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1: The Tragedy

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« on: August 31, 2023, 10:38:58 am »

RUTH Averill moved slowly across the drawing room at Starvel, and stood dejectedly at the window, looking out at the Scotch firs swaying in the wind and the sheets of rain driving across the untidy lawn before the house.

The view was even more depressing than usual on this gloomy autumn afternoon. Beyond the grass-grown drive and the broken-down paling of posts and wire which bounded the grounds, lay the open moor, wild and lonely and forbidding. A tumble of dun-coloured sedgy grass with darker smudges where rock out-cropped, it stretched up, bleak and dreary, to the lip of the hollow in which the dilapidated old house had been built.

To the girl standing in the window with a brooding look of melancholy on her features the outlook seemed symbolical of her life, for Ruth Averill was not one of those whose lives could be said to have fallen in pleasant places.

But, in spite of her unhappy expression, she was good to look at as she stood watching the storm. Though rather under medium height she had a charming figure and something of a presence. She was dark, as though in her veins might flow some admixture of Spanish or Italian blood. Her features were small and delicate, but her firmly rounded chin gave promise of character. She scarcely looked her twenty years of age.

But though she had the fresh vitality of youth, there was something old-fashioned in her appearance not out of accord with her surroundings. She wore her long dark hair piled up in great masses over her broad forehead. Her dress was of the plainest, and in the fashion of three years earlier. Though scrupulously neat, it was worn threadbare. Her shoes were cracked and her stockings showed careful darns.

For Ruth Averill was an orphan, dependent on the bounty of her uncle, Simon Averill, for every penny. And Simon Averill was a miser.

Ruth was born in Southern France, and she had dim recollections of a land of sun and warmth, of jolly people and bright colours. But since she had come to this gloomy old house in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors the joy had gone out of her life. Her companions during childhood had been the two not very prepossessing servants and the still less attractive gardener and out-door man. With her uncle Simon she had nothing in common. Even at the time of her arrival he was elderly and morose, and every day he seemed to grow more self-centred and less approachable.

After some years a break had come in her life; she had been sent to a boarding school. But she had not been happy there, so that when she was “finished” she was almost glad to return to the dullness and loneliness of Starvel.

There she had found changes. Her uncle Simon was now an invalid, querulous and solitary, and living only for the accumulation of money. His passion took the form of collecting actual coins and notes and hoarding them in his safe. He made no attempt to cultivate the friendship of his niece, and had it not been that he required her to read to him once a day, she would have seen him but seldom.

At this time also the two old women servants and the gardener had gone, and their places had been taken by a comparatively young married couple called Roper. Though more efficient than their predecessors, Ruth did not take to either of the newcomers, with the result that the fourteen months which had passed since her return from school were lonelier than ever.

Had it not been that Ruth had developed an interest in flowers and gardening, she would have found herself hard put to it to fill her life. Gardening and her friendship with a semi-invalid entomologist who lived close by, together with occasional excursions to the neighbouring market town of Thirsby, were the only distractions she could count on.

But recently another factor had come into her life. She had met on a number of occasions a young man named Pierce Whymper, the junior assistant of an ecclesiastical architect in Leeds. Whymper was acting as clerk of works during some renovations to the parish church at Thirsby, and when Ruth had gone with one or two of the local ladies to inspect the work he had been particularly attentive. He had begged her to come again to see how the job progressed, and she had done so on more than one occasion. Then one day she had met him walking near Starvel, and she had invited him to come in and have tea. This visit had been followed by others and they had made excursions together on the moor. Though no word of love had been spoken during any of these interviews, she knew that he was attracted to her, and though she would hardly admit it to herself, she knew also that she would marry him if he should ask her.

Such was the general condition of affairs in the old house of Starvel on this gloomy September afternoon, an afternoon which was to be remembered by Ruth as the end of her old life and the prelude to a new existence in a different world.

As she was standing, staring mournfully out of the window, the attendant, Roper, entered the room. She did not know then, though she realised it afterwards, that the message he was bringing her was to be the herald of a series of terrible and tragic happenings, so dark and sinister and awful that had she foreseen them she might well have cried out in horror and dismay. But she did not foresee them, and she turned with her instinctive courtesy to hear what the man had to say.

