image

GLADYS MITCHELL

The Saltmarsh
Murders

VINTAGE BOOKS
London

Contents

Cover Page

Title Page

Copyright Page

About the Author

Also by Gladys Mitchell

Chapter I: Mrs. Coutts’ Maggot

Chapter II: Maggots at the Moat House And Bats at the Bungalow

Chapter III: Sir William’s Large Maggot and Daphne’s Small One

Chapter IV: Maggots in The Church Porch and Public House Maggots

Chapter V: The Village Fête

Chapter VI: A Student Of dickens

Chapter VII: Edwy David Burt—His Maggot

Chapter VIII: Bob Candy’s Bank Holiday

Chapter IX: The Village Speaks its Mind

Chapter X: Sundry Alibis, and a Regular Facer

Chapter XI: Reappearance of Cora

Chapter XII: Permutations and Combinations

Chapter XIII: Bats in the Jury Box

Chapter XIV: Twentieth-Century Usage of a Smugglers’ Hole

Chapter XV: Black Man’s Maggot

Chapter XVI: Mrs. Gatty Falls from Grace, and Mrs. Bradley Leads us up the Garden

Chapter XVII: Mrs Bradley Sticks her Pig

Chapter XVIII: The Last Straw

Appendix

More from Vintage Classic Crime

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Version 1.0

Epub ISBN 9781409076704

www.randomhouse.co.uk

Published by Vintage 2009

4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3

Copyright © the Executors of the Estate of Gladys Mitchell 1932

Gladys Mitchell has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in Great Britain in 1932 by Victor Gollancz

Vintage Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA

www.vintage-books.co.uk

Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at: www.randomhouse.co.uk/offices.htm

The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9780099526193

The Random House Group Limited supports The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the leading international forest certification organisation. All our titles that are printed on Greenpeace approved FSC certified paper carry the FSC logo. Our paper procurement policy can be found at: www.rbooks.co.uk/environment

Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Cox & Wyman, Reading, RG1 8EX

 

 

THE SALTMARSH MURDERS

Gladys Maude Winifred Mitchell – or ‘The Great Gladys’ as Philip Larkin described her – was born in 1901, in Cowley in Oxfordshire. She graduated in history from University College London and in 1921 began her long career as a teacher. She studied the works of Sigmund Freud and attributed her interest in witchcraft to the influence of her friend, the detective novelist Helen Simpson.

Her first novel, Speedy Death, was published in 1929 and introduced readers to Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, the heroine of a further sixty-six crime novels. She wrote at least one novel a year throughout her career and was an early member of the Detection Club along with G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. In 1961 she retired from teaching and, from her home in Dorset, continued to write, receiving the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award in 1976. Gladys Mitchell died in 1983.

 

ALSO BY GLADYS MITCHELL

 

Speedy Death

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop

The Longer Bodies

Death at the Opera

The Devil at Saxon Wall

Dead Men’s Morris

Come Away, Death

St Peter’s Finger

Printer’s Error

Brazen Tongue

Hangman’s Curfew

When Last I Died

Laurels Are Poison

The Worsted Viper

Sunset Over Soho

My Father Sleeps

The Rising of the Moon

Here Comes a Chopper

Death and the Maiden

The Dancing Druids

Tom Brown’s Body

Groaning Spinney

The Devil’s Elbow

The Echoing Strangers

Merlin’s Furlong

Faintley Speaking

Watson’s Choice

Twelve Horses and the

Hangman’s Noose

The Twenty-third Man

Spotted Hemlock

The Man Who Grew Tomatoes

Say It With Flowers

The Nodding Canaries

My Bones Will Keep

Adders on the Heath

Death of the Delft Blue

Pageant of Murder

The Croaking Raven

Skeleton Island

Three Quick and Five Dead

Dance to Your Daddy

Gory Dew

Lament for Leto

A Hearse on May-Day

The Murder of Busy Lizzie

Winking at the Brim

A Javelin for Jonah

Convent on Styx

Late, Late in the Evening

Noonday and Night

Fault in the Structure

Wraiths and Changelings

Mingled with Venom

The Mudflats of the Dead

Nest of Vipers

Uncoffin’d Clay

The Whispering Knights

Lovers, Make Moan

The Death-Cap Dancers

The Death of a Burrowing Mole

Here Lies Gloria Mundy

Cold, Lone and Still

The Greenstone Griffins

The Crozier Pharaohs

No Winding-Sheet

CHAPTER I
MRS. COUTTS’ MAGGOT

There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder. But I was so mixed up in the business from first to last, and saw so much of it from all conceivable angles and from nearly everybody’s point of view, that I can’t very well stand outside the story and recount it in a detached manner.

