The Chestermarke Instinct - Joseph Smith Fletcher - ebook

The Chestermarke Instinct ebook

Joseph Smith Fletcher



Fans of golden-era mysteries will relish the twists and turns of J. S. Fletcher’s „The Chestermarke Instinct”. This cleverly crafted mystery begins with what seems like a common enough occurrence: a bank manager is late for work one morning. But what first appears to be simply a matter of a missed train soon is revealed to be a much more vexing problem. Has the manager, formerly a pillar of honesty, absconded with the missing bank’s items, or has something more sinister occurred? When a body is found at the bottom of an abandoned lead mine, the latter seems more likely. Wallington Neale, the bank’s assistant manager, must discover whether it is a case of embezzlement or if the events the result of... The Chestermarke Instinct.

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Every Monday morning, when the clock of the old parish church in Scarnham Market-Place struck eight, Wallington Neale asked himself why on earth he had chosen to be a bank clerk. On all the other mornings of the week this question never occurred to him: on Sunday he never allowed a thought of the bank to cross his mind: from Sunday to Saturday he was firmly settled in the usual rut, and never dreamed of tearing himself out of it. But Sunday’s break was unsettling: there was always an effort in starting afresh on Monday. The striking of St. Alkmund’s clock at eight on Monday morning invariably found him sitting down to his breakfast in his rooms, overlooking the quaint old Market-Place, once more faced by the fact that a week of dull, uninteresting work lay before him. He would go to the bank at nine, and at the bank he would remain, more or less, until five. He would do that again on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday and on Friday, and on Saturday. One afternoon, strolling in the adjacent country, he had seen a horse walking round and round and round in a small paddock, turning a crank which worked some machine or other in an adjoining shed: that horse had somehow suggested himself to himself.

On this particular Monday morning, Neale, happening to catch sight of his reflection in the mirror which stood on his parlour mantelpiece, propounded the usual question with added force. There were reasons. It was a beautiful morning. It was early spring. There was a blue sky, and the rooks and jackdaws were circling in a clear air about the church tower and over the old Market-Cross. He could hear thrushes singing in the trees in the Vicarage garden, close by. Everything was young. And he was young. It would have been affectation on his part to deny either his youth or his good looks. He glanced at his mirrored self without pride, but with due recognition of his good figure, his strong muscles, his handsome, boyish face, with its cluster of chestnut hair and steady grey eyes. All that, he knew, wanted life, animation, movement. At twenty-three he was longing for something to take him out of the treadmill round in which he had been fixed for five years. He had no taste for handing out money in exchange for cheques, in posting up ledgers, in writing dull, formal letters. He would have been much happier with an old flannel shirt, open at the throat, a pick in his hands, making a new road in a new country, or in driving a path through some primeval wood. There would have been liberty in either occupation: he could have flung down the pick at any moment and taken up the hunter’s gun: he could have turned right or left at his own will in the unexplored forest. But there at the bank it was just doing the same thing over and over again: what he had done last week he would do again this week: what had happened last year would happen again this year. It was all pure, unadulterated, dismal monotony.

Like most things, it had come about without design: he had just drifted into it. His father and mother had both died when he was a boy; he had inherited a small property which brought in precisely one hundred and fifty pounds a year: it was tied up to him in such a fashion that he would have his three pounds a week as long as ever he lived. But as his guardian, Mr. John Horbury, the manager of Chestermarke’s Bank at Scarnham, pointed out to him when he left school, he needed more than three pounds a week if he wished to live comfortably and like a gentleman. Still, a hundred and fifty a year of sure and settled income was a fine thing, an uncommonly fine thing–all that was necessary was to supplement it. Therefore–a nice, quiet, genteel profession–banking, to wit. Light work, an honourable calling, an eminently respectable one. In a few years he would have another hundred and fifty a year: a few years more, and he would be a manager, with at least six hundred: he might, well before he was a middle-aged man, be commanding a salary of a thousand a year. Banking, by all means, counselled Mr. Horbury–and offered him a vacancy which had just then arisen at Chestermarke’s. And Neale, willing to be guided by a man for whom he had much respect, took the post, and settled down in the old bank in the quiet, sleepy market-town, wherein one day was precisely like another day–and every year his dislike for his work increased, and sometimes grew unbearably keen, especially when spring skies and spring air set up a sudden stirring in his blood. On this Monday morning that stirring amounted to something very like a physical ache.

