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Never, even in his most optimistic moments, had he visualised a scene of this nature—himself in one arm-chair, a police officer in another, and between them . . . a mystery.” So thinks the Reverend Dodd—vicar of the quiet Cornish village of Boscawen and a reader of detective novels—when an actual mystery unexpectedly lands on his doorstep in The Cornish Coast Murder. Julius Tregarthan, a secretive and ill-tempered magistrate, is found at his house in Boscawen, shot through the head—and the local police investigator is baffled by the complete absence of clues. Fortunately for the inspector, the Reverend Dodd is at hand, ready to put his lifetime of vicarious detecting experience to the test.
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The Cornish Coast Murder
by John Bude
Copyright 1935 Ernest Elmore.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
The Cornish Coast Murder
THE UNDRAWN CURTAINS
THE PUZZLE OF THE FOOTPRINTS
STRANGE BEHAVIOUR OF RUTH TREGARTHAN
THE INSPECTOR FORMS A THEORY
THE MISSING REVOLVER
CONVERSATION AT THE VICARAGE
WAS IT RONALD HARDY?
THE SINGLE SHOT
THEFT FROM THE BODY
THE OPEN WINDOW
COWPER MAKES A STATEMENT
THE VICAR MAKES AN EXPERIMENT
ENTER RONALD HARDY
THE LITTLE GREYSTOKE TAILOR
THE MYSTERY SOLVED
THE VICAR EXPLAINS
The Cornish Coast Murder
The Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, stood at the window of his comfortable bachelor study looking out into the night. It was raining fitfully, and gusts of wind from off the Atlantic rattled the window-frames and soughed dismally among the sprinkling of gaunt pines which surrounded the Vicarage. It was a threatening night. No moon. But a lowering bank of cloud rested far away on the horizon of the sea, dark against the departing daylight.
The Vicar, who was fond of bodily comfort, sighed with the profoundest satisfaction. Behind him a big log fire crackled in the open hearth. A reading-lamp cast an orange circle over the seat of his favourite chair and gleamed, diluted, on the multi-coloured book-backs which lined most of the room. In the centre of the hearth-rug, placed with exact precision between the two arm-chairs, was a small wooden crate.
The Vicar sighed again. All was exactly as it should be. Nothing out of place. All ambling along just as it had done for the last fifteen years. Peace, perfect peace.
He cast a final look out of the bow-window and searched the ink-dark road for some sign of the Doctor’s car. He glanced back at the clock. Twenty minutes past seven. Oh, well ... still ten minutes to go before dinner, and the old rascal was never late. Trust Pendrill to be on time when it came to their little Monday evening ceremony. Neither of them would have missed it for the world. In an isolated village like Boscawen, of some four hundred souls, these old-established customs were meat and drink to men of the professional type like Pendrill and the Vicar.
The Vicar pulled the heavy curtains, shut out the ominous spectacle of what looked like an approaching storm, and settled down with the Spectator to wait for his guest.
Five minutes later he heard the swish of a car on the drive, a merry tooting as the car passed the window, followed almost immediately by the jangling of the front-door bell.
The next minute Pendrill was shaking his oldest friend by the hand and complaining about the foulness of the weather.
“Just in time,” said the Vicar jocularly. “I was just going to sample the sherry on my own account. Sit down, my dear fellow, and toast your toes till the gong sounds.”
The Doctor subsided with a grunt of pleasure and began to sip his sherry.
“Anything new?” asked the Vicar.
It was always one of his favourite opening gambits in conversation. He found that it got people talking. Not that Pendrill ever needed priming in this direction. He could sit for hours and talk “shop” without ever displaying the slightest fatigue.
“Oh, nothing much. The usual round. A cut hand, two rheumatics, a whitlow and a case of measles.”
“Fred Rutherford—one of your cherubic choirboys, I believe. Incorrigible lad. Always causing trouble in the village.”
The Vicar’s chubby face broke into a benign smile.
“This is more likely to cause elation—at least among the younger generation. I remember we always hailed an epidemic as a godsend when I was a boy. They closed the school.”
The Doctor nodded. He was always uncertain if he ought to allow levity where his job was concerned. He didn’t mind poking fun at the Vicar’s choir-boys and charity fêtes, but medical matters were a different pair of shoes.
The gong throbbed melodiously in the hall.
“Ah,” said the Vicar, tumbling alert in a moment. “Dinner!”
He followed his guest’s angular frame on his own short waddly legs into the dining-room.
