Scarhaven Keep - Joseph Smith Fletcher - ebook

Scarhaven Keep ebook

Joseph Smith Fletcher



This novel, first published in 1922, is a good example of J. S. Fletcher’s complex plots. The story starts with a famous actor gone missing in suspicious circumstances in northern England. But other dark deeds soon take our attention. Copplestone, the young dramatist, helping to solve the mystery, found himself suddenly in love; and the solution and his happiness were discovered together. In the search for Oliver, we find ourselves on a wild and lonely coast off the North Sea. The landscapes in this novel have a thrilling, threatening beauty that forms a perfect backdrop for the mysteries unfolding.

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Jerramy, thirty years’ stage-door keeper at the Theatre Royal, Norcaster, had come to regard each successive Monday morning as a time for the renewal of old acquaintance. For at any rate forty-six weeks of the fifty-two, theatrical companies came and went at Norcaster with unfailing regularity. The company which presented itself for patronage in the first week of April in one year was almost certain to present itself again in the corresponding week of the next year. Sometimes new faces came with it, but as a rule the same old favourites showed themselves for a good many years in succession. And every actor and actress who came to Norcaster knew Jerramy. He was the first official person encountered on entering upon the business of the week. He it was who handed out the little bundles of letters and papers, who exchanged the first greetings, of whom one could make useful inquiries, who always knew exactly what advice to give about lodgings and landladies. From noon onwards of Mondays, when the newcomers began to arrive at the theatre for the customary one o’clock call for rehearsal, Jerramy was invariably employed in hearing that he didn’t look a day older, and was as blooming as ever, and sure to last another thirty years, and his reception always culminated in a hearty handshake and genial greeting from the great man of the company, who, of course, after the fashion of magnates, always turned up at the end of the irregular procession, and was not seldom late for the fixture which he himself had made.

At a quarter past one of a certain Monday afternoon in the course of a sunny October, Jerramy leaned over the half-door of his sanctum in conversation with an anxious-eyed man who for the past ten minutes had hung about in the restless fashion peculiar to those who are waiting for somebody. He had looked up the street and down the street a dozen times; he had pulled out his watch and compared it with the clock of a neighbouring church almost as often; he had several times gone up the dark passage which led to the dressing-rooms, and had come back again looking more perplexed than ever. The fact was that he was the business manager of the great Mr. Bassett Oliver, who was opening for the week at Norcaster in his latest success, and who, not quite satisfied with the way in which a particular bit of it was being played called a special rehearsal for a quarter to one. Everything and everybody was ready for that rehearsal, but the great man himself had not arrived. Now Mr. Bassett Oliver, as every man well knew who ever had dealings with him, was not one of the irregular and unpunctual order; on the contrary, he was a very martinet as regarded rule, precision and system; moreover, he always did what he expected each member of his company to do. Therefore his non-arrival, his half hour of irregularity, seemed all the more extraordinary.

“Never knew him to be late before–never!” exclaimed the business manager, impatiently pulling out his watch for the twentieth time. “Not in all my ten years’ experience of him–not once.”

“I suppose you’ve seen him this morning, Mr. Stafford?” inquired Jerramy. “He’s in the town, of course?”

“I suppose he’s in the town,” answered Mr. Stafford. “I suppose he’s at his old quarters–the ‘Angel.’ But I haven’t seen him; neither had Rothwell–we’ve both been too busy to call there. I expect he came on to the ‘Angel’ from Northborough yesterday.”

Jerramy opened the half-door, and going out to the end of the passage, looked up and down the street.

“There’s a taxi-cab coming round the corner now,” he announced presently. “Coming quick, too–I should think he’s in it.”

The business manager bustled out to the pavement as the cab came to a halt. But instead of the fine face and distinguished presence of Mr. Bassett Oliver, he found himself confronting a young man who looked like a well-set-up subaltern, or a cricket-and-football loving undergraduate; a somewhat shy, rather nervous young man, scrupulously groomed, and neatly attired in tweeds, who, at sight of the two men on the pavement, immediately produced a card-case.

“Mr. Bassett Oliver?” he said inquiringly. “Is he here? I–I’ve got an appointment with him for one o’clock, and I’m sorry I’m late–my train–”

“Mr. Oliver is not here yet,” broke in Stafford. “He’s late, too–unaccountably late, for him. An appointment, you say?”

He was looking the stranger over as he spoke, taking him for some stage-struck youth who had probably persuaded the good-natured actor to give him an interview. His expression changed, however; as he glanced at the card which the young man handed over, and he started a little and held out his hand with a smile.

