Downland Echoes - Victor L. Whitechurch - ebook

Downland Echoes ebook

Victor L. Whitechurch

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Victor Whitechurch, a clergyman who became a mysterious writer, well known for his detective story Railroad Stories, was admired by Ellery Queen and Dorothy L. Sayers for „impeccable conspiracy and factual accuracy: he was one of the first authors to submit his manuscripts to Scotland Yard to check for a police procedure. Downland’s echoes analyze the life of a small village and the interaction of all the characters who live in it in everyday situations, from the funeral to the visit of the bishop.

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Liczba stron: 171

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Contents

I. THE POACHER

II. RETICENCE

III. “BLOODS”

IV. THE CONCERT

V. MATTERS OF MONEY

VI. A VETERAN

VII. THE MEADOW

VIII. THE SAINT’S MOUND

IX. THE CURFEW

X. THE DANCE

XI. PREJUDICES

XII. A LITTLE CHILD’S FUNERAL

XIII. THE BISHOP’S VISIT

XIV. MICHAELMAS HIRING

XV. THE VILLAGE OVER THE DOWNS

XVI. THE “TOP O’ THE WORLD”

XVII. THE CORONATION

XVIII. PLACE NAMES

XIX. DARK DAYS

XX. THE AFTERMATH

I. THE POACHER

There were two principal types in the village. First, men with thin faces and noses and dark hair and eyes–eyes that were set near each other and did not easily look you straight in the face. Perhaps–indeed, most likely–their ancestors were Britons; Britons who were never altogether driven westward by the invader.

The other men were fair of hair and fresh-faced–faces inclining to roundness, with big noses and light eyes. Anglo-Saxon these. Men that got louder and more quarrelsome than the dark-faced men when drunk–if so be that they drank, but men you would sooner quarrel with, all the same–that is, if your quarrel were not to be a lasting one.

Tom Horner was of the thin-faced variety. He wore little side-whiskers, and the rest of his face he shaved about twice a week, so he looked darker some days than others. He was tallish, as men went, and spare. His dark eyes were particularly close together and his brow lowering.

He advertised himself as professing two trades, and everybody knew he was an expert at a third. The two trades openly acknowledged were those of well-digging and thatching; his more exciting accomplishment was poaching. And no man ever knew which of the three was most profitable to him, though most men who were acquainted with him guessed the third was.

The well-digging and thatching were, of course, executed in public. The third profession was, equally naturally, followed in strict privacy and at uncertain hours. Moreover, Tom Horner was as taciturn as befitted his unlawful craft, except at such times when he had freely imbibed malt liquor. And even then, he never gave away any really useful information.

To see him coming sauntering from the Downs in the early morning was always suspicious. Yet if one of his two sworn enemies, of whom more anon, chanced to meet him, as if by accident, and, attracted by a bulge in his capacious coat, enjoined him incontinently to disgorge, the said enemy–who was customarily arrayed in blue–would, as likely as not, be confronted with a pocketful of mushrooms, much to his discomfiture, while Tom Horner would invite him to “taäke a few on ’em hoäme for your missus. She wants summat to cheer her up at mealtimes wi’ your ugly face in front o’ her, I reckon!”

The man in blue, inwardly swearing, knew perfectly well that Tom Horner had not been on the Downs before sunrise for the sole purpose of picking mushrooms. Yet there was no trace of hares about him.

Nevertheless, before the day was out, there would probably be more than one monetary transaction in unlawful game. And therein lay one of the hidden mysteries of the countryside. William Budd, that fresh, Saxon-faced man-of-all-work who, honest as his open countenance, invariably denounced Tom Horner as “no good of,” when he went in the evening after the day’s work to “tidy up” the garden of “that ‘ere lady from Lunnon” who rented a cottage in the village, came down for week-ends, and wrote occasional articles on country life for magazines–articles which were utterly misleading, because, as they said with truth, “she doän’t know nought about we folk”–William Budd would look up from his job of planting out pot flowers and say artlessly to the said “lady from Lunnon”:

“I suppose you ‘oodn’t like to buy a hare, miss? I had one give ma to-daäy–a nice un. T’ent much use to me, and you can have un cheap.”

