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Chapter Thirteen

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« on: August 01, 2023, 07:54:51 am »

MACDONALD drove Staple back to his farm, and then went on to the nearest telephone call-box and put a call through to Layng, asking him to arrange certain matters for the next day---Sunday. This particular course of action had been suggested to Macdonald by a remark of Staple’s. He then drove back to Garthmere, left his car close to the old hull, and went in by the fold yard gate.

There was nobody about. Macdonald paused to consider. It was Saturday, and probably Jem and Bob Moffat had both knocked off at middle day, since both haymaking and harvest were over, and there was no urgency over lifting potatoes or turnips. The milking would be done, the cattle turned out to pasture again, and probably the Garths were having a belated tea.

Macdonald went into the barn by the side door and waited until his eyes grew accustomed to the half-light. It was a fine structure, the great roof beams more impressive than those of many an ancient church: regarding them thoughtfully, Macdonald decided he liked the beams all the better because they were not shaped to a smooth finish, but showed the original irregularities of the wood. The open space of the barn where he stood held bins and chests and gear; at the farther end, beyond the double doors which admitted the hay carts, was an open loft, loaded with hay to the pent roof above, save at one side where a ladder ran up to give access to the store. Below the loft the floor of the barn was some feet lower than the main parts: here were the cow stalls or shippon, where a dozen cows could be tied up at milking time or housed in the winter months. They were empty now, and the shippon door stood wide open.

Macdonald walked across the rough floor of the barn and mounted the ladder leading up to the loft. There was no window here, but high above, just under the angle of the pent roof, a small space had been left open to admit daylight. It was twelve feet above Macdonald’s head, but he found another ladder lying by the wall, presumably used when the hay had been piled up to the roof. Not without difficulty Macdonald upended the ladder against the hay, tested its stability and mounted it. As he had expected, the gap up in the gable was a fine view point: he could see over tree tops and hedges and irregularities in the ground, right to Lawson’s Wood in the distance, and to the door of the old hull nearer at hand.

“Here a little and there a little,” he said to himself as he descended to the loft floor.

He had just set foot on the rungs of the lower ladder when a change in the light told him that someone was standing at the side door of the barn, impeding the daylight. A cool voice said: “And what the dickens do you think you’re doing?”

Macdonald reached the ground and turned before he answered the unfamiliar voice. A tall, lanky lad stood by the door, regarding Macdonald with amused dark eyes. The latter answered: “Are you Malcolm Garth? My name’s Macdonald.”

“Scotland Yard in the Shippon, or The Corpse in the Hay Loft,” responded the other. “Have you found anything?”

“Only what I expected to find---a good view,” replied Macdonald. He pulled from his pocket the damp little copy of The Ancient Mariner he had found by the wall on the fell side.

“I think this is probably yours. I found it in the heather,” he said.

“Oh damn----I mean, thank you very much,” replied Malcolm. “I am a fool! I like that book---and look at it now.”

“Yes. Distinctly damaged,” replied Macdonald. “Considering the way it rained on the Monday night and all day Tuesday, it’s only surprising that the book’s recognisable as a book at all.” He paused and then went on, evenly and deliberately, “How much of the conversation did you hear when John Staple talked to Richard Garth up on the fell side near your hives last Monday?”

Malcolm stood quite still, his pale face curiously white in the half-light of the barn. “I heard most of it---but I wasn’t much the wiser,” he replied, and his voice was quite steady. “You won’t be much wiser, either,” he continued, “because although I listened in, I’m not going to repeat what I heard.”

“I haven’t asked you to, laddie,” replied Macdonald. “I’ve heard the gist of it from a pretty reliable witness named Staple.”

“Hell! He never told you he’d seen Richard! I don’t believe it!”

“If it interests you, I knew that Richard Garth had been in the neighbourhood before I asked John Staple about their conversation,” replied Macdonald. “Now I may have a lot of questions to ask you later on. For the moment, one question outweighs the others in importance. That is---how many people did you tell about having seen Richard Garth on Monday?”