The message, though almost unprecedented, was in itself the reverse of alarming. Roper explained that Mr. Averill had instructed him to hand this note, which he had received in a letter to himself, to Miss Ruth, and to say that he hoped Miss Ruth would accept the invitation it contained. Further, that as there would be expenses in connection with the visit, he wished Miss Ruth to have the ten pounds enclosed in this other envelope. She could go in to Thirsby in the morning, get any little thing she might want, and go on to York in the afternoon.

With rapidly beating heart Ruth unfolded the dog-eared corner of the note, which was addressed simply “Ruth,” and read as follows:—

    “Oakdene,” Ashton Drive, York. September 10th.

    “My Dear Ruth,—I hope you will allow me to address you in this way, as your father and I were old friends. I nursed you when you were a baby, and though we have not met for many years, I do not feel that you are a stranger.

    “This is to ask if you will come and stay here for a few days and meet my daughters Gwen and Hilda. I do hope you can.

    “Our autumn flower show opens on Wednesday, and the roses are always worth seeing. I am sure you would enjoy it, so try to reach here on Tuesday afternoon and you will be in time to go there with us.

    “Yours very sincerely, “Helen Palmer-Gore.”

Ruth could scarcely believe her eyes as she read this friendly letter. Mrs. Palmer-Gore she dimly remembered as a large, kindly, fussily-mannered woman, whom she had liked in spite of her trick of giving unpleasantly moist kisses. But she had never visited her, or ever been to York, and the prospect thrilled her.

But unexpected as the invitation was, it was as nothing compared to her uncle’s attitude towards it. That he should have given her permission to go was surprising enough, but that he should have sent her ten pounds for her expenses was an absolute miracle. Ten Pounds! What a sum! Why, she had never had the tenth part of it in her possession before! And what she could buy with it! Visions of frocks, shoes, hats and gloves began to float before her imagination. Feeling as he did towards money, it was good of her uncle Simon. She turned impulsively to Roper.

“Oh, how kind of uncle,” she exclaimed. “I must go up and thank him.”

Roper shook his head.

“Well, miss, I shouldn’t if I were you,” he advised in his pleasant Scotch voice. He came from somewhere in Fife. “The master’s not so well, as you know, and he particularly said he didn’t want to be disturbed. I’d wait and see him in the morning before you go. You will go, I suppose?”

“Of course I shall go, Roper.” She hesitated, undecided. “Well, perhaps if he said that, I’d better see him in the morning, as you suggest.”

“Very good, miss. Then I’d best arrange for a car to take you in to Thirsby in the morning? About ten, maybe?”

“Thank you. Yes, about ten will do. And you might send a telegram to York which I will write for you.”

The man bowed and withdrew, and Ruth gave herself up to glorious dreams of the next few days: not so much of visiting the Palmer-Gores and York, but of getting away from Starvel. Yes, she admitted it to herself at last. It was to get away from Starvel that she really welcomed the invitation. While there had been no chance of quitting it, she had not realised how terribly bitter was her hatred of the place. And not the place only, but of every one in it. She hated her uncle---in spite of the ten pounds. She hated Roper with his sleek civility, and most of all she hated Mrs. Roper, who always treated her with a veiled insolence, as if silently taunting her because of her dependent position. Oh, how splendid it would be to get away from the place and everything connected with it, even for a few days! And she determined she would use the opportunity of this visit to find out what her chances would be of getting some job by means of which she could support herself, so that she might never be forced to return to Starvel or see any of its inhabitants again.

That night she could scarcely sleep from excitement, and next morning she was ready with her shabby little suitcase long before the time at which the car was to arrive.

She was somewhat uneasy about her uncle’s condition. For several days he had been ailing, and when she had gone in to say good-bye to him before leaving she had thought him looking very ill. He was asleep, but breathing heavily, and there was something in his appearance which vaguely disquieted her.