I had taken an arts degree at Oxford, and was intending to read for the Bar when a bachelor uncle died and left me thirty thousand pounds on condition that I went into the Church. Well, my mother and sisters were living on about two hundred and fifty a year at the time, and I owed my father’s friend, Sir William Kingston-Fox, for my University fees, so I took the will at its word and did three years slum curating in the South-East district, Rotherhithe way. After that, Sir William recommended me to the Reverend Bedivere Coutts, Vicar of Saltmarsh, and I became the curate there.

I didn’t like Mr. or Mrs. Coutts, but I liked Daphne and William. Daphne was eighteen when I first knew her, and William was fourteen. I fell in love with Daphne later, of course. Well, not so much later, really. Daphne and William were surnamed Coutts, and were old Coutts’ niece and nephew.

As I look back over the whole thing, I can see that the match laid to the train of gunpowder must have been the day upon which it became known to Mrs. Coutts that our housemaid, a quiet, softly-spoken, rather pretty country girl called Meg Tosstick, was going to have a baby. I think Meg herself had known for about three months that the thing was going to happen, and had kept a shut mouth and a demeanour of great calmness. Awfully creditable, at least, I think so, because I imagine it must be a rather hysteria-making—(Daphne’s word, of course, not mine)—thing to be carrying a baby when one isn’t married and has a boss like Mrs. Coutts.

The net result of Mrs. Coutts’ discovery that the poor girl was with child, was as may be imagined. Out went the girl, in spite of the fact that she told Mrs. Coutts her father would thrash her and kick her into the street if she lost her place—the old devil used to turn up regularly at both the Sunday services, too !—he was our verger—and Mrs. Coutts told the vicar that public prayers would have to be said for the girl.

If there’s one thing for which Coutts was to be admired it was for the fact that, afraid of his wife as he was, he never allowed her to dictate to him where his job was concerned. In the home she reigned supreme, but in the church she became as other women are, and had to cover her bally head. He replied, on this occasion, that it would be the time for public prayers when the girl herself asked for them, and then he turned to me and asked me whether I was going to visit the girl’s home and soothe her father, or whether he should go himself. I left it to him, of course. In the end, the innkeepers, Lowry and Mrs. Lowry, who were extraordinarily alike to look at, by the way, decided to take the girl in, and promised to see her through. I didn’t know at the time whether Coutts paid them for it, but I supposed that he did. I didn’t like the chap, but he was very decent where the parishioners were concerned. Besides, I think his wife’s attitude got his goat rather. At any rate the next we heard of Meg Tosstick was the news that she was a mother.

Mrs. Coutts was one of the first to get hold of the tidings, of course.

“ It’s happened,” said Mrs. Coutts. She came into the study where Coutts and I were working, removed her fabric gloves, folded them and laid them on the small mahogany table which had belonged to her mother. The table was inlaid on the top surface with squares of ebony and yellow oak for chess, but no one at the Saltmarsh vicarage played chess, and so the table supported a small cheap gramophone and two cigarette tins containing gramophone needles. The blue tin with the gold lettering held the unused, and the yellow tin with the scarlet lettering held the used, needles. I was sentimental, rather, about these tins because Daphne and I used to dance to the strains of the gramophone. Mrs. Coutts took off her rather frightful dark brown hat, shoved her hair this way and that, as ladies do, and laid the hat on top of the gramophone case. She was a tall, thin woman with eyes so deep in her head, that, beyond the fact that they were dark, you couldn’t tell their colour. She had thinnish lightish eyebrows and a nose whose attempt to give an expression of benevolence and generosity to her face was countered heavily by an intolerant mouth and a rather receding chin. She seated herself in the only comfortable chair, of course, sighed and began to drum nervously on the broad leather arm. I think her rotten nerves were what got on me, really. Her hands, though, were really rather fine. Long, thin, strong-fingered hands, you know. She was rather a fine pianist.

As usual, she started straight in to bait the great man, who, to my quiet delight, had taken no notice at all of her entrance beyond clicking his tongue in an irritated sort of way.

“ Have you nothing to say, Bedivere ? ” she demanded.

“ No, my dear, I don’t think I have,” her husband replied. “ Would you mind not tapping like that ? I can’t concentrate upon my sermon.”

“ If you are not able to improve upon last Sunday’s performance, it won’t make much difference whether you concentrate or not,” replied Mrs. Coutts, sharply. It was justified, mind you. His previous effort had been well below forty per cent.

“ Oblige me, my dear, by not referring to my preaching as a performance,” said the old man. He laid down his pen, scraped his chair back and turned to look at her. I rose to go, but he glared at me and waved me to my work. I was checking his classical references.

