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Chapter Sixteen

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« on: August 01, 2023, 10:45:41 am »

BY common consent, every one in Garthmere Hall went to bed early that night. Marion was heavy-eyed and silent, Charles moved about restlessly as though he were unable to keep still, and Elizabeth Meldon knitted with grim determination. She hated knitting, but anything was better than sitting with her hands in her lap. At nine o’clock Marion got up and said: “I’m going to bed. Charles, will you go up quietly. I think Malcolm’s settled down, and I don’t want him to be woken up.”

“All right. I’ll go up now. I’m sleepy after all that driving. Good-night, Moll.”

He went yawning out of the room, and Marion and Elizabeth went their usual round of seeing that the doors were shut and bolted. Just before they went upstairs Marion said in a low voice, “If you hear anything outside, don’t worry. There are police out there now. I saw one of them when I went to shut the ducks up.”

Elizabeth squeezed Marion’s arm. She did not know what to say.

Silence settled on the vast house: a stillness only broken by the occasional crack of an old board or the scurry of mice in the wainscot. Once or twice one of the cattle lowed, as though they were aware of strange human beings abroad. One of the constables who was on duty outside observed the faint beams of light which shone through chinks in the shutters. “Black-out not too good,” he observed. The last light to be extinguished was in a window in the west wing---Malcolm Garth’s room. He did not put his light out until nearly two hours after the other lights were extinguished. The lamplight in Malcolm’s room shone out beneath his bedroom door and made a sharp line of yellow light which shone startlingly bright down the long passage outside. A watcher had been observing that light for more than an hour before darkness settled down on the passage---absolute darkness, which baffled the senses. The watcher in the passage kept very still. A listener might have heard the sound of breathing, but apart from that not a sound indicated the presence of the patient being who waited there. Downstairs, very far away, a grandfather clock chimed midnight and the watcher stirred at last. Boards creaked---that was all---but the boards creaked from different directions as the watcher advanced step by cautious step towards the bedroom door. There was silence again: the door handle was being turned, but the handle did not creak and complain as did most of the latches in Garthmere Hall. It was well oiled, as were the hinges of the old door: it opened with only the tiniest sound as it was moved inch by inch, and then silence fell again. The watcher at the door held his breath for a few seconds; the sound of Malcolm’s breathing was audible now the door was open. The boy was sleeping soundly, breathing rather heavily in the darkness.

The watcher stirred again, and the blackness was relieved by the tiniest blur of light. An electric torch, muffled until it showed but the faintest of faint beams, was throwing that tiny uncanny glow on the floor. To one whose eyes were conditioned by the previous blackness the light was enough to show any obstacles and to prevent a collision with chair or chest which would have resounded throughout the silent house with an effect like a thunder clap. Step by step the watcher advanced towards the bed, and it was just as he reached within a yard of it that another beam of light slashed the darkness from the door and a low voice whispered, “Stop! Stop---don’t make a sound---there’s another way.”

As though paralysed the man near the bed stood rigid. The pencil of light from the door gleamed on the pistol he held in his hand, and his first movement was to put the ugly weapon in his pocket.

“Don’t make a sound---you’ll wake him,” whispered the voice. “Come out here----”

As though hypnotised the man by the bed turned and crept towards the eye of light and the unknown whispering voice. “Come!” it repeated.

The boy on the bed breathed more heavily and turned in his sleep, and the watcher who had crept up to the bed groped towards the light.

“Who are you?” he breathed, and there was terror in his voice.

The beam of light retreated a little, and in a panic the other leapt towards it, lost to all reason, overcome by the one mad desire to reach the whispering voice behind the beam of light. He sprang into the passage and the bedroom door swung to, shutting in the sleeping boy. The tiny swathe of light was still shining full on the watcher’s face, bewildering him, as that other voice whispered, “Come! Come quickly!”

There was a sound of running footsteps along the passage as the watcher flung himself in pursuit and then a light was switched on which seemed to have the glare of a searchlight after the tiny beam which had preceded it. In that glare two men stood face to face and recognised each other. Charles Garth saw Macdonald only a yard away from him.

“God! It’s you!” he gasped, and the silence of the house was rent by a report which echoed madly along the empty corridors, followed by the thud of a falling body.

+++

Marion Garth had not slept since she went to bed that evening. She still did not fully understand what was in Macdonald’s mind, but she instinctively trusted him. He had told her to go to bed or to stay quietly in her room, for he was coming back to the house to keep watch himself that night.

“I have trusted my own judgment in telling you that,” he had said, “because I know you won’t repeat what I say. Don’t tell anybody that I shall be here.”

“Very well. I won’t tell any one,” she had replied, and then asked, “And Malcolm?”

“I’ll look after him,” Macdonald had replied.

Hour after hour she had lain on her bed in the darkness, listening for she knew not what. She heard the strike of the grand-father clock, each hour seeming more interminable---and then she drowsed a little. She was awakened by the crash of a shot---a report which seemed like a bomb exploding in the echoing house, and she leapt up and ran outside along the passages, towards a beam of light at the stair head. “Malcolm!” she cried. “Malcolm!”

Macdonald’s steady voice answered her.