“Oh!–Mr. Copplestone?” he exclaimed. “How do you do? My name’s Stafford–I’m Mr. Oliver’s business manager. So he made an appointment with you, did he–here, today? Wants to see you about your play, of course.”

Again he looked at the newcomer with a smiling interest, thinking secretly that he was a very youthful and ingenuous being to have written a play which Bassett Oliver, a shrewd critic, and by no means easy to please, had been eager to accept, and was about to produce. Mr. Richard Copplestone, seen in the flesh, looked very young indeed, and very unlike anything in the shape of a professional author. In fact he very much reminded Stafford of the fine and healthy young man whom one sees on the playing fields, and certainly does not associate with pen and ink. That he was not much used to the world on whose edge he just then stood Stafford gathered from a boyish trick of blushing through the tan of his cheeks.

“I got a wire from Mr. Oliver yesterday–Sunday,” replied Mr. Copplestone. “I ought to have had it in the morning, I suppose, but I’d gone out for the day, you know–gone out early. So I didn’t find it until I got back to my rooms late at night. I got the next train I could from King’s Cross, and it was late getting in here.”

“Then you’ve practically been travelling all night?” remarked Stafford. “Well, Mr. Oliver hasn’t turned up–most unusual for him. I don’t know where–“ Just then another man came hurrying down the passage from the dressing-rooms, calling the business manager by name.

“I say, Stafford!” he exclaimed, as he emerged on the street. “This is a queer thing!–I’m sure there’s something wrong. I’ve just rung up the ‘Angel’ hotel. Oliver hasn’t turned up there! His rooms were all ready for him as usual yesterday, but he never came. They’ve neither seen nor heard of him. Did you see him yesterday?”

“No!” replied Stafford. “I didn’t. Never seen him since last thing Saturday night at Northborough. He ordered this rehearsal for one–no, a quarter to one, here, today. But somebody must have seen him yesterday. Where’s his dresser–where’s Hackett?”

“Hackett’s inside,” said the other man. “He hasn’t seen him either, since Saturday night. Hackett has friends living in these parts–he went off to see them early yesterday morning, from Northborough, and he’s only just come. So he hasn’t seen Oliver, and doesn’t know anything about him; he expected, of course, to find him here.”

Stafford turned with a wave of the hand towards Copplestone.

“So did this gentleman,” he said. “Mr. Copplestone, this is our stage-manager, Mr. Rothwell. Rothwell, this is Mr. Richard Copplestone, author of the new play that Mr. Oliver’s going to produce next month. Mr. Copplestone got a wire from him yesterday, asking him to come here today at one o’clock, He’s travelled all night to get here.”

“Where was the wire sent from?” asked Rothwell, a sharp-eyed, keen-looking man, who, like Stafford, was obviously interested in the new author’s boyish appearance. “And when?”

Copplestone drew some letters and papers from his pocket and selected one. “That’s it,” he said. “There you are–sent off from Northborough at nine-thirty, yesterday morning–Sunday.”

“Well, then he was at Northborough at that time,” remarked Rothwell. “Look here, Stafford, we’d better telephone to Northborough, to his hotel. The ‘Golden Apple,’ wasn’t it?”

“No good,” replied Stafford, shaking his head. “The ‘Golden Apple’ isn’t on the ‘phone–old-fashioned place. We’d better wire.”

“Too slow,” said Rothwell. “We’ll telephone to the theatre there, and ask them to step across and make inquiries. Come on!–let’s do it at once.”

He hurried inside again, and Stafford turned to Copplestone.

“Better send your cab away and come inside until we get some news,” he said. “Let Jerramy take your things into his sanctum–he’ll keep an eye on them till you want them–I suppose you’ll stop at the ‘Angel’ with Oliver. Look here!” he went on, turning to the cab driver, “just you wait a bit–I might want you; wait ten minutes, anyway. Come in, Mr. Copplestone.”

Copplestone followed the business manager up the passage to a dressing-room, in which a little elderly man was engaged in unpacking trunks and dress-baskets. He looked up expectantly at the sound of footsteps; then looked down again at the work in hand and went silently on with it.

“This is Hackett, Mr. Oliver’s dresser,” said Stafford. “Been with him–how long, Hackett?”

“Twenty years next January, Mr. Stafford,” answered the dresser quietly.

“Ever known Mr. Oliver late like this?” inquired Stafford.

“Never, sir! There’s something wrong,” replied Hackett. “I’m sure of it. I feel it! You ought to go and look for him, some of you gentlemen.”

“Where?” asked Stafford. “We don’t know anything about him. He’s not come to the ‘Angel,’ as he ought to have done, yesterday. I believe you’re the last person who saw him, Hackett. Aren’t you, now?”

