened the door. The murderer would then have stepped over the body of his victim and have taken one of three routes: either by the road Macdonald had just traversed---at any rate as far as the fork---or by the old lane down to the valley, or by the road leading on to Garthmere Hall.

Macdonald decided to go down the old lane to the river. After one glance at its muddy depth---surface was a misnomer---he propped his bike against the hull and set off down hill on foot. This lane was obviously used for the passage of cattle up and down from the valley pastures, and it was sunk between banks in which gnarled old thorn trees leant from the prevailing west wind. The lane emerged into a pasture just above the river, where inquisitive bullocks followed at Macdonald’s heels, as though intent on detecting a detective. From the time he had left Harding and the car, Macdonald had met no one and seen no one, but a dog gave a short bark as he reached the river bank, and he saw a stocky, square-shouldered man approaching him. Seeing the man’s age, and remembering Layng’s comments on the Garthmere folk, Macdonald made a guess at the identity of the man on the Home Farm pastures. This was probably Staple, the bailiff. Macdonald bade him good evening, adding that as the old lane was marked on the Ordnance Survey map, he hoped he had not been trespassing. The other regarded him with shrewd eyes.

“Aye, it’s a public road, if you like to call it a road, but few people use it. The fields are cleaner going.”

“Aye,” Macdonald fell easily into the familiar affirmative, “but I don’t like making free with farm land.”

“’Tis little matter on those pastures,” replied Staple, “though it’s true we don’t like folk being over free, and leaving gates open as likely as not. Many’s the hour I’ve wasted after cattle who’ve strayed by reason of an open gate.”

“Aye. That’s the hardest thing to teach the real townsman,” agreed Macdonald. He fell into step beside Staple quite naturally, and they walked downstream slowly.

“It’s a grand evening,” said Macdonald, following a gambit familiar enough to him in his own highland country. “The glass is going up. It looks like settled weather. I see you’ve had the river up of late,” he added.

They had reached a gate in the hedge which enclosed the pasture and, as though by common consent, they leaned upon it and continued talking, while Staple looked ruefully at the flood-flattened grass in the dales beyond.

“Aye, more’s the pity. It’s spoiled the fog grass, as you see---all mucked up with sand and river mud. It’s rare good feed in the dales.”

“Dales?” queried Macdonald. “You call these river meadows dales? This fog grass, it’s the aftermath of the hay, I suppose?”

“Aye, that’s it. It’s wonderful meadow land. We got six cartloads to the acre when we cut the hay.”

“What are the stones in the grass there?---like mile stones?” queried Macdonald.

“They’re the dale stones,” replied Staple. “In old times the best land was divided out between the village folk, a strip to each man, share and share alike. The stones mark the strips and the dales continue across the river. Those stones are centuries old, and they go deep---four to five feet into the ground, I believe.”

John Staple had been talking easily, his slow deep voice very pleasant to listen to as he talked about familiar things. He turned an inquiring eye on Macdonald. “You’re just taking a walk along the river? It’s a fine valley is Lunesdale.”

“Aye, it is that,” agreed Macdonald, making a quick decision. Frankness would pay best with John Staple, he decided.

“I wish I were just taking a walk along the river,” he went on. “I could do with a holiday in Lunesdale---but I’m not on holiday. I’m on a job. My name is Macdonald and I belong to the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard.”

“A detective. I shouldn’t have known that,” said Staple, and his voice sounded dejected, all the pleasure gone out of it. “It’s a sorry business,” he added.

“Aye, it is that,” replied Macdonald. “I’m sorry it should have happened here. It seems foreign to the place.”

“Aye, that’s just it!” burst out Staple. “It’s not like the folks round here. Take me---I’m one of them. I’ve lived all my life on Garthmere land. I’ve worked for Mr. Garth over thirty years---and now I’m suspected, along with men I’ve known since I was a lad, of shooting him. ’Tis perishing nonsense!” he declared.

“Yet somebody shot him,” said Macdonald. “You’ll be Mr. Staple, I take it? Are you willing to help me? I’ve come here to find a murderer, and to clear innocent folk of suspicion.”

“It’s a heavy business,” said Staple slowly, his voice troubled. “If I’d known who did it, I’d have named him, no matter who it was---but I don’t know. I’ll answer any questions you like to ask about the folk round here---but I’ll not go casting suspicion around haphazard like. It’s easy to say ‘maybe So-and-so did it.’ It’s not so easy for the man named to prove he had no hand in it.”

Macdonald guessed that this was a long speech for Staple to make---but he guessed a good deal more. He knew, as clearly as if he had been told outright, that Staple was uneasy in his mind, and that uneasiness was not based on total ignorance, but on some disquieting knowledge. Macdonald had not worked in the C.I.D. for twenty years without gaining an insight into men’s minds.

He leant on the gate and did not hurry to answer. At last he said: “Aye. I know exactly what you mean. Think of it this way. It’s as much my job to vindicate the innocent as to outwit the guilty. Folks talk---you know it, and I know it. I’m a Highlander by descent. I know the Highland folk. They don’t talk much to strangers, but they talk amongst themselves. If Mr. Garth’s murderer is not found, the folk around here will talk, and suspicion will fall on this man and that---aye, and suspicion will rest. The only way of disproving it is to find the guilty man.”

Staple looked straight ahead of him, his face furrowed and sad. “True enough,” he replied, “but what can I do? What do you want to know?”

“I can’t tell you yet, Mr. Staple. I’ve only just come here. I set out this evening to learn something about the district, to study the roads and paths, and to get the hang of it, the feel of the land. It’s no use rushing to ask questions when you’re ignorant of a place, especially a place like this. As I see it, coming here as a stranger, this crime is conditioned by the place. To understand the one you’ve got to study the other.”

