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Chapter 23

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« on: March 15, 2023, 03:44:13 am »

IN his own two-seater Fiat, which was a very different affair from the crazy Ford in which he had last traversed these regions, with his own set of golf clubs behind and a properly packed suit case, Ernest Pank drove up, just before midday, to the Crown Hotel at Fakenham, garaged his car and entered the smoke-room bar. The same young lady was there and the same little collection of tradespeople.

“Good morning, everybody,” Pank greeted them cheerfully. “Good morning, Miss. Can I have a glass of sherry, please, and have you a room for the night?”

Almost as the words left his lips, he was conscious of the chill which had settled upon the room. His greeting was curtly received by the little sprinkling of customers. Mr. Formby, the butcher, noticeably refrained from making any response and coldly turned his back upon the newcomer. Jenkins, the saddler, looked dourly across at him. The others expressed their disapproval in characteristic fashions. The young lady tossed her head, served the glass of sherry from a bottle which contained little except dregs, and reported that the house was full.

“Dear me,” Pank said, unmoved, looking at the wineglass which was three parts full of cloudy liquid, with some specks of cork floating about. “I’m not in luck to-day, it seems.”

“Not here, at any rate,” the young lady replied.

He held the glass up to the light, set it down again with a sigh and ordered a glass of beer. He was served in silence. Afterwards he subsided into an easy-chair and lit a gasper.

“No rooms, I understand from the young lady,” he remarked to Sam Gleadow, the landlord.

“There’s a many coming and going,” was the vague reply. “We never know for sure.”

“Couldn’t you squeeze me in somewhere?” Pank asked amiably. “It’s only for one night.”

“I’m pretty sure we could not. I’m pretty sure o’ that. I’m not saying there ain’t rooms, because there are, but there ain’t any to let.”

Pank sipped out of his tankard thoughtfully.

“Would this rush of business prevent my having lunch here?” he asked.

“We can’t refuse food and drink to any as chooses to pay for it,” was the sullen reply. “That’s the law and we must abide by it.”

Pank finished his beer, raised his hat politely and left the place, crossing the cobbled way and entering the coffee-room. The waiter presiding there came unwillingly forward, allotted him a table---the most undesirable in the room---and left him to himself. Pank waited for a time, then he crossed to the sideboard, helped himself to cold beef and ham and returned to his place. The waiter reappeared with a scowl, in answer to his continual ringing of the bell.

“Bring me some bread, some butter and a tankard of beer,” his customer ordered. “And come here---a little closer to the table.”

The man obeyed reluctantly.

“I don’t want to get you into trouble,” Pank said, “but I shall do it, if I have any more of these bad manners from you. Understand that?”

The man was impressed and, against his own inclinations, he obeyed orders. Pank finished his lunch, lit a pipe and fetched his car out from the shed. He made no attempt to re-establish his popularity but drove out of the place and turned towards Keynsham. At the main gates he paused. The lodge keeper, who had opened them for him on the last occasion, came out into the road and looked at him doubtfully.

“What might you be wanting, sir?” he asked.

“I want to go up to the Hall,” Pank replied. “Can’t you open the gates?”

The man shook his head.

“Against orders, sir. His lordship’s away and the house is shut up. There’s no one there, so it’s no use, anyway.”

“Her ladyship told me I could come back any time and see the pictures,” Pank explained. “I have special permission from her. I have also a message to give her.”

“Well, her ladyship ain’t here,” the man confided. “So that’s that. Sorry, but orders is orders. The gates ain’t to be unlocked until we receive word.”

The man retreated into his cottage and closed the door. Pank reversed, drove for half a mile by the side of the tall grey stone wall, and reached a side entrance. The blowing of his horn produced the same result. This time an old woman, deaf as a post, came out and kept on repeating that the gates were closed by his lordship’s orders, and no one could pass. Pank climbed once more into his car and drove to the village. From here there was a rude entrance to the courtyard and back premises, through which on his last visit timber was being carted, and which was evidently used by the tradesmen. He turned in here but was immediately stopped.

“No road this way anywhere,” a man told him. “What do you want?”

“I want to visit the Hall,” Pank replied. “Her ladyship gave me permission to come and see some pictures and I have business with the gardener.”

“You had better write her ladyship, then. No one ain’t allowed up at the house for a time.”

“What’s wrong?” Pank enquired.

“Not your business, that I knows of,” was the surly response. “Don’t mind telling you, though, that some of these tourists have been found damaging the statuary. They’re a regular nuisance here, trapesing in at all hours of the day His lordship is the best-natured man in the world, but he has put his foot down. ‘While I am abroad,’ he says, ‘not a soul is to visit the Hall. Not a stranger to be allowed to pass.’ ”

“So his lordship is abroad, is he?”