And the Lunnon lady, whose knowledge of country life was so profound that it ran to articles delineating the extreme simplicity of the natives, would very likely ask:

“How did you get it, Budd? I hope you haven’t been poaching?”

For even she knew that hare-snaring was unlawful.

To which Budd, indignation in his honest blue eyes at such suspicion:

“Me go a-poachin’! Not me, miss. I doän’t hold wi’ sich waäys. But you see, miss, a man I knows over at Binford goes a beatin’ when the Squire there has a big shoot and they generally gi’es him a hare or two–and sometimes he gi’es me one on ’em. ’Tis that way, miss. How much? Well, they’re fetchin’ about three and six, I’ve heered–but you can have un for harf a crown.”

And William Budd spends an extra sixpence “up at public” that night, while Tom Horner looks thoughtfully at a florin to make sure it’s a “good un.”

Others purchased the surreptitious hare without such evasion on the part o the seller. The wooden-faced landlord of the Blue Lion knew to a nicety the dozen or so within his circle of acquaintances who would pay cash down, ready-money, if moderate amount, for a hare–and wouldn’t expect to fetch it or have it delivered by one of his youngsters till after dark was fallen. And Tom Horner was a good customer of his–and friendship demanded that one should do good customers good turns sometimes.

The other sworn enemy of Tom Horner’s was one Godfrey Wheeler. Godfrey Wheeler was a man of money. He was true country born and bred, had farmed once upon a time, but had long since given it up to live an independent life in the village. He was the only man in Little Marpleton who purchased a game licence–his name could be seen, in solitary state, hung up in the lists at the tiny post office. And he rented the shooting of the Downs from the three farmers who were occupiers there.

No more kindly-hearted man existed in the village than Godfrey Wheeler. His was an extremely generous nature, and he had that rare virtue of not wishing his left hand to possess any knowledge of the doings of his right. Paäson was often his intermediary, and only Paäson knew, for example, how it was that Widow Bunce’s rent was always forthcoming when due, or who provided a new donkey-cart for poor old Peter Smith when that worthy met with an accident and drove into the ditch.

But, where one particular subject was concerned, the milk of human kindness turned sour in the breast of Godfrey Wheeler. In his eyes the very worst crime that the Prince of Darkness had ever invented to menace the salvation of humanity was the crime of poaching. Had he been a magistrate he would have liked to have sentenced the man who shot a pheasant by night, or snared a hare, to a flogging. Had he been a judge, and had the law allowed him, he would probably have rejoiced to put on the black cap, to sentence the culprit to be hanged by the neck till he was dead, and, when concluding with the awful phrase “and may God have mercy upon your soul,” have very much doubted the efficacy of such a prayer.

He was inexorable where poaching was concerned. No one–not even Paäson–might say a good word for Tom Horner. The latter was the black sheep of the village, the disgrace to the community, and he spared no pains to hunt him down. He considered that, before aught else, it was the duty of the unfortunate Jarvis–the local policeman aforementioned–continually to be at the heels of Tom Horner, to know his goings out and his comings in, to concentrate every art of his profession to frustrate the machinations of this notorious criminal, or, better still, to catch him in the act or with game in his pockets. He led Jarvis such a life, threatening to report him for negligence, sending for him when he was off duty to impart a string of suspicions or information, that the wretched policeman, who wanted to qualify for sergeant’s stripes and naturally longed for a burglary, or arson, or something that would really bring him into prominence, and who could not–who dared not–offend him, nurtured an extreme hatred of the cause of all his worries–to wit, Tom Horner himself.

Tom Horner knew, perfectly well, the aims and objects of his two enemies. But, to his credit, he did not bear them malice. At least, not entirely. He was a true sportsman and quite content to take his chances. He knew it was the duty of Jarvis to catch him, and the duty–or pleasure–of Godfrey Wheeler to prosecute him if caught, and the duty of the magistrates to inflict punishment. According to his code, he did not grudge a man for doing his duty. According to the same code, his duty was to outwit his enemies and snare hares. But what he did object to, especially, was the temper of Jarvis. He longed to thrash the policeman–or try to thrash him in fair fight. But a policeman is no ordinary man, and you can’t put your fist in his face with impunity.