“Hang the old bank!” he muttered. “I’d rather be a ploughman!”

Nevertheless, the bank must be attended, and, at ten minutes to nine, Neale lighted a cigarette, put on his hat, and strolled slowly across the Market-Place. Although he knew every single one of its cobblestones, every shop window, every landmark in it, that queer old square always fascinated him. It was a bit of old England. The ancient church and equally ancient Moot Hall spread along one side of it; the other three sides were filled with gabled and half-timbered houses; the Market-Cross which stood in the middle of the open space had been erected there in Henry the Seventh’s time. Amidst all the change and development of the nineteenth century, Scarnham had been left untouched: even the bank itself was a time-worn building, and the manager’s house which flanked it was still older. Underneath all these ancient structures were queer nooks and corners, secret passages and stairs, hiding-places, cellarings going far beneath the gardens at the backs of the houses: Neale, as a boy, had made many an exploration in them, especially beneath the bank-house, which was a veritable treasury of concealed stairways and cunningly contrived doors in the black oak of the panellings.

But on this occasion Neale did not stare admiringly at the old church, nor at the pilastered Moot Hall, nor at the toppling gables: his eyes were fixed on something else, something unusual. As soon as he walked out of the door of the house in which he lodged he saw his two fellow-clerks, Shirley and Patten, standing on the steps of the hall by which entrance was joined to the bank and to the bank-house. They stood there looking about them. Now they looked towards Finkleway–a narrow street which led to the railway station at the far end of the town. Now they looked towards Middlegate–a street which led into the open country, in the direction of Ellersdeane, where Mr. Gabriel Chestermarke, senior proprietor of the bank, resided. All that was unusual. If Patten, a mere boy, had been lounging there, Neale would not have noticed it. But it was Shirley’s first duty, on arriving every morning, to get the keys at the house door, and to let himself into the bank by the adjoining private entrance. It was Patten’s duty, on arrival, to take the letter-bag to the post-office and bring the bank’s correspondence back in it. Never, in all his experience, had Neale seen any of Chestermarke’s clerks lounging on the steps at nine o’clock in the morning, and he quickened his pace. Shirley, turning from a prolonged stare towards Finkleway, caught sight of him.

“Can’t get in,” he observed laconically, in answer to Neale’s inquiring look. “Mr. Horbury isn’t there, and he’s got the keys.”

“What do you mean–isn’t there!” asked Neale, mounting the steps. “Not in the house?”

“Mean just what I say,” replied Shirley. “Mrs. Carswell says she hasn’t seen him since Saturday. She thinks he’s been week-ending. I’ve been looking out for him coming along from the station. But if he came in by the 8.30, he’s a long time getting up here. And if he hasn’t come by that, there’s no other train till the 10.45.”

Neale made no answer. He, too, glanced towards Finkleway, and then at the church clock. It was just going to strike nine–and the station was only eight minutes away at the most. He passed the two junior clerks, went down the hall to the door of the bank-house, and entered. And just within he came face to face with the housekeeper, Mrs. Carswell.

