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Chapter Twelve

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« on: August 01, 2023, 07:18:01 am »

“NOTHING like trying it out on the dog,” was Macdonald’s remark to himself when he left Charles Garth. “Taking the two of them, Marion and Charles, I’d say Marion was the better man. Moreover, if she’d made up her mind to a certain course, she’d follow it out. Now where was I going to pick up the corn miller’s man?”

Macdonald was lucky in this matter. After only one inquiry, made of a farmer who gave the stranger a prolonged stare, the Chief Inspector found a blue Austin car waiting outside a farm at Wrafton, and shortly saw a grizzled, rather worried looking little man coming out to the car.

“Are you Bowden’s representative, Mr. Toller?” inquired Macdonald.

“Yes, sir, that’s right,” was the reply.

Macdonald was amused to note that this was the first “sir” which had come his way in Lunesdale. “He must be a Southron,” he said to himself.

“I should be glad if you would spare me a few minutes’ conversation, Mr. Toller,” went on Macdonald. “Could we talk in your car? My name is Macdonald.” He produced his official card, and Mr. Toller looked at it with a mixture of lugubriousness and excitement.

“If you wouldn’t mind, Chief Inspector, I would suggest we get in the car and drive on a short way. The fact is, if the farmers saw me talking to a detective---well, it might go against me. I have to be careful in my job. No talking about one farmer’s business to another is my rule.”

“Quite right too,” agreed Macdonald. He got into the car and Mr. Toller drove on until he was clear of the farm premises.

“You see,” he explained, “if the farmers thought I gossiped they wouldn’t trust me, and confidence is everything to a traveller.”

“Of course it is,” replied Macdonald. “The reason I have come to you is this: it seemed probable to me that you, going from farm to farm, would hear a good deal of the gossip of the neighbourhood---and you’d hear all the more because you’re careful not to pass it on. Now you can guess the job I’m here for. I’m investigating the circumstances of Mr. Garth’s death.”

Macdonald sat and talked to Mr. Toller for some time, and at the conclusion of his talk he knew that he was working along the right lines. There was a rumour abroad that Richard Garth had been staying in the neighbourhood, and that rumour had its origin in a village near Ingleton.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve been very worried,” said Mr. Toller. “You know what these farmers are. They don’t tell you anything directly. It’s more in the way of question: ‘Have you heard anything about so-and-so?’ they’ll ask, and then change the subject---but something’s being said. It may be all rumour, but I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Before he parted from Mr. Toller, Macdonald gave assurances that he would do his best not to disclose the source of his information. Mr. Toller obligingly drove Macdonald to a spot where he could get a Carnton bus, assuring him that his bicycle would be perfectly safe where he’d left it.

“The folks about here are very honest,” he said. “They’ll probably report that bicycle to the police some time next week.”

Macdonald reached Carnton just when Layng was returning from his midday meal.

“Hallo---any luck?” inquired Layng.

“More than I deserve---though it may turn out to be rumour,” replied Macdonald. “I’ve heard a vague report that Richard Garth has been seen in Panstone, near Ingleton. Can you let me have a car? I want to go over there and see about it.”

+++

It was by sheer good fortune and nothing else that Macdonald went into the Wheatsheaf Inn, near Ingleton, about two o’clock that day. He had not had any lunch, and while he did not expect that the Wheatsheaf could provide him with a meal, he thought a glass of beer and a sandwich might help him on. The landlord, a grey-haired, toothless fellow, tall and gaunt, was not encouraging when Macdonald first inquired for “a bite,” but after a moment or two he said there was a bit of rabbit left in the pot, and eventually produced a plateful of steaming stew rich with vegetables. Macdonald sat down to his meal in a dark little parlour, furnished with the solid oak and elm of the neighbourhood, with some fine spindle-backed chairs. There was a small table on which were piled old copies of the Farmers’ Weekly, the local paper, and old editions of Bibby’s Annual. When he had finished his meal, Macdonald rummaged under the papers and found an ancient exercise book which had seen many years of service as a visitors’ book. The later pages were ruled out in conformity with regulations to show the name of visitor, home address, date of arrival and departure, and nationality. The last entry ran September 20th-21st. Richard Garth. British. Merchant Navy.

Macdonald sat with the page in front of him, hardly able to believe his eyes at first. He then went to the door and shouted for the landlord.

“Aye. Will half a crown suit you?” demanded Matthew Hodges.

Macdonald put some coins down on the table.

“As good a dinner as any man could want, landlord,” he said, “and now for a word on a different subject. My name is Macdonald. I’m a police officer, and here is my warrant. Can you read?”

“Not without my glasses, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“Right. Have you looked at this last name written in your visitors’ book?”