“ ‘You want to keep a special look-out, Symons,’ he said to me---my name’s Symons---‘for folks that come here asking questions that ain’t any concern of theirs. Deal with ’em short, Symons,’ his lordship said. ‘I’ll see you through it.’ You understand me, sir?”

Mr. Symons was a red-faced, burly man with huge shoulders, and muscles which seemed to be straining against the sleeves of his velveteen coat. His fingers were locked around an ugly-looking ash stick.

“Yes, I understand you, Mr. Symons, I think you said your name was,” Pank meditated; “but I am not sure whether it is not my duty to go on up to the Hall, all the same.”

The man set his foot upon the step of the car and there was a very unpleasant expression on his face.

“Up to the house you doesn’t go and that’s all there is about it,” he pronounced. “You’re trespassing, as it is. Outside the gates! Right away.”

“Where’s the police station?” Pank asked.

“Bang opposite. And there’s a nice little cell there where you would sit comfortable for the rest of the day---and the night too.”

Pank slipped into reverse so quickly and noiselessly that his aggressor nearly lost his balance and fell backwards. He drove slowly down to the public house and entered. The landlord came out into the bar, wiping his hands.

“The bar is closed, sir,” he announced.

Pank pointed to the notice.

“I want a cup of tea,” he said. “You remember me, don’t you?”

The man admitted the fact.

“You was round here asking questions, a week or so back,” he reflected. “Wanted to know about Tom Bowhill, him as has gone to Canada.”

“That’s right,” Pank agreed. “I went up to the house that time and saw her ladyship. She told me I could finish looking at the pictures any time I liked. Now I’ve been there and the place is all locked up.”

“His lordship is away,” the landlord said curtly.

“His lordship was away last time I was there,” Pank commented, “but they didn’t behave as though they were frightened to let any one go up to the house.”

“Frightened! What are you talking about?” the man scoffed. “What’s happened is that they’ve bloody well had enough of those tourists scratching their initials everywhere, damaging the pictures and pinching anything they could lay their hands on. I would close it for good, if I were his lordship, only he’s too kind-hearted. If you want tea, sir, it will be three quarters of an hour. It’s barely half-past two, and the missus hasn’t got the kettle on. She’s only just gone up to clean herself.”

“Perhaps under those circumstances,” Pank conceded, “I’d better not wait for tea. Would I be making myself still more unpopular if I asked whether his lordship was in London?”

“You can ask till your lips crack,” was the discourteous rejoinder. “You’ll get no answer from me.”

Pank left the place and drove to the police station. He found Police Constable Choppin seated by the kitchen fire in his shirtsleeves. Something about the appearance of his visitor induced him to rise hastily to his feet. Pank handed him a paper and undid his coat. The man saluted clumsily.

“I’m off duty for an hour, sir,” he confided. “I go on at half-past three, as far as Corston village, and I am on night duty this week from twelve. There were some poachers reported----”

“Quite so, Choppin,” Pank interrupted pleasantly. “Every man has a right to his hour’s rest. I’ve been trying to get up to the Hall. What’s the matter that they won’t let any one in?”

“Had too many tourists there lately. That’s what Mr. Aldiss, the steward, said,” the man replied. “They’re fair fed up with them.”

“You have looked through my papers?”

“Certainly, Inspector.”

“Very well, then. Don’t be like the rest of these yokels and refuse to tell the truth when you are asked a question. What’s wrong up at the Hall?”

“I hadn’t heard, sir. I didn’t know as there were anything wrong,” the man declared with obvious sincerity.

“Front and back gates both locked,” Pank went on. “No one allowed up, even to see the garden. What’s the meaning of that?”

“Can’t say, I’m sure, sir,” the man asserted. “I did hear that his lordship said the next time he was away from home he’d have the place locked up, he was so tired of the damage them tourists did. They always came when he was away from home.”

“There are not many tourists about at this time of the year, Choppin.”

“It’s the truth, sir, there ain’t,” the man admitted. “It did seem queer to I, but there it is.”

“Is any one staying at the Hall?”

“Not as I knows on. Not any one who has been out in the grounds or round the village. I ain’t heard any guns, either, except Foley, the keeper. He was after some rabbits yesterday. No, I shouldn’t say there was any one staying there, sir. There was a car one night about a week ago. It come through at a great pace and turned in at the lodge gates. They were expecting it too, for everything was all open, but it might have been her ladyship, for all I know. She do rush backwards and forwards from London, when the fancy takes her. Them young women nowadays,” Constable Choppin concluded, “they do act anyhow.”

“You haven’t come across any one in the village who saw the car?” Pank asked.

“I can’t rightly say us I have, sir. Tom Foals---I suspect he was sneaking along with a snare in his pocket---he did say he’d been to see a sick brother and was nearly knocked down. It come from the London road.”

“One last question, Choppin. I won’t remind you again that you are talking to a superior officer. I am just asking you a plain question. Have you any reason to believe that there has been anything going on up at the Hall to account for these locked gates? Any visitors who have been kept quiet?”

