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8: Litter in the Glade

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Author Topic: 8: Litter in the Glade  (Read 54 times)
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« on: April 21, 2023, 08:45:01 am »

A LITTLE before ten o'clock on the morning of Good Friday two men were making their way up the Druids' Glade by the steep path that runs from behind the hotel to the top of the hill. They had the place to themselves, although the easier slope up the bare north face of the hill was already dotted with the advance guard of the army of holiday visitors. The Glade, popular though it is, does not really come into its own until the afternoon, when the returning multitudes scramble and slip down the steep path as the most direct route to the railway station and the bus-stops in the valley. But the way is not entirely precipitous. On and near to the path are fairly level stretches, affording admirable sites for picnics. Their popularity was attested even now by mounds of strewn paper, ice-cream cartons and empty bottles.

The presence of the two men in the Glade that morning was directly related to the offerings with which the visitors had chosen to express their love of nature. Their mission was the important one of selecting a site and erecting thereon a litter basket. Colonel Sampson, who led the way, had been chosen for the task by his fellow committee members of the Friends of Yew Hill because, as a soldier, it was thought that he would have the requisite "eye for country". Mr. Tomlin, who followed him, his back bent double beneath the load of the litter basket, came because he had no choice in the matter. He was the Keeper of the Hill and paid for the job. To judge from what could be seen of his face, he did not think much of this aspect of it.

Unencumbered by anything but a sense of responsibility, the Colonel strode briskly ahead, pausing now and then impatiently for Tomlin to catch up with him. He was a lean, wiry man with fierce-looking, bushy brows, beneath which he gazed out on the world through a pair of mild, innocent brown eyes. Presently he stopped, moved a few paces from the path and drove his stick into the ground beside a pile of débris.

"This is the place, I think," he called down to Tomlin.

Tomlin staggered slowly up the hill to where he stood, laid down his burden and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.

"If you say so, Colonel," he said.

"It's the strategic point," the Colonel explained. "There," he pointed to the other side of the path, "is the Arch-druid's Tree, or whatever silly name they choose to give it. Mentioned in all the guide-books and always a focus for trippers. Here," he gesticulated southwards, "is the best view on this side of the hill. You can distinctly see Markhampton cathedral spire in clear weather. I dare say you've noticed it yourself. Climbers up or down the hill stop here for a breather. You can tell that by the mess they leave behind. Then you will see that three paths converge just above where we are standing: one skirting the side of the hill down to the Didford road, one leading up to the top of the hill near The Alps, and the other---where does this path take you, Tomlin?"

"To the car-park, sir, near the last bend of the hill road."

"Quite so. Well, whichever way they come, they won't be able to avoid the basket if we put it here. No, man, not there," he added as Tomlin upended the basket on the green patch where they stood. "That ruins the view. Put it behind that bush. . . . Steady on, though, that won't do either. It won't be sufficiently visible to people coming down the hill. They'll lose heart and chuck their stuff away before they get to it. If we were to put it there, now. . . . No, that looks dreadful. This is a bit more difficult than I thought. What do you think, Tomlin?"

Tomlin showed no desire to express an opinion.

"I don't know, I'm sure," he said doubtfully.

"Come, come, you must have some views on the matter. It's an important question."

"Well, if you really want to know what I think, Colonel, I don't think it makes a ha'p'orth of difference where you put it."

"What d'you mean?"

"They won't use it, sir, wherever it is. If you was to walk round the hill holding the basket under their noses like a collection bag in church, they still wouldn't take no notice. They'll go on throwing their filth on the ground because that's the way they've been brought up, and no amount of baskets won't teach them any different."

"I'm afraid you're a cynic, Tomlin," said the Colonel. Having uttered what he felt to be the ultimate reproof, he dismissed the objection from his mind. "I think here would do, just on the edge of the slope."

Tomlin shook his head.

"No, sir," he said firmly. "That would just be putting temptation in their way. Two years ago Lady Furlong would have me put one in a place like that, and the very first week-end they just took and rolled it down the hill. I don't see myself going down to the bottom of that and fetching it up every week-end. If you're going to put it anywhere, I should have it where those cigarette cartons are now. It's handy to the path and won't be too much trouble to bring down when it wants emptying."

The Colonel instantly found fault with Tomlin's suggestion and made a counter-proposal. After ten minutes or so of more or less good-tempered argument he finally chose a site, which happened to be the one which Tomlin had selected. The basket was finally set up in its place, and he stood back to contemplate it.

"It looks a bit empty," he remarked. "Hadn't we better put something in—a sort of nest-egg, you know?"

Diving beneath a bush, he brought out an armful of newspapers and a quantity of orange peel, which he ceremonially dumped into the receptacle. He was about to go for more, when Tomlin stopped him.

"That'll be enough to give her a start," he said. "If you start trying to pick up all the muck there is lying about, she'll be full before anyone else can use it---if anyone ever does, which I doubt."

The Colonel looked round him in despair.

"It's hopeless," he said. "There's stuff on the ground wherever you look."

