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Chapter Eight

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« on: July 31, 2023, 11:19:40 am »

ELIZABETH Meldon had been deeply shocked by the news of old Garth’s death. Horror and fear mingled in her mind because she was vividly aware that she had been afraid that this very thing would happen. Her main concern was about Malcolm: try as she would she could not rid her mind of the dread that this was just what Malcolm might have done in one of his fits of furious resentment. He had hated his father, and Elizabeth knew it.

Outwardly she went about her work as usual: she helped with the milking, drove the cows out to pasture again, strained the milk and set the cream, washed the dairy utensils, fed the calves and mucked out the shippon. She had just finished two hours of hard work when she was summoned to be questioned by the Superintendent.

Elizabeth had often laughed over the cautious manner of speech used by the north-country folk of Garthmere, but she donned that caution herself while she was being questioned. Deliberately she set to work to “stone wall” while Layng, having satisfied himself that her time was accounted for, made his laborious queries about enmities, grudges, and the like. Her blue eyes wide, Elizabeth disclaimed any knowledge.

“I’m employed here as a land worker, and I work hard,” she said. “I’m well treated and quite satisfied---and no one has complained about my work. But farming is hard work, Superintendent. At the end of a long day’s work in the fields, all one asks is to have supper and go to bed. One doesn’t sit up discussing people’s enemies. Also, as you may have noticed, the people round here aren’t very forthcoming. They wouldn’t have discussed Mr. Garth with me---a stranger.”

“And you had observed nothing on your own account,” inquired Layng.

“I’m afraid I’m not very observant,” said Elizabeth sweetly, “unless it’s about cows. I’m quite noticing-like about them.”

Layng could make nothing of her. He thought she was probably rather stupid, in spite of her educated voice. In his heart of hearts Layng believed that all farmers were stupid---otherwise they wouldn’t have been farmers. As a result, there was one thing which Layng had never learnt, and that was the best way of approach in getting information from country folk. No farmer who wanted information in the Garthmere district ever approached his subject directly. There was always a preamble, perhaps concerning the weather or the crops, in which the stage was set for discussion. Haste was but wasted time; it simply did not work.

Leaving Layng to do his irritated and impotent best with old Moffat---who was even less capable of speed than most---Elizabeth went and washed, changed her shirt, and set out by the fold yard gate. She didn’t want to talk to Marion---and she felt pretty certain that Marion didn’t want to talk to anybody. As for Charles, Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders---still less did she want to talk to Charles. If Marion would be too silent, Charles would be too talkative.

Elizabeth wanted to find Malcolm. She set out through the lower meadows where the rich fog grass was heavy with dew, observing as she went that there was a second clover crop ripe for cutting. “They ought to make silage,” she said to herself, “only the old man’s too obstinate”---and she remembered with a shock that old Mr. Garth could obstruct no longer.

“I wonder what will happen----Farming’s got to go on. Will Marion be given full control now?” she pondered. “Phoebe was to go to market when she calves, and Marion wanted----” Again discomfort overcame her. Perhaps Marion was free now to do what she wanted---but why had she left the potatoes so gladly to lift onions by herself that afternoon? “It’s horrible,” groaned Elizabeth as she crossed the higher pastures which led upwards to the fells. “One gets suspicious. One can’t help it.”

She left the fields and took a path through some woodland halfway up the slope. It was growing twilight now, and the wood was spooky, full of murmurous voices and scuttering leaves. She was glad when she struck the rough road which led through the sheep pastures to the open fell side, where Malcolm kept his bees. He always used this route and Elizabeth knew it. She loitered a little, picking some of the lush blackberries which weighted the brambles, and stopping to notice a squirrel throwing down hazel nuts. Here, high up above the valley, the evening light was still clear, the western sky still lucid gold above the blue distances of Morecambe Bay.

Elizabeth had nearly reached the open fell when she saw Malcolm. He was walking towards her, limping as he did when he was tired, his dark hair tousled. She called to him:

“Malcolm, you’re late. What have you been doing?”

He quickened his pace when he heard her voice.

“Lisa! How decent of you! I was just hating the thought of walking back. I do hate walking back. It’s grand up here.”