In the course of the continual warfare there stood out four victories: one for Godfrey Wheeler, one for Jarvis, and two for Tom Horner. And Tom Horner always considered that his two victories were the greatest of all, more especially as he continued plying his craft before, between, and after them. Whereupon the facts shall be laid bare.

Godfrey Wheeler caught Tom Horner in the very act, saw him take the hare out of the cunningly laid snare. Watched him, rejoicing, from within the edge of a copse on the Downs. Emerged triumphant to confront him. There was no getting away from it, no possible defence, and Tom Horner handed over the defunct animal and said:

“I suppose you means to have me into Derringford over this job, Muster Wheeler?”

“You’re right. I certainly do,” replied the other. To “have a man into Derringford” was the vernacular for haling him before the bench of magistrates in that town.

So Tom Horner simply turned on his heel without another word, and strode down into the village, thinking lurid thoughts. It was not being “had into Derringford” that angered him, but the fact that Godfrey Wheeler had got the better of him on his own particular stage of action–the Downs. Had he been caught with bulging pockets it would not have mattered so much, but to be seen by his enemy in the very act was mortifying beyond words.

Not that he did not use words. He did. He used them very freely on the person on whom he considered Providence had specially designed them to be used–to wit, his wife. And ended by throwing things at her across the table. There was also a scene in the taproom of the Blue Lion that evening. Someone had the temerity to remark:

“They says Muster Wheeler’s goin’ to have a dinner party to-morrow–got a hare what wants eatin’.”

After forcibly expelling Tom Horner the landlord picked up the pieces of the quart pot and order was restored.

For, of course, all the village knew about it. Godfrey Wheeler had gone down the street, hare in hand, rejoicing in explanations. In the warmth of his glee, on meeting Paäson, he had disbursed, without being asked for it, twenty shillings to the sick and needy fund.

When the case came before the magistrates Tom Horner appeared in his Sunday best, clean-shaven, and nosegay in buttonhole. The case did not take very long to decide. The presiding magistrate was a local tradesman, secretly sympathising with the delinquent–being of radical and anti-game law tendencies, but had to do something. He imposed a fine of one pound and three and sixpence costs–or the alternative of fourteen days.

Godfrey Wheeler was disgusted. “Ought to have had three months without an option,” he murmured. When Tom Horner said he had no money Jarvis took courage, expecting a fortnight’s relaxation. But the magistrate was tender-hearted, and listened to Horner’s request for time.

“Very well,” he said, “we’ll give you a week to pay–but you’ll have to go to prison if you don’t. Next case.”

Tom Horner stepped out of the dock, touching his forehead to the majesty of the law, smiled affably at Godfrey Wheeler, and put his tongue in his cheek and winked at Jarvis when he passed him on his way out of the court.

Jarvis, of course, was charged with the collection of the money at the end of the allotted week of grace. He put his handcuffs in his pocket before paying the call, and anticipated a journey to Derringford with Horner as his prisoner. For he knew–as everyone else knew–that Horner had not done a stroke of well-digging or thatching all the week.

The poacher received him with an amiable smile.

“Oh! got to pay up, have I?”

“Or else go to gaol.”

“Who’d taäke me there!”

“I would,” said Jarvis, putting his hand into his pocket and feeling for the fetters in case of the resistance he anticipated–and hoped for.

“Ah! T’ood be a pity to give ‘ee all that trouble. How much be I to pay?”

“One pound three and sixpence.”

“All right.”

To the policeman’s disappointment he produced a handful of silver and counted the money.

“Now you get out o’ my house, wull ‘ee, please? I be a respectable man and doänt want the likes o’ you hanging about.”

That evening Tom Horner was leaning over his gate, smoking, at peace with the world, when William Budd came up street.

“Hullo, Tom,” he said, “you be still here then?”

“Ah!” ejaculated Tom.

“Paid up, have ‘ee?”

Tom nodded–and beamed. William’s curiosity was aroused, and he asked a direct question.

“How did ‘ee get the money?”

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