“That? ’Twas a seaman---a right good chap, he was. Name of Clark, or summat like that.”

“No, landlord. Not Clark. Garth---G-A-R-T-H. Have you ever heard the name in these parts?”

Matt Hodges scratched his stubbly chin.

“Garth?” he muttered doubtfully. “There’s none of that name in our village. There’s Garths down the valley.”

“Aye---there’ve been Garths down the valley since before Flodden Field,” said Macdonald. “Have you heard any news from Garthmere lately, landlord?” Matt Hodges sat in silence, and Macdonald went on: “Aye, you’re in a cleft stick. News travels. It’s being said by a good many that Richard Garth was seen hereabouts lately. Now we’ll not argue over that. There’s no law which forces a man to report on the doings of his neighbours when he’s no proof that his neighbours have broken the law.”

“Ah----Eh----So you’re looking at it that way,” said Matt Hodges, and there was relief in his low growl.

“Yes, I’m looking at it that way---unless I find reason to look at it any other. I’d say you’re not the only man in these parts who has reason to believe Richard Garth was in this district. You haven’t refused any information to the police, so far as I know, and you’ve told no lies---so I’ve nought against you. Now say if you tell me all you know about Richard Garth, remembering that I am a police officer, and I ask in the name of the law.”

“There’s little enow to tell on. Last Monday evening ’twas---and a gey girt dirty evening too. About half-past eight, when the rain was coming down in floods, a chap came in here and asked for a bed---and a bite of supper. He was wet through, and I wasn’t that anxious to take him in, but my wife said yes. He looked like a seaman, and our Mitsy’s married a chap in the Navy. Anyhow, there ’twas. We gave him a room and lit a fire for him. Next morning he had some breakfast and took himself off---and that’s all there was to’t. He put his siller down and went his way.”

“Didn’t you have a crack with him, or your missis---for Mitsy’s sake?”

“Nay. He weren’t no talker. I said to him, ‘You’re come from afar?’ but he wouldn’t say nowt. ’Twasn’t till he’d left I looked in yon book---and then I knew who he’d minded me of. But I’d no proof, mind you.”

“We won’t quarrel over that,” replied Macdonald. “Do you know where he went? Did he wait for a bus?”

“Nay, he just walked out. Hiking like.”

“And that’s all you can tell me, landlord? You know the oath you’ll be asked to take---the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

“So ’elp me, God,” concluded the landlord. “Aye, I know it---but there’s nowt more I can say. He came in here and asks for a bed and a bite. I had a word with t’missis, who saw him come in. ‘Give him a bed,’ she says, ‘and there’s some eggs he can have for supper. Looks like a seaman, he does, and he’s wet through anyway.’ He had his supper in this room, and we took his coat to dry it. ‘If you’ve any logs to spare, let me have a fire in my room,’ he says, and the missis, she saw to’t. He went upstairs when he’d finished his supper---never came in the bar even. Aye, he was a close one---but none the worse for that. The morning ’twas the same. Paid his reckoning and went.”

Macdonald sat silent for a moment. “How many people did you tell this to, landlord?”

Again Hodges scratched his chin. “Can’t call it to mind,” he said. “I may’ve named it. Why not?”

Macdonald did not press him---he knew the loyalty of these folk and guessed that Hodges would not admit to whom he had passed on his news.

“I want a description of him---what he looked like and what he wore,” was Macdonald’s next demand.

Mrs. Hodges was called in to assist here, and the description arrived at was summarised by Macdonald thus: Richard Garth. Age about fifty. Grey hair, short greyish beard, weather-beaten face, blue eyes, prominent nose. Wearing navy blue trousers, a blue seaman’s jersey with roll collar and short navy blue coat. No hat.

“He must have been a noticeable figure, quite different from anybody hereabouts?” queried Macdonald.

“Aye. Outlandish he looked to me. I wondered what he was until he spoke,” replied Hodges. “His voice was all right---bit o’ twang, maybe, but he said ‘Aye’ same’s you and me, and he said ’twas a gey dirty night. I reckoned he came from these parts.”

Having collected all the information he could, Macdonald drove to the nearest constabulary and set out an all-stations call with a description of the wanted man, as well as an inquiry via Trinity House to all ports and harbour-masters. He then turned his car back to the inn, and set out on foot by the route which Hodges informed him his visitor took. A by-road, which later became a footpath, took him to the base of Ingleborough, and Macdonald started climbing the great limestone hill. Underfoot the turf was short and slippery, and larks sang overhead as he made his way up the vast shoulder of the hill, the wind whistling ever more keenly as he climbed.