He waved his hand to indicate the golden west and the mist-shrouded valley far below. White swathes of mist now hovered waist high above the river meadows and the holmland.

Elizabeth fell into step beside him. “I’m not going to ask him any questions,” she said to herself. “I won’t give him a chance to lie to me . . . He might, if he’s frightened, and I couldn’t bear it.”

“We’ve had a ghastly time, Malcolm,” she said. “Old Mr. Garth was shot, and John Staple found his body in the old hull----”

Malcolm stopped dead, staring at her incredulously. In the dimness she saw his white face and wide, dark eyes and the untidy lock of black hair over his forehead.

“His body? You mean he’s dead---he’s really dead?”

“Yes. He was killed instantly.”

“Dead---I can’t believe it. Lisa---I hated him. I was afraid of him. I can’t pretend to you, I’m not sorry. I’m glad.”

She shivered as though the evening air were chill. “Don’t say that to any one else---don’t say it to me, even,” she cried. “There are police down there, waiting to question you, to trap you. They have to find out who shot him.”

“Don’t they know? Who moved him to the old hull?”

“Moved him? Nobody moved him. He was shot there.”

“Shot there? I thought you meant he was shot at the fox hunt. Who did it?”

“I don’t know, Malcolm. Staple found him, and told Marion to phone to the Superintendent of Police at Carnton. He came over here himself, and he’s been asking every one questions---had Mr. Garth any enemies, had anybody a grudge against him----”

Malcolm laughed. “Well, he ought to get quite a nice lot of answers. Every one had a grudge against him.”

“Malcolm, don’t say things like that. The police suspect everybody, they have to. They suspected you just because you weren’t in when they wanted to see you.”

“Me? Oh, I see. Well, I’ve been up here all the afternoon. I just lay and baked in the sun and watched the curlews. There was a kestrel hovering just above me, and lots of lapwings, and larks, singing in the blue. Oh, I saw a lizard under one of the hives---have you ever seen a lizard?”

“No, not in England. Malcolm, did you meet any one up here---or see anybody?”

“Not a soul. That’s one of the blessed parts of the fells. There’s no one there.”

“But you saw John Staple talking to Richard the other day.”

“So I did---but that’s only once in a lifetime. Richard. That’s funny.”

He broke off and Elizabeth said, “I don’t think it’s funny at all. If you tell the police you saw Richard, they’re sure to believe he did it---killed your father.”

“Perhaps he did. I don’t blame him. He hated him---you should just have heard him. But don’t be a juggins. Of course I shan’t tell the police I saw Richard. Neither will John Staple. I bet he won’t because he promised Richard he wouldn’t tell any one he’d seen him. And that’s that---and the others all lived happily ever after.”

“Oh, Malcolm. Don’t be flippant. The whole thing’s horrible. He was murdered, and murder’s beastly. It gave me the horrors---and I had to come and find you, so that you should know, and not have it jumped on you unexpectedly when you got home.”

“Sorry, Lisa. All right, I’ll be sensible. Look here, let’s forget it all for just five minutes. Haven’t you got a cigarette? Let’s sit on the next gate and watch the gloaming. The owls will be coming out, and there are night jars in the wood down there.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Oh, all right. I’ve got just one cigarette. I haven’t had time to smoke it----I had an awful lot to do, I mucked the shippon out and did most of the milking.”

She stopped and leant against a gate, with Malcolm beside her, and looked down into the mist-wreathed valley.

“Look!” said Malcolm softly, and a great white owl swept past them on silent wings.

+++

Marion Garth drew a deep breath when the Superintendent had at last taken himself off. She listened while the sound of his car faded away; she was standing by the office window which she had just opened---it had been closed at Layng’s wish. She had opened it instinctively “to blow the smell of the police away”---though Layng would have snorted could he have known her thought. He had been very much aware of the smell of dung hanging about the working clothes of these farming folk. Marion listened, and became conscious of the deep silence which had settled on the house. Every one had taken themselves off, it seemed. Probably Mrs. Moffat had gone to bed, as she often did at sunset. She had a long day, getting up at six o’clock, summer and winter alike. Old Moffat had gone outside somewhere and Jem was probably in the village. Elizabeth Meldon had disappeared, too.