“I didn’t tell anybody.”

“Quite a good effort, but it’s not true,” replied Macdonald. “If you’re interested in detection, you might like to know that the motives which make people give untrue answers are among the chief points to elucidate. It’s quite often done from the best intentions, such as shielding someone else.”

“I’m not shielding anybody.”

“No? Then you’re lying from a baser motive---the desire to shield yourself.”

“Damn you, I’m not!” burst out Malcolm furiously.

“Don’t be silly,” replied Macdonald, not condescendingly and quite good-humouredly. “You’ve got plenty of wits,” he went on. “Consider this. I’m more than double your age, and for more than twenty-five years I’ve been interrogating people like yourself---people who have no idea of the amount of patient donkey work which is described as detection. If I hadn’t learnt the elements of my job in that time I should have been kicked out years ago. I have come here to find a murderer, and you know it, and yet you give silly answers which are obviously untrue because you won’t face the issue clearly.”

Malcolm was stubbornly silent, and Macdonald went on: “You can answer my question truthfully now, or you can come into the house with me, wait until I have collected every member of the household, and listen while I interrogate each one of them concerning the question I have asked you. It will probably be a long-drawn-out and rather painful business, because it will involve a detailed account of exactly how every one spent his or her time on Monday evening and on Thursday between dawn and five o’clock.” Still Malcolm was silent, and Macdonald continued: “The word ‘alibi’ has a romantic flavour, but the proving or breaking of an alibi is often a tedious---and generally unromantic---business. But it can generally be done. Now for Thursday afternoon, you have no alibi at all. I don’t know what is your estimate of human nature, but I tell you this. If you stick to your statement that you told nobody about having seen Richard Garth, I shall have no alternative but to arrest you. You may be willing to face that yourself, but do you think every one else is going to be willing to see you charged with murder and make no effort to help you by telling the truth?”

In the silence which followed, the sound of footsteps on the stone flags outside rang out clearly, and next moment another figure was silhouetted against the light at the side door of the barn. Elizabeth Meldon, in a gay cotton frock, called “Malcolm! Do buck up! Whatever are you doing?”

“Oh, go away, Lisa! Go away!”

“Will you come in, Miss Meldon? I am trying to get an accurate answer out of young Garth here, and I’m not making much headway. You know who I am?”

“I suppose you’re the Scotland Yard man,” she said, and Malcolm cried again: “Go away, Lisa---it’s not your business!”

“I think it may be Miss Meldon’s business,” replied Macdonald. “The question I want answered is this.” He turned to her and asked: “Did Malcolm Garth tell you that he had seen his half-brother Richard on the fell side on Monday? I know that he did see him, and he hasn’t denied it. All I want to know for the moment is---did he tell you that he had seen him?”

Elizabeth soon made up her mind about answering, and her answer was plain: “Yes, he did tell me.”

“Have you repeated that fact to anybody at all?”

“No. Not to a soul. If the Superintendent had asked me, I should have told him, because I don’t believe it’s any good telling lies---but I didn’t see that I’d got to tell unless I was asked.”

“We won’t argue over that,” said Macdonald, and turned again to Malcolm. “Now we’ve got that point clear, will you tell me if you passed the same information on to anybody else?”

Malcolm did not answer, and Macdonald became suddenly aware that the lad was swaying as he stood. It did not need Elizabeth’s cry of “Catch him!” to make Macdonald spring forward and save him from falling. He lowered the boy neatly on to the floor of the barn and lifted his inert wrist.

“Is he liable to fainting fits?” he asked Elizabeth, and she nodded.

“Yes. His heart is funny. He faints if he gets upset or over excited. I’ll go in and get some water and sal volatile. He’ll be all right in a minute.”

“Tell them he’s fainted---I’ll bring him into the house in a little while,” said Macdonald.