“I don’t think he’s at all well,” she said to Roper when she came down. “I believe he should have the doctor.”

“I was of the same opinion, miss, and I took the liberty of calling at Dr. Philpot’s when I went in to order your car. But the doctor’s ill. He’s got influenza and is confined to bed. I thought of going on to Dr. Emerson, and then I thought if it’s only influenza that’s wrong with Dr. Philpot we might just as well wait. He’ll likely be about again in a day or two.”

Dr. Philpot was Mr. Averill’s usual attendant. He was a youngish man who had come to the place some three or four years earlier, and who had already built up a reputation for care and skill. The other practitioner, Dr. Emerson, was old and past his work, and had retired in all but name.

Ruth paused in some perplexity.

“That’s very unfortunate. But I think you are right that if it’s only a matter of a day or two we should wait for Dr. Philpot. I hadn’t heard he was ill.”

“Neither had I, miss. He was all right on Thursday, for he was out that day to see Mr. Giles.”

“So I understand. How is Mr. Giles to-day?”

“I haven’t heard this morning, miss, but last night he was far from well. Mrs. Roper is just going up to see if there is anything wanted.”

“I’ll go round to see him on my way to Thirsby,” Ruth decided. “Can I give Mrs. Roper a lift?”

“Thank you, miss, it would be a convenience. I’ll tell her.”

Markham Giles, the entomologist, was their nearest neighbour. He was the son of an old friend of Mr. Averill’s and lived alone in a little cottage half a mile away across the moor. He was a pathetic instance of the wreckage left by the War. Never physically strong, he had been rejected for the earlier army drafts, but when the struggle had dragged out and the standard for recruitment had been lowered he had again volunteered and had got through. He had served in Flanders, had been badly gassed and wounded, and six months later had left the hospitals the shadow of his former self. Being alone in the world and penniless save for his pension, he had headed north to his father’s old friend. A small cottage belonging to Starvel being then vacant, Mr. Averill had offered it to him at a nominal rent. There he had since lived, occupying his time by keeping bees and by studying the insect life of the moor. On this subject he had become somewhat of an authority, and had written articles which had attracted attention in entomological circles. He and Ruth were good friends and she had helped in the capture and arrangement of his specimens.

Some days previously he had developed influenza, and though he did not seem seriously ill, he was not shaking it off. Mrs. Roper had been kind in looking after him and Ruth also had done what she could.

Ten minutes later the two women arrived at the tiny cottage which lay just outside the lip of Starvel Hollow, the big saucer-shaped depression in the moor in the centre of which stood Simon Averill’s house. Markham Giles looked worse than when Ruth had last seen him. He lay with half-closed eyes and seemed too dull and listless to more than notice his visitors. But he feebly thanked them for coming and said he was quite comfortable and wanted nothing.

“If he’s not better by to-morrow, I think you should send for Dr. Emerson,” Ruth declared as she returned to her car.

“I think so, too, miss. Very good, I’ll arrange it. And if he seems bad to-night either John or I will come over and sit with him. I don’t like his look this morning somehow.”

“It’s very good of you, Mrs. Roper. But I expect he’ll be all right.”

“I hope so, miss. Good-morning, miss.”

Ruth’s mind was troubled as she turned away. She had always been intensely sorry for Markham Giles, and now she hated leaving him lying there alone. But there was nothing that she could do, and with a half sigh she re-entered her vehicle and was driven into Thirsby.

There she spent the morning shopping, packing her purchases in her suitcase. This was followed by a frugal meal at the local tea shop, and then arose the question of how she should spend the hour remaining until train time.

She left her suitcase at the tea shop, and sallied forth. Involuntarily her steps turned towards the church, though she assured herself that under no circumstances would she enter the building. There could, however, be no objection to walking past the gate.

What she would have done eventually if left to herself will never be known, as Fate intervened and arranged her visit for her. Turning a corner she all but ran into Mrs. Oxley, the wife of one of the local solicitors. Mr. Oxley had charge of all Simon Averill’s business, and on his occasional visits to Starvel he had made a point of asking for Ruth and chatting to her in his pleasant cheery way. Mrs. Oxley she had known for years, and had experienced many kindnesses at her hands.