Later the Doctor returned, as was inevitable, to his own little world of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers.
“By the way, I was forgetting. Good news for you this time. It looks as if you’re booked for a double christening.”
“To-night. I’ve just come away. I left Mrs. Mullion in charge.”
“Twins,” mused the Vicar. “Very unusual. I don’t seem to remember another set of twins in the village since Mrs. Drear surprised us——let’s see? Six years ago.”
“Seven,” corrected the Doctor. “I attended.”
The Vicar smiled a little wistfully across the heap of nutshells which were accumulating on his plate.
“Still at it,” he said quietly. “Fifteen years of it and it’s all going on just the same. Births, marriages, deaths. Major events all of them. I suppose our more successful colleagues, Pendrill, would say we were wasting our lives in a backwater. Nothing ever happens here. Nothing! It all flows along at the same slow pace, though heaven forbid that I should ever see it changed! I love this spot, Pendrill. It’s my home—my spiritual home. I wouldn’t change my set of parishioners for any other in the whole of Cornwall.”
“Not even Ned Salter?” asked the Doctor.
“No! No! Not even Ned. Confound it, my dear chap, I must have one soul left to save. Otherwise what’s my job worth? I should grow fat in idleness.”
“Work,” commented the Doctor as they rose from the table, “seems to have left few ravages on your person. I should suspect a tendency to diabetes if I didn’t know you better.”
They returned to the warmth and cosiness of the study where the Vicar threw a few giant logs on to the fire. He proffered a cigar-box.
“Try one,” he urged. “Henry Clays.”
It was all part of the solemn Monday evening ritual. He always proffered Henry Clays and Pendrill always patted his pocket and said, that without disparaging the excellence of the cigars, he preferred his pipe.
Coffee came in. They sank into their arm-chairs, smoking with the replete comfort of two bachelors who have dined well and now bask in the mellow light of each other’s friendship and esteem.
Presently with a negligent foot the Doctor kicked the little crate on the hearth-rug.
“I see they’re here,” he said, pretending to be quite casual about the matter.
“I think we’ve got a good lot this time. A very good selection. I took trouble. I always feel when it’s my turn that I want to cap the brilliance of your selection the week before.”
The Vicar made a deprecatory gesture with his hand.
“May I?” he said, diving into his pocket and taking out a large, serviceable penknife.
With a leisurely hand, as if wishing to prolong the pleasures of anticipation, the Vicar cut the string with which the crate was tied and prised up the lid. Nestling deep in a padding of brown paper were two neat piles of vividly coloured books. One by one the Vicar drew them out, inspected the titles, made a comment and placed the books on the table beside his chair.
“A very catholic choice,” he concluded. “Let’s see now—an Edgar Wallace—quite right, Pendrill, I hadn’t read that one. What a memory, my dear chap! The new J. S. Fletcher. Excellent. A Farjeon, a Dorothy L. Sayers and a Freeman Wills-Croft. And my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot, I hope. I must congratulate you, Pendrill. You’ve run the whole gamut of crime, mystery, thrills and detection in six volumes!”
The Doctor coughed and puffed earnestly at his pipe.
A division of the spoils was settled on and three of the volumes were passed over to Pendrill. These would be exchanged for the Vicar’s loot on the following Thursday. On Saturday night the whole six would be replaced in the little crate and returned to the lending library at Greystoke; whilst on Friday the Vicar would send off the list for the following week, culling his choice from the various papers and periodicals which invariably littered his desk.
For years the Doctor and the Vicar had indulged this vicarious though perhaps perfectly common lust for crime stories. It was one of the minor jokes of the parish. They made no attempts to hide their common admiration for those authors who, with spider-like tenacity, weave a web and expect the poor, harassed reader to disentangle the pattern and follow the single thread back to its original source.
Meeting each other in Cove Street, say on Friday, their conversation would invariably go something like this.
From the Vicar: “Well, Pendrill, have you got it?”
“The Three Toads Mystery, of course. The others were mere child’s play.”
Here Pendrill would wink and look knowing.
“Did you spot it, Dodd?”
“No—I’m asking you.”
“I’ve a very strong suspicion,” the Doctor would then say with the air of a man who hasn’t a strong suspicion, but a certain knowledge, “that it was Lucy Garstein.”
And then a little gusty cry of triumph from the Reverend Dodd.
“I thought you would. I thought so.”