Marion breathed a sigh of relief, closed the office window again, and went out into the orchard by way of the living-room window. There had been so much talking---she was tired of it all.

She strolled under the old apple trees, instinctively picking up the best windfalls---Mrs. Moffat’s trug, half full of apples, still lay where she had left it when the news was brought in. Marion was glad to pick up apples, leisurely, peacefully, as the grey twilight deepened. She was not given very long, however, to commune with her own thoughts. Charles hailed her across the orchard.

“I say---what about some supper?”

Marion retorted: “Go and find something to eat yourself if you want it. There’s plenty of food in the larder.”

“That’s all very well---but we’ve got to talk about things some time,” said Charles.

“I’m sick to death of talking. It doesn’t get us anywhere,” she replied.

“Perhaps not.” Charles came towards her, lowering his voice a bit. “A few things have got to be settled, old girl,” he said, his voice not ungentle. “First---who’s going to run this outfit, pro tem? You’ll have to advise the lawyers or you’ll soon be in a mess. Wages must be paid, business must be settled. You can’t carry on without the needful---and the bank won’t honour your signature---or mine, either.”

“Oh, Lord! I don’t want to bother now,” said Marion. “We can’t do anything to-night.”

“No---but we ought to settle what’s got to be done to-morrow,” replied Charles. “I may be no farmer---I never pretended to be worth much in that direction, but I’m used to business. I can help you there if you’ll let me.”

Marion looked surprised. It was unlike Charles to volunteer help.

“I know you’ve thought I was an outsize in fools,” went on Charles. “I’m no judge of cattle and I frankly loathe sweating and breaking my back hoeing turnips and lifting potatoes---but I’ve run a fair-sized business in Malaya without making a mess of it. It wasn’t my fault the Japs messed it up for me,” he added rather plaintively.

“I know it wasn’t,” said Marion, her voice more sympathetic. She turned towards the house. “All right. I’ll come in. I expect it’s quite true that you know more about legal business than I do. I know all the farm business---but, as you say, that’s not going to help me to pay wages when I’ve got no money to pay them with. What happens? I don’t know anything about wills and probate and all that.”

“Let’s go in and get a bite before we start talking,” said Charles. “You never will admit you’re tired, but you’re tired now. I don’t wonder. That Superintendent was enough to tire anybody. Typical policeman, official all through, and full of his own self-importance.”

“I couldn’t stand him,” admitted Marion, as they walked towards the house. “I suppose he was competent---but he put people’s backs up. John Staple’s an even-tempered person, but even he was irritated.”

When she reached the kitchen she said: “Let’s just slap everything on the table and pig it in peace. There’s apple-pie and cheese---oh, and some cold bacon if you want it----”

“---and beer and pickled onions and a whacking big rice pudding,” said Charles, looking in the larder. “OK by me. D’you want some tea? The fire’s out but I’ll pump up the primus. Here, you sit down. I’ll get things ready.”

Marion sat down. Tea? It was just what she did want. For once in her life she sat still, admitting a great weariness, while Charles “slapped everything on the table” and encouraged the primus stove. He made the tea, and Marion found herself laughing weakly as he lifted the lid of the teapot and stirred his potent brew, hitching up his right eyebrow in characteristic fashion.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, as he heard her laugh.

“Nothing. It’s just that it’s funny to see you doing things,” she answered, and he replied:

“I’m not nearly such an ass as you think. I’m quite a useful chap on safari---camping, y’know. The trouble is you’ve always told me not to interfere---and I was so fed up with everything I just took the line of least resistance. Here you are. Hot and strong. Do you good.”

The tea did do her good, and she watched Charles tucking into a hearty meal of cold bacon and onions, regarding him with a fresh eye. It was true, she had thought him an ass---feckless and lazy. At last she said: “Well, what ought I to do about money and all that?”

Charles took a good draught of beer and then replied with surprising precision: “You see the old man’s lawyer, find out who is named as executor or executors, and an interim account is opened at the bank by the executors on which they can draw until probate is obtained and the property distributed. He’d got a balance in his current account, I expect?”

“Oh lord, yes. He’d got a big balance. I know what he got from the sale of stock and the milk cheques. He’s been doing very nicely these last three years.”