Truth to tell, Macdonald wanted to think---and walking helped the process. He visualised Richard Garth---arriving from the unknown, gone into the unknown. He would have been a noticeable figure in this remote countryside: he had carried no suitcase, and could therefore have had no change of clothes. Had he walked down the valley towards Garthmere it seemed inevitable that he must have been noticed, not by a few people but by every one who met him. Surely someone would have reported seeing this unusual stranger. Yet it seemed to Macdonald that a man like Richard Garth, reared in Lunesdale, must surely have wanted to see his own home land again. Had he climbed this great limestone mass, which stretched for miles north and south across the head of Lunesdale? Ingleborough must have been the most familiar sight in the world to Richard Garth when he was a boy---it seemed to close in the world to the east of Lunesdale, a barrier across the sky. So Macdonald thought, as he climbed up the slippery turf until he could see the Lune and its valley, the heights of Clougha above Lancaster, the sands of Morecambe Bay and the Lakeland hills. Had Richard come up here to see all this? And if so, where had he gone? He could have reached Yorkshire or Westmorland or Lancashire, chosen any of a hundred routes. Sitting on the limestone turf---midway between earth and sky it seemed, Macdonald smoked one pipe while he wrestled with his problem and weighed alternate theories in his mind. It seemed to him that he could put forward a case against six different people which, if argued by an able counsel, could persuade any jury to convict any one of them.

+++

It was nearly half-past five when Macdonald drew his borrowed car up outside Lonsghyll. He went in through the yard and drummed on the back door with his knuckles. John Staple appeared immediately and Macdonald said: “Here I am, back again for another consultation, Mr. Staple.”

“Step in and have a cup of tea,” replied Staple. “I’m just having my own and you’ll be welcome.”

“Thanks very much. That’s very good of you,” replied Macdonald. He followed Staple into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “Losh keeps! We don’t get teas like this in London,” he said.

“Eh, but happen you don’t work in haytime from three o’clock in the morning to midnight,” replied Staple. “’Twas three o’clock I was out cutting on Midsummer Day. That’s young Malcolm’s honey if you’d care for it, and the butter’s our own churning. How did you find Bob Ashthwaite, Mr. Macdonald?”

“Well---he didn’t try to chuck me out,” replied Macdonald, “but I’ve got other news I want your opinion on. It’s this. Richard Garth stayed on Monday night at the Wheatsheaf Inn, outside Ingleton.” He watched the older man’s face as he spoke, and added: “You knew that?”

“Aye. I knew,” replied Staple, looking Macdonald full in the face. “I met him and talked with him upon the fells yonder. I still say what I said before: Richard didn’t do this job.” He paused, settling himself more comfortably in his chair. “Mark you---I’ve told no lies,” he went on. “No one asked me ‘When did you see Richard Garth last?’ The Superintendent asked me ‘Did I know anything about him?’ I answered I’d known him as a boy and that I hadn’t heard any one name him for years---and I hadn’t, neither. Why didn’t I tell you, you might ask---seeing you trusted me. Aye. I know that. I’ll tell you for why. Because I promised Richard I wouldn’t say I’d seen him.”

“He asked you to promise that?”

“Aye---and I say again---he didn’t do it.”

“How do you know that, Mr. Staple?”

“Because I knew Richard. He’s been on the Atlantic convoys these past three years, bringing tankers over so that our boys can beat Hitler. D’you reckon a chap like that would come and shoot his own father---aye, and run away, leaving an honest man to hang for him, maybe? D’you believe that?”

Staple’s voice was fierce and his grey eyes shone with indignant fire.

“I know. It’s hard to believe, Mr. Staple,” replied Macdonald, “but I’ll answer you straight. You can tell me later if I’m wrong. Richard Garth’s appearance wasn’t entirely unconnected with his father’s death. Don’t take me amiss. You could have saved me a lot of trouble---if I’d only asked you that one direct question which I did ask Bob Ashthwaite---when did you last see Richard Garth?”

“Aye. I’ll admit all that. I’ve been troubled in my mind over it. You see I knew Richard as a boy: many’s the time he’s sat in that chair you’re sitting on, swinging into the apple cake. He asked me to say nought, and I promised. Was I to break my promise? I tell you I lay awake and sweated after I talked to you last night. You’d met me fair, and you’d trusted me. Still, I knew you’d find out pretty soon: you’re no sort of fool.”

Macdonald laughed, he couldn’t help it: the conclusion of the sentence struck him as comic. “All right. We’ll let that pass. Now, will you tell me what Richard Garth had to say?”

“Aye. I’ll tell you that.”