And with the look of a man who harbours an immense wisdom, a sort of esoteric knowledge, the Vicar would amble pleasantly on his way to take tea with Lady Greenow at Boscawen Grange. Fancy old Pendrill being caught out by a simple red herring like that! The man was cracking up. He wasn’t up to the old form of the early twenties. These new, psychological twisters, full of technicalities, were proving a little too difficult for Pendrill. He’d have to be put back on a course of early Conan Doyle.
Perhaps the Vicar had actually assimilated the tricks of the crime trade a little more ably than his co-reader. He remembered odd twists from earlier books, tiny deviations in evidence, smart methods of detection, cross-examination traps, all the minute bits and pieces which go to make up the author’s paraphernalia in the writing of mystery stories. His head, now alas racing rapidly towards balddom, was crammed with the stock-in-trade lore of the professional detective. Often by the exercise of his very acute observation he surprised, even annoyed his parishioners, by sudden references to their movements on a certain day. Dear, no!—he hadn’t shadowed them. Nothing so crude. He had by the simplest methods of deduction put two and two together and made four.
But heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse-dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitements second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals.
The book ceremony over, the couple fell into desultory conversation. Most of it concerned the sayings and doings of the locality, for neither Pendrill nor the Vicar found much time for recreations and visits outside Boscawen.
“How about our local man of letters?” asked the Doctor, breaking a long silence. “I haven’t seen him about lately. Is he busy?”
“Very,” replied the Vicar. “Putting the polish on his war novel. Autobiographical, so Ronald confided in me when I met him last. Between ourselves, Pendrill, I don’t think that boy looks well. He appears ... well, strained—distraught almost. I dare say it’s overwork.”
“Possible,” was Pendrill’s noncommittal reply. “He’s a highly strung type of fellow. The war, of course, played havoc with his nerves. But what d’you expect?—he was only a youngster when they sent him to France. It may take him years to live down the stress and shock of the war. This book may help him.”
“Get rid of the poison in his system—to put it medically. Purge his mind of accumulated phantasms. There have been cases ...”
The Vicar nodded. He was thinking of his last meeting with Ronald Hardy on the cliff-path and how disturbed he had been by the boy’s white face and jerky movements. Boy, he said. But then, even a man of thirty-four seems young when one is nearing the last rungs of life’s ladder. A fine and sensitive type, thought the Vicar. A mind like steel which had bent and bent but never snapped. A typical product of those nightmare experiences which had hounded the life of the world’s young manhood not so many years ago. A pity, perhaps, that the boy had never married. He was the type which would respond favourably to feminine ministrations. He wanted looking after. He had the peculiar lost air of a man who lived so much in his work that the humdrum factors of existence both perplexed and annoyed him. There were rumours, of course. There always were rumours in Boscawen, particularly about Ronald. He had been looked upon as a figure of mystery and romance ever since he had settled in Cove Cottage two years ago. An author was a new species in the village. But, wondered the Vicar, was the rumour which coupled Ronald with Ruth Tregarthan based on anything more than mere supposition? He himself had seen them walking and talking together on a few occasions. But bless one! that was natural enough. Ruth was a charming, intelligent girl—a bit lonely perhaps living the “small life” in that bleak, old house with her uncle. Ronald was a vivid, entertaining talker once his natural reserve had been pierced. Somehow it seemed inevitable that they should find a sort of consolation in each other’s company. But beyond that ... well, well ... it might be something warmer than a mere intellectual interest—on the other hand it might not.
His ruminations were cut short by a sudden exclamation. Pendrill was pointing at the window.
“Phew. Did you see that? Through the cracks in the curtain ... lightning. We’re in for a tidy storm by the look of it.”
As if to confirm his words a low rumble of thunder muttered, first in the distance, then rolled up and burst with a crash, seemingly over the roof of the vicarage itself.
“I’ve been expecting it,” said the Vicar, adding, after a contented puff at his cigar, “I’ve an unholy fear of storms, Pendrill. Not for myself, of course—but for my church. It’s so isolated and open. I can’t imagine what would happen if the tower collapsed and the Greenow clock with it. I always keep an eye on the ‘grandfather’ over there, my dear fellow, until the storm blows over.”
“Oh, reassurance. I look out of the window and set that clock by the Greenow one in the tower every day. Never fail to. When my clock strikes and the church clock fails to respond ... don’t you see?”
“There’d be such an almighty crash ...” put in the Doctor. “Clocks wouldn’t matter.”
“Listen,” said the Vicar.
Faint and melodious the Greenow clock chimed the hour, and the nine strokes which followed came thinly down the wind. Before the church clock had completed its task the Vicar’s “grandfather” purred like a kitten and broke into a jingling accompaniment.