“Malcolm’s all right. Go to his room and tell him there’s been an accident. He will probably think he’s been dreaming.”

Elizabeth Meldon appeared at that instant, and Macdonald said:

“Go and tell the Moffats there’s no cause for alarm now---try to get them back to their rooms quietly. I’ve got a job to do.”

“Malcolm?” She asked the one word, and Macdonald replied: “He’s all right----Charles shot himself. I’ll tell you about it later.”

She stood still for a few seconds and said, “I’ll never forgive him for trying to put it on to Malcolm.” And then she turned and ran down the echoing corridor calling softly: “It’s all right, Mrs. Moffat. I’m coming. There’s no need to be frightened any longer.”

+++

Long before daylight that same morning, Macdonald went into the kitchen and found Marion and Elizabeth drinking tea. Marion said, “We always make tea here when things are difficult. Won’t you have a cup?”

“Thank you very much, there’s nothing I should like better,” replied Macdonald. “Is that lad all right?”

“Yes. I told him he was having a nightmare. He went to sleep again quite quickly. He was still a bit dopey after those sleeping tablets.”

“Good. I was afraid of the effect of a shock on him. He’s a nervy lad---but the doctor who saw him yesterday told me he wasn’t likely to get unbalanced, he’s quite tough in his own way.”

Marion looked across at him, her eyes tired but very bright. “Can’t you tell us what really happened, and get it over? I’m so sick and weary of this awful ‘I wonder’ feeling.”

“Very well. If you’d rather hear it now, you’ve a right to,” said Macdonald. “You’ve had a grim time, I realise that---and I’m sorry, but since things were as they were, it’s better that it’s all over, and that you haven’t the misery of giving evidence at a criminal trial.” He paused, and offered a cigarette to the others before he started his statement.

“I told you that Superintendent Layng gave me an excellent detailed statement, in which he included some shrewd comments on the various persons in the case, as well as a full report of the evidence you gave him. In addition to this, John Staple talked to me. I liked Staple, and I regarded him as a trustworthy judge of the folk he knew. He was certain that Ashthwaite had had nothing to do with the actual shooting, and he absolutely refused to consider for a moment that Richard Garth was responsible. Of course there was always the possibility that Jock had hidden in the hull---but I didn’t believe that Ashthwaite would have risked letting Jock have his gun. Thinking the thing over after I had studied Layng’s report, I considered who had a potent motive for shooting Mr. Garth. Motives can be reduced to a few elementary characters: hatred, jealousy, and desire to profit are the most usual. Take the first---hatred. Ashthwaite hated Mr. Garth, but, as Staple said, it didn’t seem to make sense that he had waited so long to pay off his grudge, and had then done it when it was obvious to all the world that he had the opportunity. Ashthwaite is cautious, and he’s also canny.”

Marion nodded. “Yes. I always thought that. He isn’t the type to take a risk.”

“And if it was improbable on those grounds that he shot Mr. Garth, I thought it still more improbable that he gave Jock a gun and trusted him to do it. Jock might have shot anything or anybody, including himself,” continued Macdonald. “Of necessity, I had to regard everybody here as suspect,” he went on, “and I included Richard among those here. Yet I didn’t believe that a son would wait for twenty-five years to shoot his father---and in any case Richard was heir to Garthmere. He had waited a long time for his heritage, but in the nature of things it wasn’t likely that he would have to wait much longer. However---he had to be included as a Class A suspect. Then came Malcolm. He did not stand to gain much in the way of profit, if anything, but because he was a nervy, highly-strung lad, it was possible that he might have done such a thing in a fit of fury. Now as to Charles—and I pondered a lot over Charles. He had lost everything in Malaya. He was living a life he hated here, and he had very few prospects. It was plain enough that little profit would accrue to him on his father’s death while Richard was alive---but if Richard were dead, then Charles was heir to the land, and Charles would have rather fancied himself as a landowner, or so it seemed to me.”

“That’s all true,” said Marion slowly, “but I just didn’t think it out.”

“Well, now let us get down to the possibilities as I saw them last night,” said Macdonald. “Richard Garth had been seen by Malcolm, and Malcolm told Miss Meldon about it in the orchard. Where was Charles at that moment? He had had tea with you, and grumbled bitterly about having to do more harvesting. Miss Garth went to telephone to Staple, Miss Meldon and Malcolm talked in the orchard---until Charles called them in. They hadn’t noticed Charles while they were talking, but it seemed quite possible that he could have eavesdropped.”

Marion nodded sombrely. “Again, I didn’t think of that, but it was just like Charles. He did listen in, and I knew it, though I never said so to anybody else.”

“The situation could have been reconstructed thus,” went on Macdonald. “Charles saw, in one of those flashes that come over an unstable mind, that here was an opportunity. Richard was known to have been in the district. If he could eliminate Richard, and then kill his father, it was about a hundred to one that the blame for his father’s death would be put on Richard. Now go back to that evening when you carted John Staple’s oats---Miss Meldon remembers it.”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth, turning to Marion. “You and Malcolm and I all came in here for a hot toddy. We supposed that Charles had gone to bed---but none of us saw him. Next morning at breakfast Charles wasn’t there. We supposed he’d gone into Lancaster by the early lorry.”