Mrs. Carswell had kept house for Mr. John Horbury for some years–Neale remembered her from boyhood. He had always been puzzled about her age. Of late, since he knew more of grown-up folk, he had been still more puzzled. Sometimes he thought she was forty; sometimes he was sure she could not be more than thirty-two or three. Anyway, she was a fine, handsome woman–tall, perfectly shaped, with glossy black hair and dark eyes, and a firm, resolute mouth. It was rarely that Mrs. Carswell went out; when she did, she was easily the best-looking woman in Scarnham. Few Scarnham people, however, had the chance of cultivating her acquaintance; Mrs. Carswell kept herself to herself and seemed content to keep up her reputation as a model housekeeper. She ordered Mr. Horbury’s domestic affairs in perfect fashion, and it had come upon Neale as a surprise to hear Shirley say that Mrs. Carswell did not know where the manager was.

“What’s all this?” he demanded, as he met her within the hall. “Shirley says Mr. Horbury isn’t at home? Where is he, then?”

“But I don’t know, Mr. Neale,” replied the housekeeper. “I know no more than you do. I’ve been expecting him to come in by that 8.30 train, but he can’t have done that, or he’d have been up here by now.”

“Perhaps it’s late,” suggested Neale.

“No–it’s in,” she said. “I saw it come in from my window, at the back. It was on time. So–I don’t know what’s become of him.”

“But–what about Saturday?” asked Neale. “Shirley says you said Mr. Horbury went off on Saturday. Didn’t he leave any word–didn’t he say where he was going?”

“Mr. Horbury went out on Saturday evening,” answered Mrs. Carswell. “He didn’t say a word about where he was going. He went out just before dusk, as if for a walk. I’d no idea that he wasn’t at home until Sunday morning. You see, the servants and I went to bed at our usual time on Saturday night, and though he wasn’t in then, I thought nothing of it, because, of course, he’d his latch-key. He was often out late at night, as you know, Mr. Neale. And when I found that he hadn’t come back, as I did find out before breakfast yesterday, I thought nothing of that either–I thought he’d gone to see some friend or other, and had been persuaded to stop the night. Then, when he didn’t come home yesterday at all, I thought he was staying the week-end somewhere. So I wasn’t anxious, nor surprised. But I am surprised he’s not back here first thing this morning.”

“So am I,” agreed Neale. “And more than surprised.” He stood for a moment, running over the list of the manager’s friends and acquaintances in the neighbourhood, and he shook his head as he came to the end of his mental reckoning of it. “It’s very odd,” he remarked. “Very surprising, Mrs. Carswell.”

“It’s all the more surprising,” remarked the housekeeper, “because of his going off for his holiday tomorrow. And Miss Fosdyke’s coming down from London today to go with him.”

Neale pricked his ears. Miss Fosdyke was the manager’s niece–a young lady whom Neale remembered as a mere slip of a girl that he had met years before and never seen since.

“I didn’t know that,” he remarked.

“Neither did Mr. Horbury until Saturday afternoon–that is, for certain,” said Mrs. Carswell. “He’d asked her to go with him to Scotland on this holiday, but it wasn’t settled. However, he got a wire from her, about tea-time on Saturday, to say she’d go, and would be down here today. They’re to start tomorrow morning.”

Neale turned to the door. He was distinctly puzzled and uneasy. He had known John Horbury since his own childhood, and had always regarded him as the personification of everything that was precise, systematic, and regular. All things considered, it was most remarkable that he should not be at the bank at opening hours. And already a vague suspicion that something had happened began to steal into his mind.

“Did you happen to notice which way he went, Mrs. Carswell?” he asked. “Was it towards the station?”

“He went out down the garden and through the orchard,” replied the housekeeper. “He could have got to the station that way, of course. But I do know that he never said a word about going anywhere by train, and he’d no bag or anything with him–he’d nothing but that old oak stick he generally carried when he went out for his walks.”

Neale pushed open the house door and went into the outer hall to the junior clerks. Little as he cared about banking as a calling, he was punctilious about rules and observances, and it seemed to him somewhat indecorous that the staff of a bank should hang about its front door, as if they were workshop assistants awaiting the arrival of a belated foreman.

“Better come inside the house, Shirley,” he said. “Patten, you go to the post-office and get the letters.”

