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Chapter Ten

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« on: July 31, 2023, 12:26:00 pm »

MACDONALD recovered his bike and rode to his inn without meeting a soul. The daylight was nearly gone and there was nothing to bring hard-working farmers afield these September evenings. Over his supper---and never had ham and eggs tasted better---Macdonald congratulated himself that he had kept to his own scheme, and that he was not supping in company with either the gloomy Superintendent Layng or the ebullient Major Havers. There was a good fire and an abundance of logs, and the Chief Inspector settled down to Layng’s report feeling that he had now a very good chance of understanding it.

When Macdonald laid the typed sheets down he said to himself “Good for Layng.” It was an admirable report, concise and yet detailed, and Macdonald knew well enough that he was in for no easy task. He remembered Layng’s exasperated voice---“all those damned farmers out with guns”---and who was going to talk confidentially to Macdonald about those same farmers? He had established good terms with John Staple---but Macdonald was far too shrewd to cherish an optimistic belief that Staple would be willing to discuss his fellow farmers freely. It was quite plain that Staple would be very averse from anything of the kind. Macdonald racked his brains. A parson? There was no resident parson at Garthmere; the tiny church was served by the clergy of the parent parish of Claughby—and the farmers seldom went to church save at harvest festival. The village innkeeper might be willing to talk, but he again was of the district, one of the clan. There was no schoolmaster, no post office. At length Macdonald had an idea. All the farmers must deal with a corn miller---a firm which supplies cattle food, poultry meals, and fertilisers. These firms have travelling representatives whose job it is to call at the farms at regular intervals and take orders, and in these wartime days to collect coupons for rationed feed. The traveller would need to be on good terms with the farmers, and he would probably discuss the news of the district with each. This seemed a possible source from which news might be evoked.

Macdonald sat back, his pipe between his teeth, and stared at the fire. He thought of old Garth at the fox hunt: this had taken place in Lawson’s Wood, a spinney edging a gill to the west of the Home Farm. Old Garth had not gone to the auction at the High Barn, so presumably he had returned home and had gone into the hull on his way to the house. The fox hunt had finished at half-past four---rather too early for the old man’s tea. Macdonald studied a list of the oddments found in the hull; these were a scythe, a mall (a wooden block like a large mallet), some chains and posts and wire, some rabbit snares, some sacks, and an old haversack containing some big nails, twine, a hammer, and a jack knife. In addition had been found the quarter-dollar piece among the peat moss. Macdonald reviewed these. Granted that the old man had the best part of an hour to put in before tea, what would he have been likely to do? It seemed plain that he kept some of his own working gear in the hull---a convenient storage place. The old scythe was probably kept there for scything thistles---Macdonald had noticed that the pastures had been well cleaned of these. The mall, the posts, and the barbed wire were for mending fences or hedges; cattle have a habit of breaking through any weak place in the hedge, being obstinately convinced that the pasture in the adjoining field is always better than that in their own. The nails and wire would be handy for mending a gate. Macdonald made mental notes of points he must determine. Had any cattle strayed that day on the Home Farm? Had any gate been broken? Did any gate show signs of recent mending? It seemed to him that a task like this would have been likely to have filled in an odd hour of old Garth’s time. Labour was short, and every one emphasised the fact that the old man had been a worker. A broken gate would have annoyed him---and gates had had but little attention during the war.

Stubbornly Macdonald worked backwards, bringing to the task a genuine interest and imagination which Layng lacked. Marion Garth had said in her statement, “I do not know what he intended to do. My father never told me what he meant to do unless it were some work on the farm for which he needed help.” That was a definite statement, but if asked in a more detailed way, “had any gate been out of order, any hedge or fence broken, any wire been down---or had any such defects been reported or observed?” it was possible that someone on the Home Farm would be able to provide an answer.