“ I suppose I shall get no peace until I hear the news, whatever it is,” he added, “ therefore open your heart, my dear Caroline, and do please be as brief as possible. I must get my sermon ready this afternoon. You know I’ve that match to umpire to-morrow.”

He stood up, removed his pince-nez and bestowed upon his life-partner a bleak smile. He was a blue-eyed, hard-faced man in middle life, with more of the athlete’s slouch than the scholar’s stoop about his shoulders. He was a hefty bloke, very hefty. His hands and wrists were hairy, he had the jowl of a prize-fighter and his thigh muscles bulged beneath his narrow black trousers. He looked out of the window and suddenly bellowed, “ Hi ! Hi ! Hi ! ” so that I leapt into the air with fright. The window rattled in its worm-eaten frame and his wife also leapt nervously from her chair.

“ It’s all right, my dear. It’s only William at those hens again. The boy’s a perfect curse. I shall be glad when the holidays are over, except that I must have him to play for the village against Much Hartley on August Monday. We’re a man short, now that Sir William has had Johnstone run in for poaching. Sir William, I really believe, would let a man off for shooting his mother but not for poaching his game. A nuisance. Johnstone could be relied on in the slips and would have made a useful change bowler.”

“ Never mind about cricket,” said Mrs. Coutts. “ The thing that worries me about the Bank Holiday is this wretched fête at the Hall.”

“ The sports, you mean ? ” The vicar, having barged her off the subject of his last sermon, became more genial.

“ I do not mean the sports, Bedivere, although I am aware that you take interest in nothing else that goes on in the village,” she said. The old man let out a groan and decidedly weakened.

“ But does anything else go on in the village ? ” he asked. “ I mean, of course, apart from the daily round ? ”

“ If you’ve no conception of what goes on in the village, Bedivere,” said the lady, finding a spot and proceeding to bowl slow twisters, “ it isn’t my fault. I’ve attempted to bring it to your notice time and again. And I must say, even at the risk of becoming tedious, that the kind of behaviour which obtained last year at the village fête has got to stop. The village will get itself a name like Sodom and Gomorrah if things are allowed to go on unchecked. It is your clear duty to announce from the pulpit next Sunday, and to repeat the announcement on the following Sunday, that you will publicly proclaim the names of all those who transgress the laws of decency and proper behaviour in Sir William Kingston-Fox’s park on August Bank Holiday.”

“ But, my dear girl,” said the batting side, pulling itself together, “ apart from the fact that the whole thing would most certainly be regarded by the bishop as a rather cheap stunt to fill the church, how on earth am I to know how the village behaves itself in the Hall grounds on August Monday ? You know as well as I do that my activities are confined to assisting to put up the tea tent for the ladies and to running off the sports finals for the children. And I can only manage the sports if our side is batting and my own innings is at an end. In the evening, as you very well know, I come back here, shut all the windows, and turn on the wireless. People don’t want a clergyman about when they’re enjoying themselves dancing and skylarking.”

Mrs. Coutts’ lip curled.

“ For all you care, Bedivere, the whole village may go to perdition in its own way, mayn’t it ? ” she said bitterly. “ Meg Tosstick and all ! Oh, and I was refused admittance to her, if you please ! Really, the state of the village——”

“ Look here, Caroline—” the vicar sat down and leaned forward with his great hairy hands dangling between his knees—“ let’s face the facts. I know the sort of thing that goes on. I know it as well as you do. And I say it doesn’t matter. Does it harm anybody ? You know the custom here as well as I do, and it has plenty to recommend it. I’ve performed the marriage ceremony in such cases dozens of times, and I’ll challenge you, or any other moralist, to prove that there is anything fundamentally wicked in the custom. If of course, the youth doesn’t marry the girl, that’s another matter, but, hang it all, my dear, the village is so small and everybody’s affairs are so well known that the poor chap can’t escape. As for that poor unfortunate girl at the village inn, I suppose she is too ill to see anybody, even you ! And now, if that’s all——”

“ But it isn’t all.” She clasped and unclasped her hands. “ It isn’t all,” she repeated. There was silence except for a fly buzzing on the window pane. Bedivere Coutts, who had then been married nineteen years, waited patiently.

“ I’ve been to visit her, as I said. The baby was born at two o’clock this morning,” said Mrs. Coutts at last. Her hands were trembling. Her thin face was pinched into resentment. “ Bedivere, not only was I refused admittance to her bedroom, but, according to Mrs. Lowry, who was barely civil to me, Tosstick persists in withholding the name of the father, and she won’t allow anybody to see the baby. Nothing will shake her. Of course, everybody suspects the worst. It’s perfectly dreadful ! And that Mrs. Lowry encourages the girl ! ”

“ And what is the worst ? ” enquired the vicar, suddenly switching his chair round and taking up his pen. Mrs. Coutts passed her tongue over her lips.