The Doctor pulled out his watch and shook his head, censoriously.
“Two minutes slow, Dodd. It won’t do. You’d better abandon your old-fashioned methods and set your blessed clocks by wireless.”
“Ah, this spirit of modernity,” sighed the Vicar. He countered his friend’s criticism with a hoary one of his own. “I’ll install a wireless set in the Vicarage, Pendrill, the day after I see you attending divine service. All these years and you’ve never yet had the decency to sit under me. There’s a sermon I have there ...” He nodded toward the big, mahogany, knee-hole desk near the window. “A high-spirited and, I may say, controversial affair. I’m delivering it next Sunday. Now what about it? I have to sit here and listen to you talking medicine. Why don’t you return the compliment and hear me on religion for a change?”
“When you visit my surgery, I’ll visit yours,” contested the Doctor. “When I feel spiritually out-of-sorts I’ll come to you for repairs, Dodd. But until then I’ll remain——”
“An atheist?” enquired the Vicar maliciously.
“An agnostic,” commented the Doctor.
“But, my dear Pendrill, don’t you see that there is infallible proof that God——”
And the next minute they were launched on one of their interminable metaphysical arguments. The Doctor dour and scientific—the Vicar bubbling over with professional enthusiasm and persuasion, throwing out his plump hands, shifting in his chair, pulling wildly at his unlighted cigar, even hammering on his knee when Pendrill refused, through pretended ignorance, to take up a point in the pro-Christian side of the argument.
Above their heads, as the argument progressed, the elements also seemed to be wrangling. Peal after peal of thunder rode in from the sea and broke high over the rain-swept coast.
“Oh, I grant you that! I grant you that!” The Vicar was getting shrill in his excitement. “But why base all truth on scientific proof? What about Faith, my dear chap? Yes, Faith with a capital F. Good old early Christian Faith. After all Faith is the one essential ...”
The Vicar stopped, as it were, in mid-air. His hand, half-way through an incomplete gesture, dropped on to his tubby thigh. The telephone on his desk was shrilling away with the maddening insistence of a trapped mosquito. Overhead another long peal of thunder rose in a furious crescendo and exploded with a cannon-crack.
“The tranquillity of our country Vicarages ...” laughed Pendrill, as the Rev. Dodd eased himself out of his chair and toddled across to the ringing instrument. “England’s rural quiet remains one of the ...”
“Please!” sighed the Vicar, glowering at Pendrill in much the same way as he would have glared at an incorrigible child. “It may be the Bishop!”
He took up the receiver. “Hullo? Yes. Speaking. Who? Oh, yes, he’s here. Urgent? Hold on—I’ll tell him.”
He turned with a worried look on his usually amiable and cherubic features and frowned at Pendrill.
“For you. It’s Ruth Tregarthan. She sounds upset, Pendrill. It’s urgent.”
Pendrill snatched the proffered receiver as a further blaze of lightning stabbed into the room through the chinks of the curtains.
“I’m here,” he said briskly. “What’s the trouble?”
For the moment the Vicar stood in a furore of curiosity. What was it? What had happened? Ruth’s voice had sounded queer and—what was the expression he wanted?—horror-struck. That was it.
Then after curious staccato noises had issued from the phone, Pendrill’s voice: “Good God! I’ll come at once. Don’t do anything until I get there.” He swung round on the Vicar. “Tregarthan’s been shot,” he said curtly. “You must get on to the police. Ring Grouch and tell him to bicycle up to Greylings as fast as he can.”
The Reverend Dodd stood in the middle of his study utterly bewildered. His puzzled eyes glinted strangely through the lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles. Shot? Tregarthan? Poor Ruth. What a tragedy!
Pendrill had already rushed into the hall, shuffled himself into his overcoat and crammed his hat over his head. The Vicar called out to him as he flung out through the front-door to where his car was drawn up.
“Pendrill! It’s an accident, of course?”
The Doctor’s voice came back above the hum of the car’s engine.
“Accident? No! From what I can make out from Ruth—of course, I don’t know the details—her uncle’s been murdered!”
Greylings, the house toward which Doctor Pendrill was heading in his car, stood close to the sea. It was a square, unimaginative building of grey stone and green-grey slate, materials which were, of course, quarried in the locality. It was an isolated place, shrouded on the land side by a few weather-stunted beeches, with its western windows looking out directly on to the slow swell of the Atlantic. The ground which intervened between the road and the house shelved considerably, whilst linking one with the other was a steepish drive about a quarter of a mile in length.