“No good without the bag,” answered Patten, a calm youth of seventeen. “Tried that once before. Don’t you know!–they’ve one key–we’ve another.”

“Well, come inside, then,” commanded Neale. “It doesn’t look well to hang about those steps.”

“Might just as well go away,” muttered Shirley, stepping into the hall. “If Horbury’s got to come back by train from wherever he’s gone to, he can’t get here till the 10.45, and then he’s got to walk up. Might as well go home for an hour.”

“The partners’ll be here before an hour’s over,” said Neale. “One of them’s always here by ten.”

Shirley, a somewhat grumpy-countenanced young man, made no answer. He began to pace the hall with looks of eminent dissatisfaction. But he had only taken a turn or two when a quietly appointed one-horse coupé brougham came up to the open door, and a well-known face was seen at its window. Mr. Gabriel Chestermarke, senior proprietor, had come an hour before his time.



Had the three young men waiting in that hall not been so familiar with him by reason of daily and hourly acquaintance, the least observant amongst them would surely have paused in whatever task he was busied with, if Mr. Gabriel Chestermarke had crossed his path for the first time. The senior partner of Chestermarke’s Bank was a noticeable person. Wallington Neale, who possessed some small gift of imagination, always felt that his principal suggested something more than was accounted for by his mere presence. He was a little, broadly built man, somewhat inclined to stoutness, who carried himself in very upright fashion, and habitually wore the look of a man engaged in operations of serious and far-reaching importance, further heightened by an air of reserve and a trick of sparingness in speech. But more noticeable than anything else in Mr. Gabriel Chestermarke was his head, a member of his body which was much out of proportion to the rest of it. It was a very big, well-shaped head, on which, out of doors, invariably rested the latest-styled and glossiest of silk hats–no man had ever seen Gabriel Chestermarke in any other form of head-gear, unless it was in a railway carriage, there he condescended to assume a checked cap. Underneath the brim of the silk hat looked out a countenance as remarkable as the head of which it was a part. A broad, smooth forehead, a pair of large, deep-set eyes, the pupils of which were black as sloes, a prominent, slightly hooked nose, a firm, thin-lipped mouth, a square, resolute jaw–these features were thrown into prominence by the extraordinary pallor of Mr. Chestermarke’s face, and the dark shade of the hair which framed it. That black hair, those black eyes, burning always with a strange, slumbering fire, the colourless cheeks, the vigorous set of the lips, these made an effect on all who came in contact with the banker which was of a not wholly comfortable nature. It was as if you were talking to a statue rather than to a fellow-creature.

Mr. Chestermarke stepped quietly from his brougham and walked up the steps. He was one of those men who are never taken aback and never show surprise, and as his eyes ran over the three young men, there was no sign from him that he saw anything out of the common. But he turned to Neale, as senior clerk, with one word.


Neale glanced uncomfortably at the house door. “Mr. Horbury is not at home,” he answered. “He has the keys.”

Mr. Chestermarke made no reply. His hand went to his waistcoat pocket, his feet moved lower down the hall to a side-door sacred to the partners. He produced a key, opened the door, and motioned the clerks to enter. Once within, he turned into the partners’ room. Five minutes passed before his voice was heard.


Neale hurried in and found the banker standing on the hearth-rug, beneath the portrait of a former Chestermarke, founder of the bank in a bygone age. He was suddenly struck by the curious resemblance between that dead Chestermarke and the living one, and he wondered that he had never seen it before. But Mr. Chestermarke gave him no time for speculation.

“Where is Mr. Horbury?” he asked.

Neale told all he knew: the banker listened in his usual fashion, keeping his eyes steadily fixed on his informant. When Neale had finished, Mr. Chestermarke shook his head.

“If Horbury had meant to come into town by the 8.30 train and had missed it,” he remarked, “he would have wired or telephoned by this. Telephoned, of course: there are telephones at every station on that branch line. Very well, let things go on.”