Macdonald next turned his mind to the matter of Ashthwaite. Layng had not interviewed him, but he had told Macdonald that Ashthwaite had the name of a dour, difficult man---and he had certainly had reason to hate old Robert Garth. Macdonald was not in a position to judge whether the landlord’s action in claiming arrears of rent from Ashthwaite had been something other than fair dealing, but he guessed that the hard-working farmer would have grudged paying out money for arrears of rent. The chief point to establish about Ashthwaite was his route from Lawson’s Wood to the dales, and his reason for being there. Macdonald had recourse to the Ordnance Survey again, and he studied it, not very hopefully. During the fox hunt Ashthwaite had been posted at the top of the gill, nearest the road that was. He could have come up to the Carnton road when the shooting party dispersed and went to the High Barn. In that case somebody would almost certainly have noticed him. Old Garth had not intended to go to the auction, and it was probable that he returned to Garthmere across the fields. John Staple had gone down to the dales, but he had turned upstream towards a pasture where some bullocks were grazing; when he returned downstream he had seen Ashthwaite. Macdonald pondered over the itineraries of these two men, but considered that it was unlikely that these could lead him to anything important. Farmers traversed land at their own pace; they might stop to examine gates or hedges, to study the condition of their cattle, or merely ponder over the future cropping of a ploughed field. In short, either Staple or Ashthwaite might have taken half an hour to cover a distance which would have taken Macdonald five minutes.

Knocking out his pipe and standing by the now dying fire, Macdonald considered his itinerary next day. He would see Staple again before he tackled Ashthwaite; then the Garthmere Hall people. Remembering his notion of finding the corn miller’s representative, Macdonald wondered how he could find out unobtrusively about such a firm. His eye fell on a calendar pinned to the wall. Sure enough he found that it was an advertisement of Bowden, Corn Millers of Carnton. Macdonald noted the telephone number and decided to ring up the firm next morning.

He stretched himself and yawned, sleepy after the keen air and the warm fire. He remembered saying to John Staple: “I wish I were on holiday.” “That’s a likely salmon river,” he said to himself, as he made for bed.

+++

Mrs. Sandford, of the Green Dragon, took a fancy to her guest.

“He’s a schoolmaster on holiday, I reckon,” she said to her husband. “More considerate than most, and a tidy fellow.”

Edward Sandford meditated. “If he’s a schoolmaster, I reckon his holidays ought to be over. He’s a Scot, all right. His first word told me that---but ’twas a London address he registered. I thought he might be from one o’ them ministries evacuated hereabouts, or may be one of those big firms from London, who’ve taken a place in Kendal.”

“Whoever he is, he’s a pleasant fellow,” said Mrs. Sandford.

“Maybe he’s looking for some land. I’ve heard there’s a retired schoolmaster over at Thaugon who’s raising calves as though he were born t’ot.”

The object of their conversation was pedalling towards a public call-box he had noted the previous day. He put a call through to Bowden’s, the corn millers, asking quite straight-forwardly in what district their travelling representative for Lunesdale would be working that day. The reply came without any argument. Their Mr. Toller would be calling at Gressthwaite in the morning, and would work his way back to Wrafton Bridge and the Wrafton farms after midday. Was there anything the firm could do?

“No, thanks; I just wanted to make sure I shouldn’t miss him,” replied Macdonald and rang off.

Continuing his ride, he considered his best way of dealing with John Staple, and once more concluded that frankness would be the best policy. He found Staple engaged in thatching a rick in a field at the road side, and Macdonald apologised for interrupting him at his work.

“I know you’ve got plenty to do without spending time talking,” he said, and Staple replied:

“Well, I’m not so pressed now. I’ve got my oats in, and the potatoes and turnips won’t hurt for a bit.”

He leant against the gate and waited and Macdonald went on: “I’m going to see Mr. Ashthwaite to-day, and I wondered if you’d care to give me any advice before I see him.”

Staple’s shrewd eyes smiled a little. “Eh, but you’re cut to a different pattern from yon Superintendent,” he observed. “He didn’t want advice---no, and he wouldn’t have taken kindly to it, neither. It’s hard to say about Ashthwaite. He’s queer these days. He’s a dour chap. You’ll find it hard to get an answer out of him. I reckon your best way would be to tell him your name and business right away. Don’t be ower sharp. If he thinks you’re threatening him, he won’t answer at all. He might order you off his land---or try to chuck you off it, if so be he lost his temper---and that’s not going to help,” he concluded. “He’s got a dog, too. Don’t you let that dog get behind you, it’s an ill-tempered beast.” He rubbed his head thoughtfully. “Mind you, I’ve nothing against Bob Ashthwaite. He thought Mr. Garth treated him hard---but that was because they didn’t have things down on paper. ’Tis no use having spoken agreements. Likely one or t’other doesn’t understand what’s meant.”

“You’re right there,” agreed Macdonald, and ventured on his next inquiry. “After the fox hunt, you went down to the river, Mr. Staple. Which way did you go?”