On the sea side of the house was a little walled-in rectangle of lawn edged with untidy flower borders, beyond which ran the cliff-path. On the far side of the path, the cliff, some fifteen feet high at this point, dropped sheer into deep water. There was never any foreshore visible along this stretch of the coast, for the simple reason that the land curved out from the village and formed a broad ness, upon the most seaward tip of which old Tregarthan, Ruth’s grandfather, had elected to build his house. The windows were in rough weather continually wetted by the spray, for the Atlantic breakers pounding against the cliff-face rushed up like sheets of glass, their ragged crests whipped by the wind. Ruth’s grandfather had declared that if his bedroom had only been large enough to swing a lead sinker, he could have fished from his upper windows. A justifiable boast seeing that his little patch of lawn was barely the length of an average fisherman’s cast.
From the moment the cliff-path passed to the bottom of the Greylings garden, it began to recede in a slow arc toward Boscawen itself. The village, in fact, clustered about a sandy, rock-strewn cove typical of that particular coastline. Greylings was, by the cliff-path, three-quarters of a mile from the cove, though somewhat more by road, since the drive and the road itself formed two sides of a triangle.
At the point where the Greylings drive debouched into the road, but on the other side of it, stood the Vicarage. From the window of Dodd’s study Greylings appeared between the Vicarage and the Atlantic, though considerably below it owing to the steep drop of the land. Adjoining the Vicarage was the church, a Norman edifice with a stout, square keep, and, of course, the famous chiming clock presented by one of the present Lady Greenow’s ancestors. Whether the original architects of the church had placed it a mile from the village as a test of their affirmed faith, it is impossible to say. In any case Sunday in Boscawen always saw a straggling cavalcade of faithful Christians plodding along the bleak, treeless highway, to be mildly harangued at the end of their journey by their extremely affable pastor, the Reverend Dodd.
The Doctor, therefore, had only a few hundred yards to cover before he drew up in front of the unlighted porch of Julius Tregarthan’s house. The rain had ceased and a smoky moon appeared, fitfully, among the shredding clouds. Thunder still grumbled inland, but it was obvious that the storm had passed over and was now spending its energies elsewhere.
During those few minutes of transit, however, Pendrill’s brain was active with speculation. Why had Julius Tregarthan been shot? Pendrill drew a blank. He certainly had no great personal regard for Ruth’s uncle, a feeling that was generally rife in the village, but there was a wide gulf between disliking a man and murdering him. Tregarthan was reserved, secretive even, liable to fits of ill-temper, which alternated with moods of surly cynicism and a general disregard for other people’s feelings. On the other hand, he was a man of judgment and, as far as Pendrill knew, of absolute integrity. He was a Parish Councillor, a church-goer, president of one or two local clubs and a J.P. on the Greystoke Bench. As a man of independent means he had given generously, though spasmodically, to the various charitable organisations of the district. There was no mystery about his past. He had lived in Greylings ever since the death of Ruth’s father, fifteen years ago and since Ruth’s mother had died in her early childhood, Julius had been left sole guardian of his niece’s welfare—a rôle which he had apparently filled with good sense and a full measure of generosity. Ruth had been educated at a boarding-school, spent a couple of years travelling on the Continent and had returned to Boscawen perfectly satisfied to make Greylings her permanent home until such time as she should, if ever, marry.
And now, into the placid routine of this very ordinary household, tragedy had broken.
No sooner had Pendrill slammed the door of his saloon than Ruth flung open the front-door and came to meet him, Pendrill was shocked by her appearance. All the colour had drained from her cheeks. Her usual practicality and common sense seemed to be atrophied by an excess of strong emotion. When she grasped hold of his hand he noticed that she was trembling violently. Without a word, slipping her hand through his arm, he strode into the lighted hall, threw his hat on to the telephone table and went into the sitting-room.
Tregarthan was lying on his side by the uncurtained french windows. One arm lay curled beneath him. The other projected at right angles from his body like a signal-arm. His massive head lay in a spreading pool of blood which had already trickled some feet over the polished boards along the edge of the skirting. The heavy jowl was thrust forward like the prow of a ship, whilst his teeth, tightly clenched, were bared in a hideously unnatural grin. Slightly to the left of his high forehead was a neat, black-rimmed hole.
There was no doubt that Tregarthan was dead. Death must have been instantaneous. Pendrill knew that as far as medical aid was concerned this man had passed beyond the reach of it.