Marion looked puzzled, and Macdonald went on: “Charles knew from overhearing Malcolm that Richard was going to stay at the Wheatsheaf at Panstone. I haven’t actual proof of the following points, but I expect to get it. I think Charles walked over to Panstone, spent the night in a barn, and watched early next morning to see if Richard would leave the Wheatsheaf and what he would do. Richard left after an early breakfast, and set out over Ingleborough. His body was found at the bottom of one of the deepest pot holes in the limestone, but he had been shot through the head. When the bullet that killed him is examined, I expect it will show the same breech markings as the bullet with which Charles shot himself a few hours ago.” He paused here, and said to Marion, “I told you it was a grim story, but you wanted to know.”

“Yes,” she said resolutely, “I wanted to know.”

“The actual facts otherwise are all at your disposal,” said Macdonald. “I believed that the person who shot your father had reason to believe that he would go to the hull after the fox hunt, in order to get a post and mall to mend a fence. Probably Charles broke that fence deliberately. He had what must have seemed a marvellous opportunity with that fox hunt. Everybody was out with a gun---it would obviously be difficult to determine who did the shooting. Charles, on his own admission, went to Lawson’s Wood and saw how the guns were placed. After that he came home and watched for his chance. He could overlook the fields from the ladder in the barn, and he went to the hull with his gun and shot Mr. Garth when he appeared at the door of the hull. He then hurried back---knowing exactly what everybody in the household was doing---cleaned the gun and replaced it in the rack. The gun he used was one he had often complained of---it was covered with his own fingerprints, and he was sensible enough to see that he ran no risk there. That’s a general outline. I may have missed a few points. For instance it was Charles who put the twenty-five cent piece in the hull---to incriminate Richard, and Charles, doubtless, who put Miss Garth’s loaded gun in the office---to incriminate everybody else. He believed in confusing the issue.”

“But why did he try to put it on to Malcolm?” demanded Elizabeth indignantly, and Macdonald replied:

“Throughout the case he sought to confuse the issue: the more suspects the better, though he was convinced, I am certain, that a verdict would be brought in against Richard. It was for that reason that Charles felt he could afford to be so magnanimous about Richard. No one would have appeared more surprised than Charles had it been proved that Richard was guilty. Malcolm was only a second string---up to last night. I deliberately told Charles that Richard’s body had been found, but that the postmortem had not yet been held. Charles knew that the postmortem would prove that Richard had been shot through the back of his head---and the situation looked desperate. I was convinced that if Charles were guilty---as I believed him to be, he would make a desperate bid to remedy the situation, either by bolting himself, or by a last effort to weigh the evidence against Malcolm. That was what he did. He meant to shoot Malcolm and fake a suicide by leaving the pistol in his hand. That last tragedy, at least, was prevented. I suppose I could have prevented Charles shooting himself---but I’m not sorry. A murder trial in which the conclusion is foregone is a horrible business for those who have to give evidence.” He turned again to Marion: “Don’t think I don’t realise what this recital has meant to you, Miss Garth. Again, I’m deeply sorry.”

Marion stood up and took a deep breath, a tall, dignified woman with a worn face.

“There’s something else to be remembered,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for you, Mr. Macdonald, it might have happened that Malcolm was killed, too, and a verdict of murder and suicide given against him. In which case Charles would have inherited Garthmere. Oh, I know it’s been horrible---but at least it’s a nightmare from which there is an awakening. It might have been an endless nightmare---believe me, I’m not ungrateful.”

She walked quietly out of the room, and Macdonald turned to Elizabeth. “Before I go I should like to thank you for all the things you remembered to tell me when you talked to me last night. They all helped.”

“I never liked Charles,” she said slowly, “and I liked him less when he began to be so nice to Marion after Mr. Garth was shot. It didn’t ring true. The only queer thing I noticed at first was that Charles---who never had any money unless we lent him some, suddenly produced his own cigarettes in plenty, and took to going to the pub. Whisky costs money these days. I felt awful when I found myself wondering if he’d taken the money---from a dead man’s pocket.”

“Yes,” said Macdonald. “It’s an ugly thought---but I’m afraid it was true.”

Elizabeth walked with him to the door, and as she opened it she gave a cry of relief. Above the stark blue line of the fells the sky was flushing to dawn, and the white mists of the valley were opalescent and luminous.

“Thank goodness for the beasts and the land!” she cried. “Presently Marion will come and help milk the cows and feed the calves and count the eggs, and do all the decent commonplace things which make life good----Listen! That’s the calves calling already---they can hear our voices. Doesn’t it smell good out here?”

“It smells very good,” said Macdonald. He held out his hand to her. “Good-bye and good luck. I’ve liked this place so much----I wish I’d learnt to milk a cow----”

She laughed at that. “Come back again one day and try! If I possess a cow of my own by then I’ll let you learn to milk her. Do you know the motto of Lancaster, by the way?”

“No. What is it?”

“Luck to Loyne. You wished me luck, you know.”

“I repeat the wish,” said Macdonald, “and---Luck to Loyne!”

THE END

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