He stayed beside the lad in the shadowy barn, and presently saw his eyes open.

“All right. Keep quiet for a moment, you’ll soon be better,” he said.

Malcolm frowned in a concentrated effort of recollection. “She didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said, and closed his eyes again.

Elizabeth came back with a glass in her hand, and Marion Garth followed her. Marion expressed no surprise at seeing Macdonald there; she only said, “We must get him to bed. Can you carry him, or shall I help?”

“I can do it. He doesn’t look very heavy,” replied Macdonald.

He lifted the lad skilfully and took him into the house. There was a settee in the kitchen, and Macdonald obeyed Marion’s injunction and laid Malcolm thereon.

“He’ll be all right after a bit, and then he’ll be able to get upstairs on his own feet,” she said. She walked to the door, beckoning to Macdonald to follow her, and she led him outside into the yard.

“It’s no use talking in there where he can hear us,” she said. “What happened---or can’t I ask that?”

“I think you’ve every right to ask,” replied Macdonald. He told her, very simply and clearly. Marion sat down on the low stone wall as though all the strength had gone out of her.

“Richard----” she said, her voice very low and sombre. “How unbelievable---I still don’t believe it. Charles told me what you said this morning, but we neither of us believed it. Do you know where he came from?”

“He’s in the Mercantile Marine, or so he told Staple.”

She looked up at Macdonald, her heavy eyes lightening a bit.

“Then he will have gone back to his ship?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. “I’ve got to find out.”

She looked down, her face heavy and brooding: “I suppose that’s what Malcolm has been worrying over. He’s looked like a ghost all this time. I was afraid----”

She broke off, and Macdonald said: “Will you go in and ask Miss Meldon to come and speak to me?---and I’m afraid I shall have to wander round the house a bit. Perhaps you had better understand this: I think it’s probable that the gun used for shooting your father was a gun in this house. I shall have to look at them, and study exits and entrances.”

“Do as you like. The whole thing is so horrible I’m incapable of thinking clearly about it. I’ll send Elizabeth Meldon out, and if you want me again, she will fetch me.”

+++

Elizabeth came out and joined Macdonald in the shadowy evening. “What is it you want to know?” she asked.

“I want to know exactly when, where, and in what circumstances, Malcolm Garth told you that he had seen Richard talking to John Staple.”

“It was on Monday, after tea---about six o’clock. If you’ll come round to the other side of the house, I’ll show you exactly where we talked.”

She led him to a gate at the farther side of the flagged yard, and they then turned the corner of the house.

“This used to be a formal garden in the long ago,” said Elizabeth, “but it’s a very long time since any gardeners worked here.”

“You’ve got a grand crop of onions over yonder,” said Macdonald, and Elizabeth replied: “Yes. They ought all to be up by now. Miss Garth has been working at them every minute she can spare, but it’s always the same trouble in the country---there isn’t enough time.”

They had passed a stretch of level grass, which had once been a lawn, where some geese were preening themselves happily. On their right was the house, on their left a low wall of dressed stone with smooth slabs on top.

“That’s the window of the ‘parlour’ where we have meals,” said Elizabeth, indicating the long french window. “We had had tea on Monday, and Marion had said that she was going to offer to help John Staple cart his last load of oats. She went to telephone to him, and I was waiting by the window when I heard Malcolm calling to me. He was by the orchard gate---over there. I went over to him, and we walked in the orchard, and he told me how he’d been asleep up in the heather, and had woken up and heard two men talking just on the other side of the wall where his hives are. He listened to them, and realised that it was his half-brother, Richard, talking to John Staple. Soon after they had left he came home here to tea. That was all.”

“Thank you for telling me about it so clearly,” replied Macdonald. “Now I’m afraid there will be a lot of other questions I want to ask you, but if I’m going to look round inside the house, I think I’d better take advantage of what daylight is left. There isn’t any electric light, is there?”