“I saw him at the ‘Golden Apple’ at Northborough at twelve o’clock Saturday night, sir,” answered Hackett. “I took a bag of his to his rooms there. He was all right then. He knew I was going off first thing next morning to see an uncle of mine who’s a farmer on the coast between here and Northborough, and he told me he shouldn’t want me until one o’clock today. So of course, I came straight here to the theatre–I didn’t call in at the ‘Angel’ at all this morning.”

“Did he say anything about his own movements yesterday?” asked Stafford. “Did he tell you that he was going anywhere?”

“Not a word, Mr. Stafford,” replied Hackett. “But you know his habits as well as I do.”

“Just so,” agreed Stafford. “Mr. Oliver,” he continued, turning to Copplestone, “is a great lover of outdoor life. On Sundays, when we’re travelling from one town to another, he likes to do the journey by motor–alone. In a case like this, where the two towns are not very far apart, it’s his practice to find out if there’s any particular beauty spot or place of interest between them, and to spend his Sunday there. I daresay that’s what he did yesterday. You see, all last week we were at Northborough. That, like Norcaster, is a coast town–there’s fifty miles between them. If he followed out his usual plan he’d probably hire a motor-car and follow the coast-road, and if he came to any place that was of special interest, he’d stop there. But–in the usual way of things–he’d have turned up at his rooms at the ‘Angel’ hotel here last night. He didn’t–and he hasn’t turned up here, either. So where is he?”

“Have you made inquiries of the company, Mr. Stafford?” asked Hackett. “Most of ‘em wander about a bit of a Sunday–they might have seen him.”

“Good idea!” agreed Stafford. He beckoned Copplestone to follow him on to the stage, where the members of the company sat or stood about in groups, each conscious that something unusual had occurred. “It’s really a queer, and perhaps a serious thing,” he whispered as he steered his companion through a maze of scenery. “And if Oliver doesn’t turn up, we shall be in a fine mess. Of course, there’s an understudy for his part, but–I say!” he went on, as they stepped upon the stage, “Have any of you seen Mr. Oliver, anywhere, since Saturday night? Can anybody tell anything about him–anything at all? Because–it’s useless to deny the fact–he’s not come here, and he’s not come to town at all, so far as we know. So–”

Rothwell came hurrying on to the stage from the opposite wings. He hastened across to Stafford and drew him and Copplestone a little aside.

“I’ve heard from Northborough,” he said. “I ‘phoned Waters, the manager there, to run across to the ‘Golden Apple’ and make inquiries. The ‘Golden Apple’ people say that Oliver left there at eleven o’clock yesterday morning. He was alone. He simply walked out of the hotel. And they know nothing more.”



The three men stood for a while silently looking at each other. Copplestone, as a stranger, secretly wondered why the two managers seemed so concerned; to him a delay of half an hour in keeping an appointment did not appear to be quite as serious as they evidently considered it. But he had never met Bassett Oliver, and knew nothing of his ways; he only began to comprehend matters when Rothwell turned to Stafford with an air of decision.

“Look here!” he said. “You’d better go and make inquiry at Northborough. See if you can track him. Something must be wrong–perhaps seriously wrong. You don’t quite understand, do you, Mr. Copplestone?” he went on, giving the younger man a sharp glance. “You see, we know Mr. Oliver so well–we’ve both been with him a good many years. He’s a model of system, regularity, punctuality, and all the rest of it. In the ordinary course of events, wherever he spent yesterday, he’d have been sure to turn up at his rooms at the ‘Angel’ hotel last night, and he’d have walked in here this morning at half-past twelve. As he hasn’t done either, why, then, something unusual has happened. Stafford, you’d better get a move on.”

“Wait a minute,” said Stafford. He turned again to the groups behind him, repeating his question.

“Has anybody anything to tell?” he asked anxiously. “We’ve just heard that Mr. Oliver left his hotel at Northborough yesterday morning at eleven o’clock, alone, walking. Has anybody any idea of any project, any excursion, that he had in mind?”

An elderly man who had been in conversation with the leading lady stepped forward.

“I was talking to Oliver about the coast scenery between here and Northborough the other day–Friday,” he remarked. “He’d never seen it–I told him I used to know it pretty well once. He said he’d try and see something of it on Sunday–yesterday, you know. And, I say–“ here he came closer to the two managers and lowered his voice–“that coast is very wild, lonely, and a good bit dangerous–sharp and precipitous cliffs. Eh?”

Rothwell clapped a hand on Stafford’s arm.