Neale went out and set his fellow-clerks to the usual routine. Patten went for the letters. Neale carried them into the partners’ room. At ten o’clock the street door was opened. A customer or two began to drop in. The business of the day had begun. It went on just as it would have gone on if Mr. Horbury had been away on holiday. And at half-past ten in walked the junior partner, Mr. Joseph Chestermarke.

Mr. Joseph was the exact opposite of his uncle. He was so much his opposite that it was difficult to believe, seeing them together, that they were related to each other. Mr. Joseph Chestermarke, a man of apparently thirty years of age, was tall and loose of figure, easy of demeanour, and a little untidy in his dress. He wore a not over well-fitting tweed suit, a slouch hat, a flannel shirt. His brown beard usually needed trimming; he affected loose, flowing neckties, more suited to an artist than to a banker. His face was amiable in expression, a little weak, a little speculative. All these characteristics came out most strongly when he and his uncle were seen in company: nothing could be more in contrast to the precise severity of Gabriel than the somewhat slovenly carelessness of Joseph. Joseph, indeed, was the last man in the world that any one would ever have expected to see in charge and direction of a bank, and there were people in Scarnham who said that he was no more than a lay-figure, and that Gabriel Chestermarke did all the business.

The junior partner passed through the outer room, nodding affably to the clerks and went into the private parlour. Several minutes elapsed: then a bell rang. Neale answered it, and Shirley and Patten glanced at each other and shook their heads: already they scented an odour of suspicion and uncertainty.

“What’s up?” whispered Patten, leaning forward over his desk to Shirley, who stood between it and the counter. “Something wrong?”

“Something that Gabriel doesn’t like, anyhow,” muttered Shirley. “Did you see his eyes when Neale said that Horbury wasn’t here? If Horbury doesn’t turn up by this next train–ah!”

“Think he’s sloped?” asked Patten, already seething with boyish desire of excitement. “Done a bunk with the money?”

But Shirley shook his head at the closed door through which Neale had vanished.

“They’re carpeting Neale about it, anyhow,” he answered. “Gabriel’ll want to know the whys and wherefores, you bet. But Neale won’t tell us anything–he’s too thick with Horbury.”

Neale, entering the partners’ room, found them in characteristic attitudes. The senior partner sat at his desk, stern, upright, his eyes burning a little more fiercely than usual: the junior, his slouch hat still on his head, his hands thrust in his pockets, lounged against the mantelpiece, staring at his uncle.

“Now, Neale,” said Gabriel Chestermarke. “What do you know about this? Have you any idea where Mr. Horbury is?”

“None,” replied Neale. “None whatever!”

“When did you see him last?” demanded Gabriel. “You often see him out of bank hours, I know.”

“I last saw him here at two o’clock on Saturday,” replied Neale. “I have not seen him since.”

“And you never heard him mention that he was thinking of going away for the week-end?” asked Gabriel.

“No!” replied Neale.

He made his answer tersely and definitely, having an idea that the senior partner looked at him as if he thought that something was being kept back. And Gabriel, after a moment’s pause, shifted some of the papers on his desk, with an impatient movement.

“Ask Mr. Horbury’s housekeeper to step in here for a few minutes,” he said.

Neale went out by the private door, and presently returned with Mrs. Carswell.

By that time Joseph had lounged over to his own desk and seated himself, and when the housekeeper came in he tilted his chair back and sat idly swaying in it while he watched her and his uncle. But Gabriel, waving Mrs. Carswell to a seat, remained upright as ever, and as he turned to the housekeeper, he motioned Neale to stay in the room.

“Just tell us all you know about Mr. Horbury’s movements on Saturday afternoon and evening, Mrs. Carswell,” he said. “This is a most extraordinary business altogether, and I want to account for it. You say he went out just about dusk.”