“Gracious no! The only modern thing in this house is the telephone, and Marion had an awful tussle to get that. It was such a nuisance not being able to get at the vet, and the cattle-van people, and the corn millers. You’ll find most of the farmers round here are on the phone.”

“I wonder if you’d show me my way about inside a little? This house looks a formidable proposition.”

“Oh, no---you see we only use a small part of it. Hardly anybody except old Mr. Garth used the big staircase. We all use the kitchen one. Of course I’ll show you the house. Shall we go in by the parlour---it’s the usual way---when we don’t use the kitchen door.”

She led Macdonald through the parlour and as she opened the farther door she said: “This passage leads to the kitchen---through that baize door; if you turn the other way you get to the office---where Mr. Garth and Marion kept their bills and forms and accounts---and to the big dining-room which is never used and then the main staircase.”

“And the gun-room?”

“That’s just here---it’s really under the kitchen stairs.”

She opened another door and Macdonald switched on his torch. The small room was used as a cloak room; there were Wellington boots and mackintoshes and ancient tweed coats and cloaks hanging on the walls. The guns---six of them---hung on racks, and Elizabeth explained: “The two top ones are---were---old Mr. Garth’s, and the rifle is his, too. The double-barrelled shotgun below that is Marion’s, and the lowest two belonged to Charles and Richard. I believe they’re very old. Charles has tried both of them, but he says they’re hopelessly antiquated. Marion says he only complains because he’s a rotten shot.”

“Is he?”

“Oh, yes, hopeless. He tried potting rabbits at harvest until I told him I wouldn’t go on driving the tractor unless he put his gun down. He’s a menace with a gun.”

“Do you shoot?”

Macdonald was looking round as he spoke, observing the boxes of ammunition on the shelves above the gun racks.

“Well---I can, but I’m a pretty poor shot, and it doesn’t give me any pleasure. Mr. Garth was a wonderful shot once, and Marion’s very good. She gets wild duck sometimes---and that’s not easy.”

As he listened to the girl’s quiet, unembarrassed voice, Macdonald thought what a queer place the world was now. Elizabeth Meldon could have taken her place anywhere, in university or drawing-room---and she worked as a farm labourer worked, at any job on the farm. While she talked, Macdonald lifted down the guns, broke and examined them: each one was unloaded, cleaned, and in good condition. Anybody, on that afternoon when old Garth was shot, could have come into the empty house, borrowed gun and ammunition, used it, cleaned and returned it to its rack.

He switched off his torch and turned to Elizabeth. “Shall we go on exploring? I only want to see the kitchen, and any other entrances on the ground floor which are generally used.”

“There’s a side door which leads to the kitchen stairs---close beside the kitchen itself, then there’s the kitchen door, the scullery door, and the dairy door. Most people come to the kitchen door. It saves time.”

Macdonald paused just before passing through the baize door.

“If anybody had wanted to enter the house without going through the kitchen on the afternoon of Mr. Garth’s death, how many entrances were there for them to choose from?”

“At least three: the parlour window, the side door by the back stairs, and the office window. It’s nearly always left unlatched, and it’s a long window so it’s easy to get in by. Then there’s the dairy: you can go through the dairy and come out into this passage---look, through there and down the stone steps.”

She led the way down the steps into the stone-flagged dairy, which had another door leading out into the fold yard as well as the door into the kitchen. A flickering light was showing in the kitchen, and Macdonald went in there to find Marion lighting a lamp and Charles sitting on the kitchen table.

Marion looked up from her task. “Malcolm’s gone upstairs, Elizabeth. I think he’s all right now. Do you mind going and blacking out for him and seeing his lamp is all right? Don’t let him talk too much.”

“All right. I’ll go up.”

Elizabeth went quickly out of the room and Marion began to close the heavy shutters.

“Can I help you with that?” inquired Macdonald, and she replied:

“No, I’m used to it. These shutters are devils to move.”