“ The squire,” she said, dropping her voice. I think they must have forgotten me, of course.

“ Kingston-Fox ? ” said Coutts. “ Oh, rubbish, Caroline ! ”

He shook a drop of ink from his pen on to his blotting paper.

“ Well, at any rate,” began Mrs. Coutts, flushing, so that her thin face looked like a withered crab-apple.

The vicar pushed back his chair and turned round again. I was longing to go, but I hardly liked to make a disturbance.

“ And not only rubbish, but wicked rubbish, Caroline, do you hear ? Please do not repeat it. Sir William is our friend and my patron. Whoever started such a beastly lie ought to get hard labour for slander. It’s damnable ! ” He shouted the words at her. His face was red and his eyes were slightly bloodshot as though he had been drinking too much. He breathed hard like a man who has been running, and his great hairy hands gripped the thin wooden arms of his chair. Then he suddenly subsided, and his voice grew quieter.

“ I know that even the best of women enjoy a spice of scandal,” he said, “ but keep Kingston-Fox out of it, Caroline, please ! ”

Mrs. Coutts rose and picked up her hat and gloves. Without a word she walked out of the room.

The old man shrugged his shoulders and looked at me.

“ Sometimes I feel like cursing the fête,” he said. “ She’s right, Wells, you know, according to general opinion. No doubt of that. The villagers do behave disgustingly, according to most people’s notions. But I cannot get excited about it. Never could.”

It was a funny thing about Mrs. Coutts. After all, she was married, although she had no children of her own, but the fact was—only the old man wouldn’t seem to see it—she couldn’t stand the thought of the village people having any of that sort of bucolic fun which consists in squirting water down one another’s necks at fairs, or the lads lying on the grass with the girls, or coming home down the lanes at evening with their arms round them. It was nothing to do with right and wrong. She simply had the kink that all sexual intercourse was most fearfully unpleasant and wicked. The village was pretty decent, really. Boys and girls used to keep company until there was a child on the way, then they used to come to us to put up the banns. They were a steady, contented lot, on the whole, and their policy, although some people would condemn it, was based on sound common sense. The lads could be saving money all the time they were keeping company, and, if anything did happen and the man was a little slow to do the proper thing, old Coutts and I would urge him, quietly or forcibly, to get to it and marry. Of course, it was queer that Meg Tosstick wouldn’t tell die name of her child’s father, but I couldn’t see what business it was of Mrs. Coutts. Meg came from tainted stock, unfortunately. The Moat House, where the Gattys live now, was once a private lunatic asylum, and the story goes that one of the inmates escaped one night and forced several of the women and murdered three men. Meg was in the direct line of descent from the escaped madman and a woman called Sarah Parsett. One of the barmen, and, incidentally, the chucker-out at the inn, a chap named Candy, Bob Candy, was another lineal descendant of the lunatic, and a further curious fact was that he and Meg were supposed by all the village to have been sweethearts. But if it was Candy’s baby, one would think he would have admitted it and married her. I did put it to him, as a matter of fact, and he hunched his shoulders and spat into the gutter and scowled, and I gathered that he was not the father and was pretty well peeved about the whole affair. I let it go at that, of course. No sense in coming the heavy parson. Never does any good.

The talk at tea was again in connection with the August Bank Holiday fête. Sir William lends his park for it and gives two-thirds of the gross takings to the Church Fund. A fair turns up from somewhere, and pays five pounds in cash and loans us a marquee in return for the privilege of collecting the villagers’ money on roundabouts, swing-boats, houp-la, darts, and a rifle-shooting game. We don’t allow them to import a cocoanut-shy now, because, at my suggestion, old Lowry, the innkeeper, gets us the cocoanuts by the hundred from a pal of his at Covent Garden, and William, Daphne and I carpentered the stands the year before last, and we use the tennis club’s netting to mark the pitch and protect the bystanders. William and I run the shy at five hundred and fifty per cent, profit on the great day, in the intervals of batting and fielding in the cricket match against Much Hartley which is another Bank Holiday feature. During our compulsory absences, old Lowry looks after it, which is very decent of him, because every year he applies for a licence to sell beer on the ground, and every year the magistrates, directed by Sir William, who is under instructions from Coutts, who is bowing to the inevitable in the guise of Mrs. Coutts, refuse to grant him the licence. He never seems to get shirty about it. Marvellously good-humoured bloke.