They stopped to talk and Mrs. Oxley heard of the visit to York with interest and sympathy.

“Well,” she said, “if you’re not doing anything until half-past three, come with me to the church. Boyd, the sexton, promised to send me some of the old flags for the rock garden, and I want to know when I’m likely to get them.”

There was nothing for it but to go, and whether Mrs. Oxley had any suspicion of how matters stood, or whether she was genuinely anxious about her paving-stones, Ruth was left alone to talk to Whymper for a good ten minutes. And the young man did not fail to improve the occasion. It appeared that he had to go to the station to make inquiries about a consignment of cement, so it was natural that he should leave the church with the ladies. Mrs. Oxley, it then turned out, had business in the opposite direction and to her great regret was unable to accompany the others. So the task of seeing Miss Averill off fell to Mr. Whymper.

It was with shining eyes and heightened colour that, half an hour later, Ruth Averill sat in the corner of a third-class compartment, while the train moved out of Thirsby. That Whymper loved her she was now positive. It was true that he had not actually spoken of love, but his every word and look proclaimed his feelings. He had, moreover, insisted on telling her about his family and his position and prospects---a good sign. As to her own feelings, she was no longer in any doubt whatever. She loved him, and in loving him the gray clouds that pressed down upon her life seemed to break and the rosy light of hope to pour in through the rift.

She duly reached York and found Mrs. Palmer-Gore waiting for her on the platform. With her for two days she spent a pleasant holiday, enjoying the unwonted good-fellowship. The visit was to have lasted a week, but on the afternoon of the second day, there fell the first of the several blows that she was to experience, and her stay was brought to an abrupt termination.

They had just sat down to lunch when a telegram was handed to her. It was the first she had ever received. Excited and a trifle embarrassed, she hesitated to open it.

But when in answer to Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s kindly: “Read it, dear. Don’t mind us,” she learned its contents, all thought of herself was swept from her mind.

It was signed “Oxley,” though whether it came from the solicitor or his wife she could not tell. It read: “Terrible accident at Starvel. Your uncle injured. Return Thirsby and stay night with us.”

It was characteristic of the girl that her thoughts and feelings were all for old Simon Averill. Was the poor old man badly injured? Was he suffering? Could she do anything to help him? It was kind of the Oxleys to ask her to stay the night, but of course she could not do so. She must go out to Starvel and help with the nursing. Not one thought of the possible effect on herself of the disaster entered her mind. That the old man might die of his injuries and that she might be his heir never occurred to her. Nor did she repine at the cutting short of her first real and altogether wonderful holiday.

By Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s advice she wired to the Oxleys that she would be with them at 5.40, and after a hurried lunch she found herself once more in the train. During the journey she had time to ponder over her news. A “terrible accident” at Starvel! What could have happened? It must surely be bad or that ominous word “terrible” would not have been used. She began to invent possibilities. Had her uncle taken the wrong medicine, perhaps some awful burning stuff that would hurt him horribly? Or had he fallen downstairs or into the fire? Or cut himself and been unable to summon help?

She gave full rein to her imagination, but when she learned the truth she found it vastly more terrible than anything she had thought of. The Oxleys met her at the station, and having driven her to their home, broke the news.

It seemed that when about eleven o’clock that morning the baker was approaching Starvel to make his customary Thursday call, he had noticed a faint pall of smoke hanging in the sky above the hollow. On crossing the shoulder he had glanced down as usual into the curious circular dell, and had instantly been overwhelmed with incredulous amazement. There were the trees, the thin, stunted pines which surrounded the old house, but---the house was gone! The long line of slated roof which had stood out above the trees had absolutely vanished. No trace remained. At first sight the man thought that the entire building had disappeared, but a closer approach revealed blackened windowless walls surrounding a still smouldering interior, all that remained of the old place.

No sign of life appeared about the ruins, and the horror-stricken man was forced to the conclusion that all three occupants had lost their lives in the flames.