“You’d really better be off to Northborough,” he said with decision. “You’re sure to come across traces of him. Go to the ‘Golden Apple’–then the station. Wire or telephone me–here. Of course, this rehearsal’s off. About this evening–oh, well, a lot may happen before then. But go at once–I believe you can get expresses from here to Northborough pretty often.”

“I’ll go with you–if I may,” said Copplestone suddenly. “I might be of use. There’s that cab still at the door, you know–shall we run up to the station?”

“Good!” assented Stafford. “Yes, come by all means.” He turned to Rothwell for a moment. “If he should turn up here, ‘phone to Waters at the Northborough theatre, won’t you?” he said. “We’ll look in there as soon as we arrive.”

He hurried out with Copplestone and together they drove up to the station, where an express was just leaving for the south. Once on their way to Northborough, Stafford turned to his companion with a grave shake of the head.

“I daresay you don’t quite see the reason of our anxiety,” he observed. “You see, we know Oliver. He’s a trick of wandering about by himself on Sundays–when he gets the chance. Of course when there’s a long journey between two towns, he doesn’t get the chance, and then he’s all right. But when, as in this case, the town of one week is fairly close to the town of the next, he invariably spots some place of interest, an old castle, or a ruined abbey, or some famous house, and goes looking round it. And if he’s been exploring some spot on this coast yesterday, and it’s as that chap Rutherford said, wild and dangerous, why, then–”

“You think he may have had an accident–fallen over the cliffs or something?” suggested Copplestone.

“I don’t like to think anything,” replied Stafford. “But I shall be a good deal relieved if we can get some definite news about him.”

The first half-hour at Northborough yielded nothing definite. A telephone message from Rothwell had just come to the theatre when they drove up to it–nothing had so far been heard of the missing man at Norcaster–either at theatre or hotel. Stafford and Copplestone hurried across to the “Golden Apple” and interviewed its proprietor; he, keenly interested in the affair, could tell no more than that Mr. Bassett Oliver, having sent his luggage forward to Norcaster, had left the house on foot at eleven o’clock the previous morning, and had been seen to walk across the market-place in the direction of the railway station. But an old head-waiter, who had served the famous actor’s breakfast, was able to give some information; Mr. Oliver, he said, had talked a little to him about the coast scenery between Northborough and Norcaster, and had asked him which stretch of it was worth seeing. It was his impression that Mr. Oliver meant to break his journey somewhere along the coast.

“Of course, that’s it,” said Stafford, as he and Copplestone drove off again. “He’s gone to some place between the two towns. But where? Anyhow, nobody’s likely to forget Oliver if they’ve once seen him, and wherever he went, he’d have to take a ticket. Therefore–the booking-office.”

Here at last, was light. One of the clerks in the booking-office came forward at once with news. Mr. Bassett Oliver, whom he knew well enough, having seen him on and off the stage regularly for the past five years, had come there the previous morning, and had taken a first-class single ticket for Scarhaven. He would travel to Scarhaven by the 11.35 train, which arrived at Scarhaven at 12.10. Where was Scarhaven? On the coast, twenty miles off, on the way to Norcaster; you changed for it at Tilmouth Junction. Was there a train leaving soon for Scarhaven? There was–in five minutes.

Stafford and Copplestone presently found themselves travelling back along the main line. A run of twenty minutes brought them to the junction, where, at an adjacent siding they found a sort of train in miniature which ran over a narrow-gauge railway towards the sea. Its course lay through a romantic valley hidden between high heather-clad moorland; they saw nothing of their destination nor of the coast until, coming to a stop in a little station perched high on the side of a hill they emerged to see shore and sea lying far beneath them. With a mutual consent they passed outside the grey walls of the station-yard to take a comprehensive view of the scene.

“Just the place to attract Oliver!” muttered Stafford, as he gazed around him. “He’d revel in it–fairly revel!”

Copplestone gazed at the scene in silence. That was the first time he had ever seen the Northern coast, and the strange glamour and romance of this stretch of it appealed strongly to his artistic senses. He found himself standing high above the landward extremity of a narrow bay or creek, much resembling a Norwegian fiord in its general outlines; it ran in from the sea between high shelving cliffs, the slopes of which were thickly wooded with the hardier varieties of tree and shrub, through which at intervals great, gaunt masses of grey rock cropped out. On the edge of the water at either side of the bay were lines of ancient houses and cottages of grey walls and red roofs, built and grouped with the irregularity of individual liking; on the north side rose the square tower and low nave of a venerable church; amidst a mass of wood on the opposite side stood a great Norman keep, half ruinous, which looked down on a picturesque house at its foot. Quays, primitive and quaint, ran along between the old cottages and the water’s edge; in the bay itself or nestling against the worn timbers of the quays, were small craft whose red sails hung idly against their tall masts and spars. And at the end of the quays and the wooded promontories which terminated the land view, lay the North Sea, cold, grey, and mysterious in the waning October light, and out of its bosom rose, close to the shore, great masses of high grey rocks, strong and fantastic of shape, and further away, almost indistinct in the distance, an island, on the highest point of which the ruins of some old religious house were silhouetted against the horizon.