At tea on the following Wednesday, Mrs. Coutts said she couldn’t see how on earth she was going to seat fifteen of the nobs on nine deck chairs, and directed Daphne to go and see whether Mrs. Gatty had any to lend. Daphne grabbed my hand under the table and squeezed it quickly three times, which is our S.O.S. signal. I knew she was afraid of going to the Moat House alone, as Mrs. Gatty, who is a fat, placid-looking lady with gold-rimmed glasses, has decidedly bats in the belfry. Hoots at one, and compares one with the beasts of the field. Most peculiar, and, of course, instructive, if one is of a philosophical turn of mind. She thinks I’m a goat. Literally, I mean. She once got me by the ankle in a running bowline and tethered me to the leg of an occasional table. Of course, I know her now, and when I go to see her, which I do fairly often, because she’s a lonely sort of woman—her husband is a traveller in motors—I sit in one chair and stick my feet up on another. That does her, of course, because she thinks it cruel to tether animals by the neck. One comfort about people with a mania is that they are so beautifully consistent. Once you’ve grasped their point of view there’s nothing more to worry about unless they’re homicidal, when to grasp the main theme is hardly good enough, unless, again, one happens to be a philosopher !

After tea, then, Daphne and I set off for the Moat House. It lies a little way out of the village, but is on the main road. It is one of those eerie, shrubbery-haunted houses, with high brick walls and big gates. We walked up the drive and rang the front-door bell, and were received by Mrs. Gatty in person, as she kept only two servants, a parlourmaid and a cook, and it was the parlourmaid’s evening out. The cook never answered the door, of course, upon principle. She said it wasn’t her place. This was unanswerable. Mrs. Gatty used to liken her to a duck, but the cook was from Aylesbury, so she took it for a compliment, which was just as well, as I can’t really believe that it was meant for one.

She asked us in, conducted us to her boudoir—it used to be the padded cell when the house was a private asylum—and asked us to sit down. Then she shut the door and tip-toed to her chair, sat down, leaned forward, and said in an excited whisper :

“ It’s done ! The deed is done ! ”

“ Oh, splendid,” I said, quite at sea, of course.

Daphne goggled a bit and looked nervously at me. I rose to it.

“ Er—could you lend us a couple of deck-chairs for the fête, you know, on August Bank Holiday ? ” I said, and she replied most amicably.

“ I’ll lend you three, if you won’t tell anybody. It’s Jackson, you know. You won’t tell, will you ? Mr. Burt told me. I think it’s simply beautiful. Don’t tell ! ”

We said we wouldn’t, and I said I’d send the Scouts up with their troop-cart to collect the chairs. She was as good as her word, of course, and we netted three splendid chairs. That was the night Daphne kissed me, so it was rather a jolly evening, take it altogether, except for Bill’s adventures, although they ended quite happily, too, and acquired for us two new and almost invaluable helpers for the fête.

Old Coutts went out, apparently, while Daphne and I were at the Moat House, and he had not returned when we got back. I went into the study and did a bit of arithmetic in connection with the cocoanuts and refreshments, and Daphne sorted the prize list. Mrs. Coutts was champing about in the kitchen bossing the cook and the supper, William came in but went out again soon, and everything was jolly fine. At ten p.m. the telephone bell rang, and, when I answered, a frightfully hectic voice at the other end of the wire desired old Coutts’ immediate presence at the Bungalow, Saltmarsh Stone Quarries. Coutts being unavailable, I slid along, of course, shoving a Prayer Book into my pocket. I concluded, from the agitation indicated by the voice—a woman’s, by the way—that one of the queer household up at the stone quarries had tumbled down one of the holes—rottenly badly fenced, those quarries. Fences were broken down by some toughs one year, and have never been repaired, of course, except on the east side, where nobody ever goes ! A chap called Burt lived at the Bungalow—big, hefty bloke. More about him later.

It took me a good forty minutes to do the mile and a half from the vicarage to the Bungalow. It was uphill nearly all the way, and the foulest, rockiest, rattiest sheep-track of a road imaginable, once one had left the main road. The track mounted a shoulder of the coastal range of hills in the sides of which the quarries were cut, and the slope on the opposite side descended through bracken and gorse and heather to the sea. The cliffs were low and sandy, and there was nothing much to see or to do when one reached the shore except to bathe or to sit on the stretch of sand or to explore Saltmarsh Cove, a smallish, uninteresting little cave. Why on earth anybody in their senses had ever built the Bungalow in its lonely, exposed position was one of the things which I thought I should never understand. I did understand it in the end, of course.