He drove hurriedly into Thirsby and gave the alarm, and soon Sergeant Kent of the local police force with some of his men, Dr. Emerson, Mr. Oxley and a number of others were hastening to the scene. They found matters as the baker had described, the smouldering ruins standing gaunt and sinister at the bottom of the dell, lonely and deserted, hidden from the surrounding country by the rim of the strange natural Hollow.

The fire had evidently raged with extraordinary fury. With the exception of an outhouse separate from the main building not a scrap of anything inflammable remained. Floors, roof, staircase, window sashes, all were gone. And in that glowing mass of red-hot débris within the blackened and twisted walls lay, almost certainly, the bodies of Simon Averill, and of John and Flora Roper.

Anxious that Ruth should not have to learn the terrible news from the papers, Mr. Oxley had returned to Thirsby and sent his wire. He had thought it best to make this only a preparation, intending that the full story should be broken more gently on the girl’s arrival.

Ruth was terribly shocked and upset. It was the first time, since reaching years of discretion, that she had been brought in contact with tragedy and death, and she was appalled by its horror. She begged to be allowed to go out to Starvel, but neither of the Oxleys would hear of it, pointing out that a visit would only harrow her feelings, and that she could do nothing there to help.

As the long evening dragged away she found herself hoping against hope that Whymper would call. But there was no sign of him and she supposed he had not heard of her return.

Sergeant Kent, however, had heard of it, and about eight o’clock he called and asked to see her. He was a tall, rather brusque man, though in Oxley’s presence he was polite enough. He questioned her as to the household and its personnel, but she had nothing to tell him which could throw any light on the tragedy.

The next day it was found possible to attempt some research work among the ruins, and by ten o’clock a number of men were engaged in removing the cooler portions of the débris. Ruth insisted that she must see the place for herself, and the Oxleys, not liking to let her go alone, drove her out in their car. But the terrible picture which met her eyes and the thought of what lay below the sinister mound where the men were working made her feel almost sick with horror. Her feelings too, had changed. Gone was her hatred of the place, and particularly of the three poor people who had met with such an appalling fate. She felt she had been wicked to hate them. Her uncle had been a recluse and fond of money no doubt. But in his own way he had always been kind to her. He had opened his door to her when she was a homeless child, and had since supported her without grudging the money she must have cost him. And he had been ill---continuously ill; and when people are ill they cannot help being depressed and a little trying to others. And the Ropers, had she not misjudged them also? In their own way, they, too, had always been kind to her. For the first time, Ruth saw that the lives of the couple must have been as dull and gray as her own. Though their jobs were underpaid, and rather thankless, they had not complained. And she, Ruth, had never shown an appreciation of their services. She saw now that she had really had no reason at all for hating them, and when she thought of their terrible death, her tears flowed. In silence she allowed Mrs. Oxley to lead her back to the car and drive her to Thirsby.

On their way to the little town the second blow fell on the young girl, and coming so quickly on the first, left her weak and trembling. As they mounted the rim of the Hollow they saw a funeral approaching along a converging road. It was a sorry procession; only the hearse, and the vicar and Dr. Emerson in the former’s car. As the two ladies drew up for it to pass, the vicar also stopped, and he and the doctor came over to express their sympathy with Ruth.

“You will be sorry for poor Mr. Giles, also, Miss Ruth,” the vicar went on. “I understood you were kind enough to help him in his scientific researches.”

Ruth stared at him in horror.

“You don’t mean,” she stammered, “that Mr. Giles is---is dead?”

“He died on Tuesday, I’m sorry to say. After a short illness he passed away in his sleep. He had no suffering. But, only thirty-six! Truly, another tragedy of the War.”

Ruth was stunned. Markham Giles, also! To lose at one blow all four persons whom she had known best---the only four persons in the world she had known at all well! It was too much.

She pulled herself together, however, and insisted on following her friend’s body to its last resting-place, but when she reached the Oxleys’ house she broke down altogether. Mrs. Oxley put her to bed and at last she sobbed herself to sleep.

That evening the charred remains of three human bodies were found within the tragic walls of Starvel.
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