“That’s all right, then. It’ll be plain sailing if you go the right way about it. Who is his lawyer by the way?”

“Flemming and Barton.”

“Have they got his will?”

“I suppose so. He never mentioned it to me, but he was always quite careful and businesslike about documents---policies and contracts and tenancies and all that.”

“Right. Any idea who the executors are?”

“I believe Mr. Flemming’s one---and I have an idea I’m the other one. I’m not certain, but I have a feeling he put me down---just from something he once said.”

Charles sat back and lighted a cigarette. He had a new packet of Gold Flake in his pocket, and he offered Marion the packet. “Any idea how his property goes?” he inquired.

Marion shook her head. “No. He never told me. The land goes to Richard, of course.”

“Yes. Eldest son. The point is---where is Richard?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. We haven’t heard a word about him for years---but I’ve never believed he’s dead. We should have heard if he’d died. Richard was a sensible creature. He’d have left some note of his origins so that news could be sent.” She moved restlessly. “At the moment I’m more interested in where Malcolm is. I wish he’d come in.”

Charles regarded her gravely. “Nervous, Moll?”

The use of her old nickname surprised her. “Oh, I don’t know. I got fed up with the way that Superintendent kept on asking about Malcolm. He is---well, excitable, you know.”

“Yes. I’ve often marvelled that the old man ever sired anything quite so imaginative as that boy. I suppose he gets his poetic qualities from his mother’s line. She always seemed a bit Bronté-ish to me. Came from the Haworth district too, didn’t she? Moll, is it true that Malcolm doesn’t know how to load a gun?”

She flushed. “I told the Superintendent that, and I shall stick to it. I’ve never seen him touch a gun. As a small kid he howled at the sight of one. The sound of a shot always frightened him.”

“Quite---but who left your loaded gun in the office the other day?”

“I don’t know. I simply don’t know, Charles. I can’t bear to think about it. It only missed Father by a fluke---his hair was singed.”

“Pity it missed him at all,” said Charles gloomily. “That’d have been brought in as accident. Not nearly so bad as this. Layng’ll see to it someone’s hanged for this. The trouble is he mayn’t hang the right man. He looked damned stupid to me.”

“Oh, heavens, isn’t it all utterly loathsome?” Marion cried her words aloud. “Why couldn’t they have waited----whoever did it? He was an old man----It’s not fair to us that we should be plagued and pestered and bullied----I hate it all!”

Charles stared in surprise. This was unlike the Marion he was used to. “Bear up, old girl. Don’t get jittered. The old man had to go the way of all flesh, and he died without knowing it. No lying in bed and dying by inches. Not a bad way to go. I hope I have as much luck when my number’s called. As for you---if I have any say in the matter you’ll be given a free hand to farm this place, and make your silage and plant your temporary leys and buy your Hereford bull---and buy a bulldozer for clearing the fells if you damn’ well want it.”

Marion laughed weakly. “Oh, Charles, I never knew you’d even heard of temporary leys----Look, there’s Malcolm and Elizabeth. Thank goodness!”

Charles cocked an eyebrow. “Is that a case?” he inquired. “Looks OK to me. She might make a man of that kid.”

+++

The acting Chief Constable of the County, Major Havers, had been sent a report of the tragedy at Garthmere. All important cases were reported to him immediately, and the shooting of old Mr. Garth was a matter of outstanding importance. Major Havers originally assumed that the shooting was an accident---one of those accidents which do occur at intervals in the countryside where shotguns are habitually carried. When, during the course of the evening, he learnt that Mr. Garth’s death could not be classed as an accident the deputy official felt perturbed. Murder---- Hm. That was quite a different matter---and often a very lengthy and difficult matter: it meant a prolonged investigation which involved the employment of a considerable number of men---and Major Havers was fully aware that he was already short-staffed and that his men had more and more to do. Rural inspection, use of petrol, surveillance of aliens, registration of alien children arriving at the age of sixteen, black-out offences, licences for pig-killing, black-market offences---even bee-keepers added their quota to police work of to-day, for hives had to be officially inspected before the bee-keepers could get a certificate empowering them to get sugar for winter feed. All this entailed a lot of office work---particularly for Layng, who was very efficient in dealing with the multiplicity of government regulations and preparing Court cases. Major Havers regarded a prolonged murder investigation as a very difficult problem in the circumstances.