There was a light in the hall, and a light in one of the rooms when I arrived. Just as I was about to knock on the door I heard a scraping sound on the roof, but thought it must be the Bungalow cat. Then I banged at the door and was almost shot on to my face by having the knocker suddenly wrenched from my grasp by some muscular blighter tugging the door open with such force that I tumbled over the step and cascaded down the polished linoleum of the passage. Before I could apologise for hurtling in upon the household, the door was slammed behind me, and a voice, male, said, “ It’s young Wells.” A second voice, William Coutts’, exclaimed, “ It’s Noel ! ” And a third voice, female, the same which had squealed over the wire at me some forty-two minutes earlier, exclaimed, “ Thank goodness, someone’s come for you, ducky ! ”

I was conducted into the lighted room, and, at intervals during the next hour, some of which was spent at the Bungalow, and some on conducting William back to the vicarage, I heard a somewhat weird story from the boy. William, although in some ways the most placid kid I know, does somehow contrive to get himself mixed up in any excitement that is going on. Even when his prep, school caught fire, William was the only kid out of the whole ninety-odd who had to jump out of an upstair window on to the sheet held out below. Old Coutts had to take him away soon after that, because he was always getting into trouble for scrapping with kids who tried to rub his nose in the dirt for him. Old Coutts admires a scrapper, and wrote a strongish letter to the headmaster for punishing William, and then removed the kid and sent him to Yeominster.

Considering that William had only achieved the distinction of leaping into space because he was in process of regaining admission to the building by night after having been out in the orchard sneaking the head beak’s apples, I thought, personally, that old Coutts’ letter was a bit thick. Still, it was no business of mine, of course.

CHAPTER II
MAGGOTS AT THE MOAT HOUSE
AND BATS AT THE BUNGALOW

William Courts’ adventures began when the Scouts took their troop cart up to the Moat House on that same Wednesday evening to collect Mrs. Gatty’s three deck chairs for the fête. Mrs. Gatty is fond of boys, and she invited the Scouts into the dining-room and fed them with cake and home-made ginger-beer and home-made treacle toffee. Then, while the rest of them returned with the chairs, William, as Patrol Leader, politely offered to stay and wash up all the plates and glasses. Mrs. Gatty was rather bucked with the offer, because, of course, the maid was out and the cook was in the middle of dinner. It was about seven o’clock or perhaps half-past seven, and still daylight, although the weather, for the end of July, was fearfully unseasonable. In fact, I can’t remember a wetter or more depressing summer. Our one hope was that the Bank Holiday Monday would be fine.

William returned to the vicarage in a state of great excitement. This was unusual, for, as I say he was one of those biggish, hefty, good-humoured, practical-minded kids who are always on good terms with everyone and never get seriously ragged even at school, except in the incident last recounted, so to speak. That was an exception. His nature was placid, and he was inclined to accept things as they came without annoyance, question or perturbation. Thus, when he burst in on Daphne and me with the air of one who has discovered the Gunpowder Plot, I was somewhat astonished. But I couldn’t take him seriously. He told me that Mr. Gatty had been murdered. Daphne was scared, so I rose to it.

“ Sez you ! ” I observed, ruthlessly.

“ No,” said William. “ I had it from Mrs. Gatty herself while we were washing up. She says the deed is done, and that she wanted to tell you and Daphne, only you didn’t seem interested in anything but deck-chairs.”

I frowned and lent the theme a little concentrated thought. Those were the words she had used to Daphne and myself in connection with her husband, but one takes it for granted that with anyone of Mrs. Gatty’s singular mentality a few odd remarks are in character and need not be regarded with the same amount of close attention that they would excite if they were uttered by some more normal person. On the other hand, those particular words, “ The deed is done,” do sound a trifle sinister, even when uttered by somebody short-circuited in the brain line. I questioned William closely, but could not shake his evidence. He was going to Constable Brown, our village keeper of the peace, he said, to place matters before him. I was struck quite suddenly with a better idea. Anything, of course, to get rid of William, so that we could be on our own, but not, I thought, the Robert, who is unquestionably wooden-headed, although a jolly good chap.

“ Listen, William,” I said. “ There’s an old lady called Mrs. Something Bradley, or Mrs. Bradley Something—I forget which—staying with Sir William Kingston-Fox at the Manor House. She’s one of those psychology whales. Take her along to see Mrs. Gatty to-morrow morning. She’ll turn her inside and out, and find what the trouble is. Believe me, it won’t be a case for the police.”

I persuaded him to abandon the idea of going to Brown with the story, but he insisted on getting Mrs. Bradley right away. I was in favour of the scheme, for it would relieve us of his company, so I decided to incite him, so to speak.

“ They’ll be having dinner,” I objected.

“ Shouldn’t think so,” said William, who hates to be thwarted. “ You see, Noel, Sir William starts it at six-thirty, anyway, and it’s now just after eight. Come with me, Noel, there’s a good chap.”

I refused, of course. No, but honestly, I didn’t think the thing could be very serious. So he tooled off by himself.