“The shortest way---by the gill. It’s rough going, but I’m used to it.”

“I see; so you reached the river at a point some hundred yards upstream from where you saw Mr. Ashthwaite?”

“Aye, that’s it. Mr. Trant’s got some bullocks down there, and I was keeping my eyes open for two stirks which had strayed from the Home Farm.”

“Do you know how they broke out? They’d be out at pasture all day and night this month, I take it?”

Staple again studied Macdonald, and the latter suspected that the reason for his question had been understood.

“Aye, they stay out,” replied the bailiff. “I’ve been looking at the fences. I’d say those stirks broke through into the old lane and got down to the river. I found them in the Pardon’s Field---that’s downstream from the dales.”

“Did you see Mr. Ashthwaite at the close of the hunt?”

“Nay. I went straight down to the river. I saw Mr. Lamb and Mr. Hayman as they went up the fields beside the gill and I saw one or two of the lads. Bob was above me at the shoot. Even if he came straight down to the river, I should have got down first.”

Macdonald was alert to every word, listening for an opening. He replied: “You say even if he came straight down! Do you think he had business up above?”

Staple was slow in replying. He chewed a straw meditatively before he answered, staring out towards the fells.

“It’s like this,” he said at length. “I don’t believe Bob Ashthwaite shot Mr. Garth. I tell you that plain---but you can see as far before your nose as most, aye, and a sight farther than that Superintendent. What was Bob doing on Garthmere land after the hunt was over, you’re asking yourself---and by gum, I’ve asked myself the same question. I’m willing to say that Bob had a down on Mr. Garth---it’s true, and it’d be silly to deny it. Maybe he’s been brooding over it. Living as he does, alone with Jock and no kith nor kin of his own, nor woman in the house, ’tis likely he would brood.”

Staple broke off here and paused, as though so much conversation were an effort. Macdonald put in easily: “I can well believe it. It must be a sad sort of life for a man. No one really likes being lonely.”

“Better be lonely than aye bothered with someone cracking,” said Staple, “howsomever, it’s likely Bob did brood ower much---and what then? He’s no murderer, take it from me, neither would he play any dirty trick that’d go against the grain with a farmer.” He turned and faced Macdonald. “Bob’s a proper farmer. Remember that,” he said. “He wouldn’t drive off another man’s beasts, nor see his ewes worried, aye, and he’d send word if any beasts were in trouble. That’s second nature to a farmer. But maybe he brooded till he felt he must have his say. He maybe wanted to tell Mr. Garth just what he thought of him and get it off his chest. I reckon that’d be about the size of it.”

Macdonald had listened with the liveliest interest to all this. It rang true, and it was helpful. Here was the judgment of a man by one of his peers.

“I’m very grateful to you, Mr. Staple,” he said. “You’re helping me more than you know. To understand this problem it’s necessary to understand the nature of those concerned. You know them---and I don’t. I should be all at sea without the sort of advice you’re giving me. Now tell me---do you think Ashthwaite did have his say?”

“Nay. I don’t. So far as I can tell he never got a chance,” said Staple. “Bob was at the top of the gill, and Mr. Garth, he was lower down. When Trant called, ‘That’ll be the lot,’ Mr. Garth took himself off over the fields, and Bob didn’t see him go, the trees were between them. I reckon Bob came down the gill and saw he’d missed him, so he came on down to the dales. For why? Because he was so vexed he’d missed his chance, he couldn’t just take himself off. He wandered down there in the dales, brooding like.”

Macdonald pondered: “But surely Ashthwaite wouldn’t have wanted to abuse Mr. Garth when his fellow farmers were at hand and could hear?” he asked.

Staple chuckled---the first sound of amusement Macdonald had heard from him.

“You’re wrong there,” he replied. “’Tis just that that Bob would’ve wanted---to shame him in front of t’others---and ’twould have vexed Mr. Garth, too. A man don’t like to be called a flint-skinning bastard in front of all his tenants.”

Macdonald laughed outright at that, and Staple concluded: “To’ve said his say in front of t’others---that would’ve been sweet to Bob---aye, and it’d have caused a good laugh behind Mr. Garth’s back. That story would’ve gone all up and down the valley. I’d say Bob was properly sorry he missed his chance---but shoot him, he didn’t. I’ll lay my life on that.”