Shortly after Layng had returned to his headquarters, Major Havers came in to hear his report. “A straightforward case, Layng?” he inquired hopefully.

Layng shook his head. “Hardly that, sir. Too many possibilities. It will take a lot of eliminating.”

He gave the Major a terse, workmanlike account of his evening’s investigation, and Havers listened with some consternation.

“It’s going to be difficult,” he said. “All these farmers out with guns, and some of the beaters, too. Probably one of these cases where there isn’t anything but circumstantial evidence---and that’s going to be a bit dangerous here, simply because there were so many guns out. I’ve heard of old Garth, and he had a name for being a proper Tartar. It’s possible that any number of people had a grudge against him: not that any of them will admit it, or give one another away. They’re difficult fellows to interrogate, these farmers, especially when you haven’t been brought up amongst them. Close as a clam, and suspicious too---altogether very chary of speech.”

“Yes, sir, and slow! My country! I’ve had my work cut out to keep my patience with some of them.”

“Ah, you’ve been doing mainly office work and duties in the town lately, Layng---gets you out of touch with these old farmers. I hear them talk when I go to the cattle market occasionally---they’ve got their own dialect when they’re talking between themselves. I seldom get any of them to understand what I’m saying right away---I have to repeat everything at about half my normal speed. It’ll take the deuce of a time to interrogate every one you’ve got on this list.” He paused in his rapid speech and considered afresh. “You’ve got the one clue---that American coin---but I’m not sure it’s so very valuable. With the number of Yanks we’ve got over here there’s bound to be a lot of American coins about. The old man may have thrown it away himself, realising it was no good to him.”

Layng felt depressed. All this was true, but it wasn’t very heartening. “I haven’t had very long to get at the facts, sir,” he said, and Havers agreed immediately.

“Of course you haven’t---and you’ve done very well in the time, Layng, very well indeed. You’ve given me an admirable report, clear and concise. Nobody could have done better. The difficulty is this---the amount of time this case will take up. We have got a lot of work on hand---there’s all this Milk Retailing to be watched. The Ministry want the distribution to be supervised more closely, and it’s a troublesome business.”

“Yes, sir---but it’s more important to arrest a murderer than to summons a milk retailer for selling an extra quart here and there.”

“Quite so, Layng, quite so. Now I’ll put it like this. If this Garthmere case promised to be straightforward, I should say go ahead with it. I’ve every trust in you, you’re a competent and conscientious officer. The trouble is that I can’t spare you. The Commissioner’s office---the Yard, Layng---exists to assist the provincial police in criminal cases, especially when the local police are short-handed. Now in a case of this kind, the C.I.D. prefers to be called in at once---or not at all. I can quite see that it’s exasperating for them to have a case handed over to them when every clue is stone cold and every witness jaded with repetition.”

“Yes, sir,” said Layng glumly. The effect of Major Havers’s rapid utterance in contrast to the slowness to which he had been subjected earlier in the evening had made the Superintendent nearly giddy. Layng saw himself being relegated to supervision of Milk Retailing, and Court Cases in which offending farmer-retailers pleaded not guilty to serving Mrs. Gubbins with a pint in place of a half-pint. He cursed to himself over the complexities of this case---all those farmers out with guns---he couldn’t pretend that it was going to be easy.

Major Havers went on: “I gather from your excellent sketch that this shed, or hull, as they call it, is on a by-road which is used almost exclusively by the Garth home farm people in the usual way. Did you get any report of any one seen on that road during the afternoon?”

“No, sir. The road isn’t overlooked from the house. I couldn’t get any reports in that line. Of course, the fact that Staple saw this man Ashthwaite down by the river indicates that Ashthwaite might have just come down the old lane which leads from the hull to the river.”

“Just so. By the way, what does the word ‘hull’ mean, Layng? What’s its derivation?”

“God knows,” replied Layng gloomily. He was feeling so irritated that the exclamation escaped him against his better judgment. Derivations indeed! He made an effort and added hastily: “The farmers talk about a pig hull, or a calf hull, sir. I think it means a shelter---not a shippon or cattle shed in regular use. I should say this hull is centuries old---a very primitive building.”