He was ushered into the presence of Margaret Kingston-Fox in the Manor drawing-room, and Margaret, who is Sir William’s daughter, and rather a Juno to look at, introduced him to one of the most frightful-looking old ladies—(according to William, of course)—that he’d ever seen. She was smallish, thin and shrivelled, and she had a yellow face with sharp black eyes, like a witch, and yellow, claw-like hands. She cackled harshly when William was introduced and chucked him under the chin, and then squealed like a macaw that’s having its tail pulled. She looked rather like a macaw, too, because her evening dress was of bright blue velvet and she was wearing over it a little coatee (Daphne’s word, of course, not mine)—of sulphur and orange. William’s first conclusion was that if Mrs. Gatty were bats, this woman was positive vampires in the belfry. She had the evil eye, according to William. Her voice, when she spoke, though, was wonderful. Even William, who has no ear for music although, for the look of the thing, being the vicar’s nephew, he has to sing in the church choir when he is on holiday from school—even William could tell that. She and Margaret listened to his story quite gravely, and Mrs. Bradley offered to accompany him to the Moat House and see what was to be seen. Margaret was inclined to favour the idea that Mr. Gatty had been murdered, but, pressed for a reason, could only say that he was a horrid little man and that such awful things happened nowadays. So all three of them went to the Gatty residence. Sir William and the men were finishing the port, of course, and did not accompany them. Didn’t know they were going, in fact, I suppose.

Mrs. Gatty herself opened the door to them, and Margaret opened the conversation by asking whether Mr. Gatty had indeed met with foul play. Mrs. Gatty did not answer that, but kept looking nervously at Mrs. Bradley and muttering,

“ Serpent, or is it crocodile ? Serpent, or is it crocodile ? ” Just the sort of remark, in fact, that gave visitors such a bad impression. Luckily, however, Mrs. Bradley, who had been staying at Sir William’s house for more than a week, and so, of course, must have heard of poor Mrs. Gatty and her peculiarity, was not put out by the quaint old girl’s rather remarkable greeting, and replied courteously,

“ Crocodile, I think. I am generally considered to be definitely saurian in type. Yorkshire people often are, you know. It is interesting, I think, to note how the types vary from county to county, and even from village to village.”

This launched Mrs. Gatty on her favourite topic, it seems, and Mrs. Bradley had some difficulty in switching the conversation back to Jackson Gatty.

“ Ah, Jackson,” said Mrs. Gatty. “ Yes, Jackson, of course. Well, it’s all over, bar the discovery of the body.”

“ And where is the body ? ” asked Mrs. Bradley.

“ If you only knew this village as I know it,” said Mrs. Gatty, to William’s great disappointment, for, of course, he wanted to hear details of the murder, “ you would sit here and laugh and laugh and laugh, just as I do. Oh, it’s too funny for words ! Of course, the vicar’s wife is the funniest of the whole lot.”

“ Look here, Mrs. Gatty,” said William, but no one took any notice of him.

“ I call her Mrs. Camel,” went on Mrs. Gatty, “ because she squeals and bites on the slightest provocation, and then kneels to pray. And then there’s that creature at the Bungalow. A Kept Woman, my dear Mrs. Crocodile ! What do you think of that ? ”

“ Shocking, interesting and anachronistic,” replied Mrs. Bradley. At least, that is what I think William meant to say ; and Mrs. Gatty, I suppose, spent quite a couple of minutes digesting this summary of the world’s Babylonian heritage, for William says that she sat quite still for ages, while he finished dotting down the conversation in his Scout’s notebook. At last she nodded in a solemn manner.

“ Somebody at the Manor House could say more than that if he chose. And then take this girl Tosstick,” she continued. “ That whole business is incredible to me, simply incredible from first to last. First, she is not the kind of girl to have an illegitimate child at all ; secondly, she ought to publish the father’s name, as all the village girls do, so that we can all make sure she is treated rightly by the young fellow ; thirdly, I suppose the child is deformed as no one is allowed to see it ; and, lastly, there is the singular conduct of the people at the inn.”

“ In what way is their conduct singular ? ” enquired Mrs. Bradley, politely.

“ I don’t know,” replied Mrs. Gatty. “ It just strikes me as singular that they should be so charitable. You know, that Lowry even gets a commission on the cocoanuts for the village fête, and he never gives the village children more than a farthing on the bottles they bring back. They find them in the roads left by picnicking parties, and he ought to give the poor little dears a halfpenny, as I do when they bring me bottles for my home-made wine. He is certainly dead by now. Jackson, I mean, of course.”

William noticed that Mrs. Bradley had also produced a small notebook, and was surreptitiously dotting down—in shorthand, William thinks—all that Mrs. Gatty said. I discovered afterwards that it was none of the recognised methods of writing shorthand, of course.