“Well, thank you very much, Mr. Staple. I’ve learnt a lot,” said Macdonald. Staple replied:

“Some can learn and some can’t. We’ve a saying hereabouts---a man’s got all his buttons on. Good-day to you.”

“That’s a new one on me,” said Macdonald to himself, as he mounted his bike again. “If Staple’s right, then I’m wasting my time going to see Ashthwaite---but seeing I’m halfway there, I might as well go on and try my luck.”

Greenbeck was two miles farther on, and the road was uphill, but it was exhilarating country and Macdonald enjoyed it. He found the approach to Greenbeck Farm was a stony track edged with a stone wall. Above the wall was rough sheep pasture, mainly consisting of agrostis and rushes, too poor for dairy cattle to thrive on. The house was the usual long, low stone building, house and barn under the same roof; it was a small building and looked in poor condition. As Macdonald reached the fold yard gate, a dog rushed at him, barking. It was a vicious-looking beast and Macdonald swore at it, his Scots speech surprisingly harsh and vigorous. The dog hesitated, as though recognising something to be reckoned with, and a voice came from the barn calling the dog to heel. Then a tall thin man appeared at the shippon door and stared at Macdonald.

“Mr. Ashthwaite?” inquired Macdonald.

“Aye.” The curt rejoinder was not encouraging---nor was the farmer’s expression. He had a thin, lined face, a harsh mouth, drawn down at the corners, and light, expressionless eyes which seemed to be looking a great distance away.

“My name is Macdonald. I am an officer of the Criminal Investigation Department, and I am in charge of the inquiry into the death of Mr. Robert Garth.”

Ashthwaite’s expression did not change. He turned and swore at the dog again, and then turned back to Macdonald and waited. He did not invite him to come in, and the Chief Inspector leaned on the fold yard gate, reflecting that he was getting used to carrying out interrogations thus.

“I am making inquiries of all those present at the fox hunt,” he went on. “I understand that your position was at the top of the gill.”

“Aye.”

“Could you see Mr. Garth during the shoot?”

“No.”

“Did you see him leave the gill at the end of the hunt?”

“No.”

Macdonald wondered if he could get more than a monosyllable in reply. “What did you do when the hunt was over?”

“Went down to the river.”

“Why did you go down to the river?”

“Because I chose.”

“Hell’s bells, this is thirsty work,” said Macdonald to himself, and changed his tactics a little. “You know that Mr. Garth was murdered in the hull at the top of the old lane, Mr. Ashthwaite?”

“Aye.”

“How do you know that?”

At last Ashthwaite’s expression changed; there was wariness in his eyes. “Heard it from Mr. Lamb at Higher Fell,” he replied.

“Very good. I have told you who I am. It is my duty to caution you and to tell you that anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence. That is not a threat, Mr. Ashthwaite, but it is fact. You can refuse to answer my questions. In that case I report your refusal, and you will probably be summoned to the Coroner’s Court to be questioned there. On the whole, it’ll be much less trouble for you to answer my questions here---unless for any reason you prefer to have a solicitor present.”

Again Ashthwaite said nothing. Macdonald went on: “It seems to me it would be much more comfortable if we both went and sat on the bench yonder. I don’t expect you to show any respect to me, personally, but as representative of the law of the land I demand attention.”

Without waiting for a reply, Macdonald unlatched the gate and opened it, being interested to know if Ashthwaite would “order him out or try to chuck him out,” as Staple had suggested. Ashthwaite did neither. He made no comment as Macdonald went to the bench and sat on it, but he followed him a few steps and stood leaning against the door post of the barn. Macdonald took his notebook out.

“You were seen in your place at the top of the gill at the end of the fox hunt. Nearly half an hour later you were seen at the bottom of the old lane by the river. That lane leads directly down from the hull where Mr. Garth was shot. He was killed by a charge from a shotgun, fired at short range. I think you would be well advised to tell exactly what you were doing in the half-hour I have mentioned. It is stated by the doctor that Mr. Garth was probably shot during that half-hour.”

“Are you charging me with shooting the ould varmint?”

“No. I am not. I am giving you a chance to prove that you could not have done so.”

There was a moment’s tense silence, and then Macdonald went on, slowly and conversationally: “Think it over, Mr. Ashthwaite. I’ve no doubt Mr. Lamb told you as much as is known of the murder. He may have told you that only three of those known to have been present at the fox hunt did not go to the auction at the High Barn---Mr. Garth himself, Mr. Staple, and yourself. He may have told you that your lad, Jock, was seen at the hull when Mr. Staple found the body. Considering all these points, I think you would be well advised to give a clear account of how you spent your time, from the moment you left your place at the top of the gill until the moment you met Mr. Staple down by the river.”