Charles heaved a ponderous sigh. “Where are we now, Chief Inspector? It all looks pretty grim to me.”

“So far as the evidence goes, you know as much as I do,” replied Macdonald. “It seems perfectly plain that it would have been quite easy for anybody to have come into this house on Thursday afternoon and borrowed a gun---and returned it later.”

“I told you you oughtn’t to have touched those guns,” growled Charles. He turned to Macdonald. “When Marion came back in here, after she’d phoned to the police, she went and checked up on each of the guns in the gun-room,” he explained.

Marion cut in in her usual decisive way: “I wanted to know if any of the guns were missing---or if they’d been used or left loaded. I’d been worried about leaving my own gun about----It went off in the office one day.”

“Yes. I heard about that,” said Macdonald. “When you examined the guns after your father was shot, what did you find?”

“Nothing. They were all in order---unloaded and cleaned.”

“Perfectly correct,” said Charles. “I looked at them, too. I suppose we ought not to have touched them---but there it is.”

“But I still don’t see how anybody could have known Father would go to the hull,” protested Marion. “It’s all so stupid and inconclusive----Richard might have done this, might have done that----”

“Your brother knew this place well,” said Macdonald. “He would have known that it was possible to see as far as Lawson’s Wood from at least one point easily accessible here---that is, from a ladder on the loft of the barn. You can see right out over the fields from the gap up in the gable.”

Marion sat very still, staring at Macdonald. “Even so, even if he’d seen Father coming over the fields towards the hull, he wouldn’t have known he was going in there.”

“No---but if your father had seen the door of the hull was open, isn’t it almost certain he would have gone to shut it---as John Staple did?”

“Oh Lord, yes, I suppose so.” It was Charles who answered, his voice depressed and irritated, as though he found it an effort to control himself. He drummed with his fingers on the table and went on: “Admittedly you’ve made out a case, and a damned clever case, but you haven’t any proof at all. It might have happened as you say---or it might not. Personally, I don’t believe it.”

“What are you going to do?----Or is that an idiotic thing to ask?” Marion spoke wearily, and Macdonald replied: “The obvious thing to do is to find your brother, Richard. That may take time---but it’s got to be done. Meanwhile I’ll be getting on my way. I hope that lad won’t be any the worse. Good-night.”

Macdonald walked to the kitchen door and Charles followed him. “Good-night. I can only say again---I don’t believe you’re right.”

It was dusk as Macdonald made his way outside to his car, and just as he was getting in a voice called to him softly, “Mr. Macdonald, just a minute.”

It was Elizabeth Meldon, and he stood up and waited for her.

“I’ve been talking to Malcolm,” she said. “He didn’t tell any one else except me that he’d seen Richard. I’m quite sure he’s telling the truth about that. He’s been worrying about it all---that’s what made him so queer.” Her voice was hurried and a little breathless, and she went on: “I expect you think I’m silly, trying to explain things, but I’m so sorry for Malcolm. I know he didn’t do it, but it’s so hopeless to try to prove it.”

“There’s one thing you could do, if you would, Miss Meldon,” replied Macdonald. “It’s this. Will you try to write down a description of everything that was said and what happened at tea time on Monday afternoon, from the time Malcolm came in until you went into the oatfield---where you all sat and what every one did so far as you can remember?”

“Yes. I’ll try---but nothing much was said or done----However, I’ll do my best, though I’m not much good at writing things down. Wouldn’t it be easier if I tried to tell you?”

“If you’d rather. Will you come with me in the car a little way and we can talk?”

“Of course.” Elizabeth got in the car and Macdonald drove on for a few hundred yards in silence. As he pulled up Elizabeth spoke again.

“I’ve been thinking: perhaps I’m all wrong and just being horribly suspicious, but I have remembered something a bit queer about Monday evening----”

And Macdonald listened to the girl’s low, breathless voice talking in the gloom.

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