“ Poor Jackson,” said Mrs. Bradley.

“ Well,” said Mrs. Gatty, “ if a man will be a wolf, he must be caged like a wolf. And the joke of that is, that he is caged in the sheep-fold. That’s funny, now, isn’t it ? ”

“ Funny and clever,” said Mrs. Bradley, noting it down.

“ Caged, you know,” said Mrs. Gatty. “ So funny that he should be caged. What awful weather for the time of year ! ”

“ And caged in the sheep-fold ! I must remember that ! ” said Mrs. Bradley. She gave her awful cackle, William said, and rose to go. When they all got outside the Moat House, and Mrs. Gatty had shut the door, Mrs. Bradley sent Margaret home to the Manor House and was just about to speak to William when Mrs. Gatty came flying down the drive and grasped Mrs. Bradley’s arm.

“ And do you know what I think ? ” she said.

“ No,” said Mrs. Bradley.

“ I think Mrs. Camel believes her reverend husband is the father of Meg Tosstick’s baby,” said Mrs. Gatty.

(William, in his narrative to me, interpolated here, “ What rot, Noel, isn’t it ? ” I concurred verbally with this view, but inwardly I was far from sure. The woman Coutts is capable of any frightful thought, so far as I can see !)

Mrs. Gatty, having voiced her opinion, turned and darted up the drive again, and Mrs. Bradley said to William :

“ Has the church a crypt, child ? ”

“ Yes,” said William. The evening was drawing in.

“ Then lead me to it,” said Mrs. Bradley. “ And let us hasten, for I perceive that it is beginning to rain.”

So William escorted her to the church. They passed through the lych-gate and skirted the south door, which is early Norman, of course, and soon reached the flight of stone steps which lead down to the crypt. A heavy iron gate breaks the flight about two-thirds of the way down.

“ Do you just want to squint through the railings, or shall we go inside ? ” asked William.

“ I should like to go into the crypt,” replied Mrs. Bradley.

“ All right. I’ll go home and get the key,” said William obligingly. He surveyed his companion. “ I suppose you wouldn’t like to get down from the inside of the church, would you ? ” he asked. “ We needn’t bother about the key, if you could get down the steps inside. I can put the lights on.”

“ It would suit me far better,” said Mrs. Bradley. “ William, I think Mr. Jackson Gatty, either dead or alive, is in the crypt.”

“ Who said so ? ” asked William, thrilled.

“ Mrs. Gatty herself, but she doesn’t know she did,” replied Mrs. Bradley.

“ Golly ! ” said William, irreverently. He led the way into the church, up the aisle, and into the vestry. Here he stooped and pulled aside a strip of cocoanut matting. A trap-door was disclosed, of course. The vicar’s predecessor had it made, I think.

“ Now you be careful,” said William. “ This trapdoor is fairly new. They used to bury people in the crypt, and the tale is that some old girl jazzed it down the steps here and bagged a couple of skulls. So the chap who held the living before my uncle got it, had that iron gate put on the outside steps, and this trapdoor built over the inside ones, and, you’ll see in a minute, the trapdoor is about two feet away from the top of the steps, so that it’s tricky work getting down.”

He looked at Mrs. Bradley again.

“ I really think you’d better remain at the top, you know,” he said, frankly. “ I mean, there wouldn’t be much sense in breaking your neck, would there ? ”

Mrs. Bradley chuckled softly and replied :

“ Let us lift the trapdoor. Perhaps neither of us need go down.”

They raised the little hatch and peered into the depths. Then Mrs. Bradley called, clearly but not loudly :

“ Mr. Gatty ! Mr. Gatty ! ”

A dark shape silhouetted itself against the light which streamed in from a grating. (My translation of William’s description. Shouldn’t think there could have been much light streaming in, of course.)

“ Up the steps Mr. Gatty. This way ! This way ! ” cried Mrs. Bradley ; and she and William lay flat on their stomachs and hauled a little, thin man into safety.

“ Good God ! ” said Jackson Gatty. “ Good God ! Thank you a thousand times. I’m very, very hungry ! How anxious poor Eliza will be ! ”

“ And now,” said Mrs. Bradley, dusting the little man down in a motherly manner, “ what have you to say for yourself, frightening us all like this ? ”

Jackson Gatty coughed nervously.

“ I really am most frightfully sorry,” he said, “ and I know that Eliza will never forgive me.” (He smiled, and William tells me that, upon seeing Jackson Gatty’s long canine top teeth, he nearly shouted “ Wolf ! ”) “ I allowed myself to be tempted by a wager. I think I have won it, too.”

Mrs. Bradley began to lead the way out of the church.