“Aye, there’s something in that,” said Staple, and Macdonald went on: “I’m not going to ask you any questions now. I don’t know enough to ask the questions that matter. Only one thing has occurred to me so far. The murderer went to the hull; he also left it---and the routes by which he left were limited.”

“Aye, that’s sense, that is,” agreed Staple. “I’ve thought the same: there’s the road to the house, there’s the Carnton road, there’s the old lane---and then there’s the fields.”

“Do you think it’s likely he’d have taken to the fields?” asked Macdonald. “Wouldn’t a stranger seen in the fields look more noticeable and suspicious than a stranger on the roads?”

“Aye---but how do you know it’s a stranger you’re after?”

“I don’t,” replied Macdonald simply---he now knew that Staple was sure in his own mind it was not a stranger. “I really meant someone who does not belong to the Home Farm. Other farmers wouldn’t walk over Mr. Garth’s fields, I take it?”

Staple scratched his head and considered. “I couldn’t say that, not as a hard and fast rule,” he said at length. “’Tis true we don’t go over other folks’ land without reason---but if I saw Mr. Lamb or Mr. Trant on the Home Farm land, I’d know they’d have had a reason for coming---seeking strayed cattle, may be, or getting to help a beast quickly---but they’d generally say something about it later.” He turned and faced Macdonald. “Anyway---no one was seen on the Home Farm, barring Bob Ashthwaite in the dales after the fox hunt.”

Macdonald did not follow this up by a question as to what Ashthwaite was doing in the dales. He considered that he had probably said as much as was advisable for the moment. At any rate, he had made contact with Staple on more friendly terms than might have been hoped. To question him rapidly would be a mistake, Macdonald judged. He went on: “There’s another way you could help me, Mr. Staple. I’ve been studying the Ordnance Survey map to learn the geography so to speak, but I haven’t got things clear yet. If you’ve got time, could you come up the bank with me and point out the different farms? There’s a bonny view up yonder.”

“Aye, I’ll do that gladly,” replied Staple. “My own place is on the higher land, above the Home Farm. I’ve ninety acres, most of it fell pasture, though I’ve got one bit of land down by the gill and some arable holm land---ploughed for the first time this year. If we cross the dales and go up by the brow you’ll be able to see what’s what. We shall skirt the village that way.”

“Good. That sounds just what I want,” agreed Macdonald, and Staple opened the gate and they went through, keeping to the path by the river until they turned at right angles by a clearly defined track, and later left the rich valley grass and climbed by a steep hill which followed the line of a gill, overhung with beech and alder and thorn.

Macdonald said: “Then your land will be rather scattered, Mr. Staple?”

“Aye, it spreads a bit. You’ll soon see. My land lies like a big T, with rough pasture across the top and a long slip down the gill ending in that piece of holm land by the river. That piece used to belong to the Home Farm, but my father wanted a better bit of pasture, and Mr. Garth let him the holm land. He’d only seventy acres before that.”

“You’ll have had a lot of work with all this ploughing,” said Macdonald, and Staple talked on happily enough, giving it as his opinion that it wasn’t going to be too easy to return the wartime arable to the permanent pasture which was valued in the district.

The hill was steep, but Staple kept going steadily, his short sturdy legs managing the stiff gradient as easily as Macdonald’s longer ones. They did not pause until they had reached a road above the Hall, and at length Staple halted and stood by a gate.

“My place, Lonsghyll, is above us, to the north,” he said. “Higher Fell---that’s Mr. Lamb’s, lies to the east. You’d have passed his land and Mr. Trant’s---Blackthorn, that is---as you came from the Carnton road. Farther west, downstream, the land’s farmed by Mr. Langhorn, Middle Field, his place is named. His land goes with mine---you see, down yonder?”

“Aye, I see. I’ve got all that clear,” replied Macdonald. “Garthmere Hall and the Home Farm in the centre of the picture, Blackthorn to the east bordering the river, Higher Fell north of Blackthorn, Middle Field in the valley to the west of your holm land and gill, Lonsghyll just behind us to the north.”

“Aye, you’ve got it. That’s fine,” said Staple. “Now you can just see a clump of pine trees to the north-east---that’s Mr. Brough’s land---Farrintake.”

“Farrintake? That’ll be the far intak?” asked Macdonald.

“That’s right, that’s right.” Staple was pleased with his pupil. “And Greenbeck---Bob Ashthwaite’s land---lies to the west of mine, a mile or so farther north. You can’t see it from here. It’s not Garthmere land.”

“I’m very grateful, Mr. Staple,” replied Macdonald. “You’ve taught me more in a few minutes than I should have learnt in hours studying the map.”

“You’re welcome,” replied Staple.

Macdonald looked down at Garthmere Hall, a grey mass in the greying light.

“That’s a fine house,” he said. “It’ll be ancient---centuries old.”

“Aye, it’s an old house. ’Twas old before Flodden Field,” said Staple---and Macdonald did not say how stirred he was by the mention of that ancient and bloody battle. Did they date their houses here before and after Flodden Field?

“The Garths were great folk then, aye and right up to the time of the enclosures they prospered,” went on Staple. “You can see from the size of the house---but these last hundred years they’ve gone down hill. I respected old Mr. Garth, mind you,” he added. “Folks called him hard, but he dealt fair by me, and by my father before me, and he cleared his lands of debt by honest hard work.”

“You could have many a worse epitaph,” said Macdonald gently and Staple nodded. They stood in silence for a moment or so more, and then Macdonald said: “Thank you again, Mr. Staple, and good-evening to you.”

“Good-evening,” replied Staple, and Macdonald left him leaning against the gate, looking down at Garthmere Hall.

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