The man looked dazed.

“There ain’t been no word or sign of anything of the sort, sir,” he declared. “Why, his lordship he be away, and her ladyship, for all her pranks, is a decent enough young body.”

Pank nodded and drew on his gloves.

“I’m not altogether satisfied, Choppin,” he concluded. “There are two well-known persons missing, and there are certain indications that they may have been brought here. I must let it go at that, but I may be back in a day or so with a search warrant.”

“What, to go over the ’all, sir?”


Police Constable Choppin grinned.

“Why, that be queer talk, Inspector,” he commented. “There ain’t a gentleman in Norfolk so high respected or who lives such a fine life as Lord Edward Keynsham. I’d as soon suspect him of doing anything wrong as God Almighty!”

Pank nodded as he stepped into his car.

“That’s the sort, Choppin,” he confided, “who always get away with it.”


Police Constable Choppin felt that his hour’s rest was wasted. He was mystified and upset. His nature abhorred surprise or unsettlement. His favourite report to his visiting superior was---‘Things do be as usual, Inspector’---and that was how he liked things to be. This was foolish talk about anything wrong at the Hall, he decided, peering through the gloom over the wall to where the great pile of buildings blotted out the sky.

“Them Londoners can be so darn foolish,” was his complacent soliloquy, as he went upstairs to wash and prepare for his afternoon’s round.


It had been a moist afternoon, with a strong inland wind which had brought up masses of black clouds, and then, suddenly abating, had left them brooding in the sky, overwhelming the earth with premature darkness. Police Constable Choppin tightened his belt, felt to see that his lantern, his truncheon and his matches were all in place, and opened the door of his cottage to step out on to the cobbled way. He found himself confronted by a familiar figure---the much worshipped figure of the great lady of the neighbourhood. She stood with her arm through the bridle of the horse from which she had just dismounted.

“Good evening, Choppin,” she greeted him.

“Good evening, your ladyship.”

“I hear there has been a stranger around, trying to get into the Hall,” she continued. “The same little man who was here a week or so ago.”

“I have seen him, your ladyship,” Police Constable Choppin replied, with some embarrassment. “In fact, he’s been here.”

“What did he want?”

The constable coughed.

“He didn’t rightly say, not so as to make it clear,” was the dubious answer. “He just come in to enquire if I knew any reason why the house should be all shut up.”

“What other questions did he ask you?”

“Well, your ladyship,” Police Constable Choppin reflected, “they were not what you might call exactly definite questions. He wanted to know if there was any visitors staying up along.”

“He did, did he? What did you tell him?”

“I told him not as I know’d on.”

“Did you tell him anything else, Choppin?”

The man was a little uncomfortable.

“I did tell he of the motor car late one night about a week ago.”

“Ah!” she murmured.

It seemed to Choppin that his visitor’s face was very white in the shadowy darkness which had crept down upon them. A spot of rain fell.

“Your ladyship had better be hurrying,” he said. “That cloud ain’t there for nothing.”

“Did he say anything else?” Lady Louise persisted.

Choppin felt that this might probably be the crisis of his life. He saw himself at one moment a sergeant with a larger garden and even an allotment. He saw himself almost simultaneously degraded to civilian’s clothes and turned out of the force. He was called upon to take a decision. He took it without undue hesitation, for her ladyship’s eyes shining out of that pale face were curiously compelling.

“He did say something about going away and perhaps coming back with what us calls a search warrant, your ladyship,” he confided. “I made bold to laugh at he, I did. A search warrant for Keynsham Hall! No one ever heard of such a thing.”

Louise turned away. She sprang lightly on to her horse’s back before Choppin could offer his clumsy assistance.

“The same funny little man, I expect,” she remarked lightly. “I’m sure you were very discreet, Choppin. You know how his lordship hates too many strangers around the place. Good-night.”

“Good-night, your ladyship.”

She cantered away into the darkness. Police Constable Choppin tightened his belt. On the whole, he was well pleased with himself. He felt somehow or other that he had progressed a step nearer that coveted stripe.


A matter of twenty miles away Amy was standing on the stone step at the back of her millinery establishment and looking dejectedly out into the dripping streets. The rain was falling in a steady downpour. There were pools of water everywhere and a perfect torrent racing down by the side of the curb. She had no mackintosh. She had stayed late to finish some work and there was a dearth of escorts. Suddenly she found herself sheltered by a large and fat umbrella and an arm was drawn through hers.

“Kept me waiting near half an hour,” a familiar voice grumbled. “Come along, child. I’ve a cab at the corner.”

“Ernest!” she exclaimed breathlessly.

He stooped and kissed her rain-glistening cheeks.

“Come along,” he invited, leading her along. “We’ll drive home and I’ll wait while you change your things. Afterwards, I’ll take you out to dinner.”

“Wait till we get to the cab,” she sighed happily.
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