John Staple gave a very fair report of his conversation with Richard on the fell side, though he did not stress Richard’s admitted hatred for his father. “Now see here,” he concluded. “Richard told me he’d four days ashore between voyages. I saw him on Monday. His father wasn’t shot until Thursday. What was he doing in between whiles? And tell me this: if that was what he planned, would he have come and had that crack wi’ me? Wouldn’t he have kept out of my way? I didn’t see him until he came up to me and spoke to me.”

“So he told you that he was tramping over into the Yorkshire dales,” said Macdonald. “I climbed half up Ingleborough this afternoon, racking my brains as to where he went and what he did. That’s a long stretch of hill, is Ingleborough.”

“Did y’ think he might have dropped something handy for you to pick up whiles you did your detecting?” asked Staple, and Macdonald laughed.

“To look for a clue on Ingleborough has got the proverbial needle in a haystack beaten hollow,” he said, “but maybe I did hope I’d find summat as you say. Aren’t there any Ramblers’ Associations I could persuade to go over the ground for me, and save my own legs?”

“You’d better try the chaps who go exploring the potholes,” said Staple. “There’s a fair company of them---make a hobby of going down those great holes.”

“No accounting for tastes,” said Macdonald. “Now I’ve got a job I want you to do for me, and some more questions for you to answer. The job is this: come up the fell with me and show me exactly where you saw Richard Garth and talked to him.”

“Aye, I’ll do that right now---but you won’t find him there now.”

“No. I don’t expect I shall, but I want to see the place. Now for the questions. Where were you when you were told those stirks were missing from the Home Farm, and who told you about them?”

“Miss Marion told me. ’Twas the morning of the fox hunt. I looked in to see young Malcolm, to get some of that heather honey if so be he’d got any to sell. I was talking to him in the fold yard and Miss Marion called to me from the barn.”

“Was old Mr. Garth anywhere about at the time?”

“Aye. He was nearby---at the grindstone if I remember rightly.”

“Any one else within earshot?”

“I can’t rightly say---but any one could have heard. Miss Marion called to me from the barn---sung her question out, so’s I could hear.” Staple pondered, and said at last, “You’re thinking it was that that took the old man to the hull, to get a post to mend the fence where the cattle had broken through?”

“I think it’s probable, Mr. Staple---don’t you?”

“Aye. It’s a good plain bit o’ reasoning. Shows sense---and you’re no farmer, neither.”

“No---I wish I were. Tell you what, I’ll try to come up here next hay time and lend a hand with the carting, and you can tell me how I shape. Now come along---I’ll drive you up the fell as far as the car will take us, and you can show me where you saw Richard Garth.”

Five minutes in the car and then ten minutes rough walking brought them to the wall where Staple had stood and talked to Richard. With the keen wind in his ears, Macdonald stood and faced north, looking over the valley to the opposite fell side. He had to turn his head away from the wind to hear Staple’s words when he spoke.

“If you’ve reasoned right about the old man making up his mind to mend that fence when Marion spoke o’ they stirks, then you can’t say Richard was there to hear.”

“I can’t be certain, Mr. Staple. I’ve played in my uncle’s barn in the Highlands, and I’ve hidden in the hay in the loft when I’d earned a leathering----I tell you it’s not impossible.”

“Meaning he lay hid in that loft for days and listened, biding his time? Nay, lad, you’re wrong. You’ve got a good head on you, but you’re wrong there.”

Macdonald turned away and looked over the wall. Malcolm’s bee-hives were in a wired-off enclosure just beyond the wall. In one spot, where the heather grew high and the wall broke the wind there were signs that someone had been there not many days ago. The heather was bent and broken where a tall man might have rested at full length. Into Macdonald’s mind came Marion’s statement to Layng, “Malcolm was probably up by his hives----He often goes to sleep up there.”

Before Staple realised what he was doing, Macdonald had got over the wall without disturbing a stone. He looked down at the bent heather and saw a small book lying half hidden by the wall. It had been drenched with rain, and was still limp and damp---a little copy of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

Putting it in his pocket, Macdonald called to Staple, “What direction did the wind blow from last Monday when you were up here?”

“Nor’west. ’Twas a keen wind, caught my rheumatism. It veered to full west later, and the rain came on as we finished carting. Nine o’clock that was. We worked by moonlight to get the oats in---aye, and we got a proper drenching.”

As Macdonald got back over the wall again, Staple was still talking half to himself. “Ould Mr. Garth, he came to help me cart my oats, and he worked three hours that evening, tossing them hattocks. How many landlords ’d do that for their tenants, and him an old man over eighty?”

“Aye---that’s a good memory,” said Macdonald. “You won’t forget that, Mr. Staple.”

“I shan’t forget---and I tell you this, though you’re a London detective and you’ve got a head on your shoulders, ’twas as likely I shot the old man myself as that Richard did. You can think and think again, but all your thinking won’t make sense o’ that.”

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