"Well, sir," said Tomlin philosophically, "that's what they are like. All I can say is, things aren't so difficult as they are on the other side of the hill. There, the stuff lies about just anywhere. They do keep to the paths more here. It makes things easier when you come to scavenging."

"Maybe," said Sampson. "All the same, I think you'd find some queer things if you were to look under some of these trees." Stooping down, he peered beneath the lower branches of the Arch-druid's Yew. "There you are!" he exclaimed. "Under that fallen tree. A great heap of rags, or something."

Tomlin also stooped down and looked in the same direction. He looked long and carefully before he spoke. "I don't think it's rags, Colonel," he said, and walked slowly towards the object they had seen. The Colonel followed him, a sudden chill foreboding at his heart.

Some twenty or thirty yards higher up the hill, a yew, smaller in size than the Arch-druid's, but of considerable girth, had stood until blown over by a gale some years previously. Not entirely uprooted, with the tenacity of its kind it had continued to live after a fashion, and a dense screen of green shoots had sprouted from the recumbent trunk. The lie of the land had left a natural hollow beneath one of the main branches. Mrs. Pink's head and shoulders fitted neatly into the depression. It was her feet, stuck stiffly out beyond the surrounding leaves, that had told Tomlin that what they had glimpsed at a distance was something more sinister than a heap of rags.

The two men stood looking down at the body in silence for what seemed a very long time. At last Tomlin spoke.

"She didn't get there by herself, Colonel," he said. "Somebody must have put her there."

The Colonel nodded. "Poor woman!" he said. "Mrs. Pink, of all inoffensive people! It must have been some homicidal maniac. . . . Well, Tomlin," he went on, "I've seen a good many corpses in my time, and I don't need a doctor to tell me that there's nothing we can do for her. You're an ex-policeman. What's the drill now?"

"Notify the station, sir, and meanwhile disturb nothing," replied Tomlin promptly. He looked back the way they had come. "I'm afraid it's a bit late in the day to talk about disturbing nothing, though," he added.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, sir, if the body was brought here from below---and I reckon it's a sight too steep to carry it down from above---that means we must have walked over the very way the fellow took. What's more, if Mrs. Pink was killed on the path, ten to one it will be just where we've been cavorting round with that litter basket. The ground's hard enough as it is, but any prints they do find there will be yours and mine, I'm thinking."

"Well, standing here won't improve any clues there may be," the Colonel remarked. "We'd better get a bit farther away."

They retraced their steps carefully to the giant yew.

"One of us had better stay here to scare off any trippers that may come along," he said. "Dash it, I believe there's one coming now."

Sure enough, from above could be heard a rattle of dislodged pebbles and a moment later the sound of footsteps. They ceased to be heard as they reached the grassy platform where the litter basket had been erected. A moment later Godfrey Ransome came into view round the stem of the great tree. He was walking slowly now, looking at the ground, and had walked almost into Colonel Sampson before he was aware of him.

"Oh, sorry!" said Godfrey. "I didn't see you."

"Are you looking for something?" asked the Colonel.

"Actually, I am. Without any particular expectation of finding it, though. But one does one's best."

Godfrey moved on towards the farther side of the tree, still questing the ground.

"Not that way, if you please, sir!" said Tomlin.

"Good Lord! Why on earth not? Is anything the matter?"

"Yes, sir, there is. You're young Mr. Ransome from The Alps, aren't you?"

"Yes. Of course, I know you. I've seen you about on the hill, often."

Tomlin looked at the Colonel and nodded. Sampson cleared his throat.

"As you're by way of being a local and not one of these damned trippers, there's no harm in mentioning it," he said. "There's been a---an accident in there. I'm just on my way to tell the police."

"An accident?" Godfrey's face looked troubled. For once he looked younger than his seventeen years. "I say, sir, it isn't anything to do with Mrs. Pink, by any chance?"

"And why should you think it should be anything to do with Mrs. Pink?"

"Oh God!" The boy was nearly breaking down. "Then it is! This is just too bloody awful for words! I knew something had happened, but----"

"Pull yourself together," said Sampson in a not unkindly tone. "Mrs. Pink has---met with an accident, shall we say?---and is lying in there now. The police have got to be told. Now, I'm not entitled to ask you anything, but questions will be asked, and one of them will be: how did you know it was her?"

"I didn't know, of course," said Godfrey, more calmly. "It was just a silly guess on my part---I never dreamt it could be true. It was simply that she wasn't at early service this morning, which didn't seem a bit like her---I go pretty regularly, you know, and she's always there. So on my way back I nipped round to her cottage to see if she was all right, and I couldn't get any answer. I suppose I ought to have done something about it, but I thought I'd only make a fool of myself making a fuss about nothing, so I came straight home to breakfast. What has happened, do you suppose, sir?"

"That's for the police to find out. You'd better come with me. Tomlin, you'll stay here."

Taking the boy by the arm, the Colonel plunged down the hill.

Godfrey blew his nose violently.

"You know, sir," he said, "she was easily the nicest woman I ever knew."

Sampson suppressed a smile. It was funny to hear a boy of seventeen talk like that. All the same, he reflected, the lad might live to seventy and still find no reason to change his opinion.

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