“Just the place!” repeated Stafford. “He’d have cheerfully travelled a thousand miles to see this. And now–we know he came here–what we next want to know is, what he did when he got here?”

Copplestone, who had been taking in every detail of the scene before him, pointed to a house of many gables and queer chimneys which stood a little way beneath them at the point where the waters of a narrow stream ran into the bay.

“That looks like an inn,” he said. “I think I can make out a sign on the gable-end. Let’s go down there and inquire. He would get here just about time for lunch, wouldn’t he, and he’d probably turn in there. Also–they may have a telephone there, and you can call up the theatre at Norcaster and find out if anything’s been heard yet.”

Stafford smiled approvingly and started out in the direction of the buildings towards which Copplestone had pointed.

“Excellent notion!” he said. “You’re quite a business man–an unusual thing in authors, isn’t it? Come on, then–and that is an inn, too–I can make out the sign now–The ‘Admiral’s Arms’–Mary Wooler. Let’s hope Mary Wooler, who’s presumably the landlady, can give us some useful news!”

The “Admiral’s Arms” proved to be an old-fashioned, capacious hostelry, eminently promising and comfortable in appearance, which stood on the edge of a broad shelf of headland, and commanded a fine view of the little village and the bay. Stafford and Copplestone, turning in at the front door, found themselves in a deep, stone-paved hall, on one side of which, behind a bar window, a pleasant-faced, buxom woman, silk-aproned and smartly-capped, was busily engaged in adding up columns of figures in a big account-book. At sight of strangers she threw open a door and smilingly invited them to walk into a snugly furnished bar-parlour where a bright fire burned in an open hearth. Stafford gave his companion a look–this again was just the sort of old-world place which would appeal to Basset Oliver, supposing he had come across it.

“I wonder if you can give me some information?” he asked presently, when the good-looking landlady had attended to their requests for refreshment. “I suppose you are the landlady–Mrs. Wooler? Well, now, Mrs. Wooler, did you have a tall, handsome, slightly grey-haired gentleman in here to lunch yesterday–say about one o’clock?”

The landlady turned on her questioner with an intelligent smile.

“You mean Mr. Oliver, the actor?” she said.

“Good!” exclaimed Stafford, with a hearty sigh of relief. “I do! You know him, then?”

“I’ve often seen him, both at Northborough and at Norcaster,” replied Mrs. Wooler. “But I never saw him here before yesterday. Oh, yes! of course I knew him as soon as he walked in, and I had a bit of chat with him before he went out, and he remarked that though he’d been coming into these parts for some years, he’d never been to Scarhaven before–usually, he said, he’d gone inland of a Sunday, amongst the hills. Oh, yes, he was here–he had lunch here.”

“We’re seeking him,” said Stafford, going directly to the question. “He ought to have turned up at the ‘Angel Hotel’ at Norcaster last night, and at the theatre today at noon–he did neither. I’m his business manager, Mrs. Wooler. Now can you tell us anything–more than you’ve already told, I mean?”

The landlady, whose face expressed more and more concern as Stafford spoke, shook her head.

“I can’t!” she answered. “I don’t know any more. He was here perhaps an hour or so. Then he went away, saying he was going to have a look round the place. I expected he’d come in again on his way to the station, but he never did. Dear, dear! I hope nothing’s happened to him–such a fine, pleasant man. And–”

“And–what?” asked Stafford.

“These cliffs and rocks are so dangerous,” murmured Mrs. Wooler. “I often say that no stranger ought to go alone here. They aren’t safe, these cliffs.”

Stafford set down his glass and rose.

“I think you’ve got a telephone in your hall,” he said. “I’ll just call up Norcaster and find out if they’ve heard anything. If they haven’t–”

He shook his head and went out, and Copplestone glanced at the landlady.

“You say the cliffs are dangerous,” he said. “Are they particularly so?”

“To people who don’t know them, yes,” she replied. “They ought to be protected, but then, of course, we don’t get many tourists here, and the Scarhaven people know the danger spots well enough. Then again at the end of the south promontory there, beyond the Keep–”

“Is the Keep that high square tower amongst the woods?” asked Copplestone.

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