“Indeed? Very interesting---I must talk to old Bowles about the word. Such points interest me. Now to get to the matter in hand---you speak about this man Ashthwaite. Any connection between him and a twenty-five cent piece, Layng?”

“No, sir.”

“You have also been making inquiries about deceased’s eldest son, Richard, who left England twenty-five years ago. Is there any certainty that he’s still alive? Have any of his family heard from him in the interim?”

“No, sir. According to their statements they have heard nothing of him since his wife died---over twenty years ago.” (Layng recollected Charles’s voice, “Your detection’s a bit hoary, isn’t it?”)

Major Havers went on: “That will entail inquiries in Canada. Hm----A lengthy business----Then there’s the mental defective, Jock. Has he ever been seen with a gun? Does he own a gun?”

“I doubt if he would own one, sir. Quite unlikely.”

“And Ashthwaite was carrying his own gun when Staple saw him. Hm----How could Jock have laid hands on a gun, Layng? In the circumstances, any of the farmers who had missed their guns during the course of the afternoon would have reported it. Undoubtedly I think they could have been relied on to report it. There were several guns in the gun-room at the Hall, you say---but they had all been cleaned since they were last used?”

“Yes, sir.”

“A mental defective might borrow a gun, but I doubt if he’d clean it and replace it in a rack.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, there we are. A very pretty case---complicated and full of possibilities----” Major Havers paused, and then went on in his rapid, bird-like way: “By the way, Layng, to digress for a moment. That case you had on hand---the fellow at Arkwright who bought a hundred head of poultry last May and hasn’t a hen left in his runs---have you investigated his records?”

“No, sir. I was going to see about it when I was called out to Garthmere.”

“Just so---and there’s that matter of suspected black-marketing of eggs at Nethergill---the official egg collector reported it. Needs looking into.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, it’s like this, Layng: you’ve got as much work on hand as you can manage. In fact you’ve been doing the work of two men ever since I took over. I realise that---I’m a newcomer, a deputy, in fact, and I have to rely on your knowledge to a considerable extent. I can’t spare you, Layng, and I don’t want to put too much on your shoulders. In my judgment we should do better to apply to the C.O. for help immediately. They know the quandary we County men are in these days. We’ll go straight ahead with the Inquest to-morrow, Layng---arrange it with the Coroner. It will be better to take only formal evidence and adjourn immediately for further investigations, so as to leave the Yard a free hand. I’ll have a word with the Coroner myself and then I’ll ring the Commissioner’s Office. They’ll probably send a man to-morrow. That, I’m convinced, is the wisest course.”

As Major Havers spoke, the telephone on Layng’s desk rang, and he was informed that Harding had reported, bringing a witness with him.

Major Havers grasped what was being said over the line and said promptly: “Bring him in, bring him in at once.”

Gloomily Layng passed the order on to Harding. He wanted to interrogate Jock, but he had no real hopes of the result.

The door opened and Harding appeared, holding Jock firmly by the arm. The boy’s face was scarlet, his blue eyes bulging, his fair hair sticking up like straw. At sight of the other two men Jock gave vent to the roar of raucous laughter which, Layng was to learn, was his immediate reaction to surprise. It was an amazing sound, especially in a small room: his lungs had the power of a young bull’s. Major Havers winced and Layng said sharply: “That’ll do. We don’t want any row of that kind. Behave yourself.”

Jock roared again, pointing his finger at Havers. “Goody, goody, tha’s shot him! I saw tha’ shoot him!” he declared.

“Nonsense, nonsense,” declared Havers, and Jock obliged again with his colossal mirth.

“He’s been doing it all the way in the car, sir,” said Harding, and there was satisfaction in his voice. “Hardly stopped once. You might as well have had a bull calf beside you.”

Jock caught the familiar word, “bull calf,” and responded heartily. “Moo-oo----Moo-oo,” he bellowed. He was proud of his ability to simulate animal noises.

“Good God!” said Havers. “Make what you can of him, Layng. I’ve got to get on the phone----”

He hurried out and Layng looked at Jock sardonically. “I wonder what the experts from the Yard will make of you,” he muttered.

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