Ashthwaite was in no hurry to answer. He leant back against the door post in silence, and Macdonald pulled his pipe out and began to fill it. He wanted Ashthwaite to regard him as a human being, so that they could get on to better terms. He also wanted to manoeuvre into a position where he could see the other’s face and hands. Macdonald always found that he learnt something by using his eyes. Feeling in his pockets as though to find a match, he stood up and rummaged in his trousers pockets, at last producing a match. Setting a foot on the bench, he bent down to obtain shelter to light his pipe, his back to the wind. This accomplished he stood straight again, this time facing the other man.

“Well, Mr. Ashthwaite---what do you think? If you’d rather not answer, I won’t waste any more time.”

Ashthwaite put out a hand as though to check Macdonald were he about to take his departure.

“I’ve no need to think,” he replied. “I didn’t shoot him and I tell you so plain.”

“But that’s not an answer to my question,” said Macdonald.

Ashthwaite paused again. Macdonald was pretty certain that his delay in answering was second nature to this man who lived alone, save for an idiot boy, on this lonely fell farm. At last he said:

“The river’d been in flood. I wanted to see if the dales was mucked up. Time’s, when Mr. Trant’s got more feed’n he needs, I put some of my grazing cattle on his land. ’Tis poor pasture for cattle up here.”

“Well, that’s plain enough,” said Macdonald. He knew at once that if Staple stuck to this story---and if no one else had seen him in the interval---the story could not be disproved. It was a perfectly reasonable thing for a farmer like Ashthwaite to have done. Macdonald decided to try another angle.

“How was it you went to the fox hunt?” he inquired. “Did Mr. Trant ask you to go?”

Again suspicion showed in the man’s curiously light eyes. Macdonald knew at once that Trant had not asked him, and awaited his reply with some interest.

“The corn miller’s man towd me on’t,” was the reply. “I didn’t need ask any leave to go and join a fox shoot on Mr. Trant’s land.”

“Aye, I see that,” said Macdonald. He felt he was getting on a little bit. This last statement could be proved or disproved.

“I’ve got a difficult job, Mr. Ashthwaite,” he went on. “I’m a stranger to these parts and it’s not going to be easy to get at the truth. Now you have known the Garth family for a long time.”

Once again, studying the thin, lined face of the farmer, Macdonald sensed a reaction, an uneasy change of mood. Ashthwaite shifted his stance too, and replied:

“Maybe---but I’ve got some work to do, and talking don’t get me any further.”

“But my job can’t be done without talking,” replied Macdonald, still good-humouredly. He was racking his brains for the best way to exploit that unease which had made Ashthwaite try to terminate the interview. This man’s daughter had married Richard Garth, twenty-five years ago. With this in mind, Macdonald asked suddenly:

“When did you last see Richard Garth, Mr. Ashthwaite?”

This question succeeded in so far as it startled the other altogether out of his immobility. Ashthwaite started, his gnarled hands clenched, and his thin lips disappeared into a hard line as the jaws contracted like a spring.

“Richard Garth?” he queried.

“Aye. Your son-in-law. Mr. Robert Garth’s heir.”

Ashthwaite spat, deliberately. “I last saw ’im the night afore he and Mary went to Canada,” he replied. “1919, that were.”

“And when did you last hear him talked about, Mr. Ashthwaite? Villages all over the country are alike in one way---they’re rare places for talking.”

“Aye, then you go and ha’ a crack wi’ ’em,” replied Ashthwaite.

“Right,” replied Macdonald, straightening his broad shoulders. “I’ll take your advice. The problem is this---to know what to believe. If honest men keep their mouths shut, liars are most likely to be believed.”

Ashthwaite peered at the lean, well-tanned face of the detective with an almost painful intentness.

At last he said: “I’ll tell you this, mister. If any one says Richard Garth shot his own father, they’re dirty liars. He deserved shooting, maybe, but Richard never did it, and no more did I.”

He turned abruptly into the side door of the barn, and Macdonald went his way, not entirely dissatisfied with his interview. As he got on his bike again, he said, “Well, if that’s the way of it, Garthmere Hall seems indicated right enough.”

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