Mrs. Carswell repeated the story which she had told to Neale. The two partners listened; Gabriel keenly attentive; Joseph as if he were no more than mildly interested.

“Odd!” remarked Gabriel, when the story had come to an end. “Most strange! Very well–thank you, Mrs. Carswell. Neale,” he added, when the housekeeper had gone away, “Mr. Horbury always carried the more important keys on him, didn’t he?”

“Always,” responded Neale.

“Very good! Let things go on,” said Gabriel. “But don’t come bothering me or Mr. Joseph Chestermarke unless you’re obliged to. Of course, Mr. Horbury may come in by the next train. That’ll do, Neale.”

Neale went back to the outer room. Things went on, but the missing manager did not come in by the 10.45, and nothing had been heard or seen of him at noon, when Patten went to get his dinner. Nor had anything been seen or heard at one o’clock, when Patten came back, and it became Shirley and Neale’s turn to go out. And thereupon arose a difficulty. In the ordinary course the two elder clerks would have left for an hour and the manager would have been on duty until they returned. But now the manager was not there.

“You go,” said Neale to Shirley. “I’ll wait. Perhaps Mr. Joseph will come out.”

Shirley went–but neither of the partners emerged from the private room. As a rule they both went across to the Scarnham Arms Hotel at half-past one for lunch–a private room had been kept for them at that old-world hostelry from time immemorial–but now they remained within their parlour, apparently interned from their usual business world. And Neale had a very good idea of what they were doing. The bank’s strong room was entered from that parlour–Gabriel and Joseph were examining and checking its contents. The knowledge distressed Neale beyond measure, and it was only by a resolute effort that he could give his mind to his duties.

Two o’clock had gone, and Shirley had come back, before the bell rang again. Neale went into the private room and knew at once that something had happened. Gabriel stood by his desk, which was loaded with papers and documents; Joseph leaned against a sideboard, whereon was a decanter of sherry and a box of biscuits; he had a glass of wine in one hand, and a half-nibbled biscuit in the other. The smell of the sherry–fine old brown stuff, which the clerks were permitted to taste now and then, on such occasions as the partners’ birthdays–filled the room.

“Neale,” said Gabriel, “have you been out to lunch? No? Take a glass of wine and eat a biscuit–we shall all have to put off our lunches for an hour or so.”

Neale obeyed–more because he was under order than because he was hungry. He was too much bothered, too full of vague fears, to think of his midday dinner. He took the glass which Joseph handed to him, and picked a couple of biscuits out of the box. And at the first sip Gabriel spoke again.

“Neale!” he said. “You’ve been here five years, so one can speak confidentially. There’s something wrong–seriously wrong. Securities are missing. Securities representing–a lot!”

Neale’s face flushed as if he himself had been charged with abstracting those securities. His hand shook as he set down his glass, and he looked helplessly from one partner to another. Joseph merely shook his head, and poured out another glass of sherry for himself: Gabriel shook his head, too, but with a different expression.

“We don’t know exactly how things are,” he continued. “But there’s the fact–on a superficial examination. And–Horbury! Of all men in the world, Horbury!”

“I can’t believe it, Mr. Chestermarke!” exclaimed Neale. “Surely, sir, there’s some mistake!”

Joseph brushed crumbs of biscuit off his beard and wagged his head.

“No mistake!” he said softly. “None! The thing is–what’s best to do? Because–he’d have laid his plans. It’ll all have been thought out–carefully.”

“I’m afraid so,” assented Gabriel. “That’s the worst of it. Everything points to premeditation. And when a man has been so fully trusted––”

A knock at the door prefaced the introduction of Shirley’s head. He glanced into the room with an obvious desire to see what was going on, but somehow contrived to fix his eyes on the senior partner.

“Lord Ellersdeane, sir,” he announced. “Can he see you?”

The two partners looked at each other in evident surprise; then Gabriel moved to the door and bowed solemnly to some person outside.

“Will your lordship come in?” he said politely.

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