During his cursory examination of the body, Ruth collapsed on to the settee, hiding her face in her hands, whilst Mrs. Cowper, the housekeeper, who had been hovering wide-eyed in the background, kept up a ceaseless flow of verbal consolation.
Cowper, the gardener and odd-job man, came forward deferentially and proffered his help.
Pendrill shook his head.
“There’s nothing to do, Cowper, until the police arrive. He’s dead right enough.” He turned to Mrs. Cowper and cut short her inane babbling with an incisive air of authority. “Now, Mrs. Cowper, I want you to take Miss Ruth to her room.” He approached the girl and helped her to rise from the settee. “There’s no point in your remaining here any longer, my dear. I’ll deal with the police when they arrive. They will want to see you later, but until then I should just lie quietly on your bed. Understand?”
Ruth, somewhat calmed by the Doctor’s matter-of-fact voice, nodded, speechless, and dutifully did as she was told. As Mrs. Cowper was following her out of the room, the Doctor called her back.
“Hot milk and a good stiff dose of brandy in it,” he said. “And see that she drinks it. No nonsense. It’s been a big shock.”
Alone with Cowper, the Doctor closed the door and made a rapid examination of the room. He turned his attention first to the windows. These were in three sections; two fixed and one in the form of a door which opened outward on to the little rectangle of lawn. Each panel was subdivided into six panes. Three shots had starred the glass—one high up in the right-hand fixed window; one about six feet from the base of the door; and the third midway in the left-hand fixed window. It was obvious that the shot which had struck Tregarthan in the head was the one which had drilled its way through the central panel.
The curtains, which divided in the middle, were drawn right back. Pendrill turned to Cowper, who had followed him in watchful silence about the room.
“These curtains, Cowper—is that usual? I mean was it Mr. Tregarthan’s habit to sit here with the curtains undrawn?”
“No, sir. That’s just what I didn’t understand when I first come in here. My wife always draws the curtains most particular before she serves the coffee.”
“Oh, they were drawn, sir. I came in with a trudge of logs just after Mr. Tregarthan had finished his coffee. They were drawn then—I’ll swear to it, sir!”
“You can do that later ... to the police,” said Pendrill. “That sounds like the Constable now,” he added, as the front-door bell jangled in the silence of the house. “Let him in, Cowper.”
But it was not the Constable. It was the Vicar.
“My dear Pendrill, I had to come down. I’ve rung Grouch. He’s on his way. I had to come. I was thinking of Ruth. Perhaps I can ...” His eye encountered the body of Tregarthan slumping by the window. “So it’s hopeless,” he added quietly. “Poor fellow.”
Cowper drifted up looking a trifle green about the gills.
“If there’s nothing more, sir ... it’s upset me ... this.”
“No. Go and have a stiff whiskey. But mind you—the police will want to question you when they arrive.”
With a grateful nod Cowper drew his fascinated stare away from the body and stumbled quickly out of the room.
Pendrill pulled out his pipe and lit it. The Vicar, on careful feet, was ambling slowly about the room, peering at things through his gold-rimmed glasses.
“You’ve noticed these?” he said, pointing to the windows.
“Yes—three shots. The middle one got Tregarthan. No doubt about that.”
“None at all, provided he was standing. But why should he stand at an uncurtained window when there’s nothing outside to look at?”
“There was the lightning,” suggested Pendrill. “He may have drawn the curtains to watch the effect of the storm over the sea.”
“He did not draw back the curtains, I suppose?”
The Doctor told him about Cowper’s statement.
“Curious,” said the Vicar as he drifted away from the window to the far side of the room.
He was experiencing a peculiarly mixed set of emotions. Horror and dismay at the tragedy which had come so swiftly out of the night and put an end to Julius Tregarthan’s life. A compassionate pity for the girl who had been so unexpectedly bereaved. But beyond these perfectly natural reactions he was fired with an ardent glow of curiosity and interest. One side of him warred with the other. He felt that it was abhorrent to look upon crime, especially murder, as anything more than foul and unthinkable. At the same time this little devil of curiosity kept on tugging at his sleeve demanding attention. Yes—he must confess it. Apart from the tragic human aspect of the case he was deeply absorbed in an explanation of the mystery. The detective element in him was spurred to new energy now that he was in the midst, not of a mystery story, but a murder in real life. It was wrong of him, of course, sinful even, but that little devil was stronger than his conscience. He wanted to find out. He wanted to solve the problem of Julius Tregarthan’s death, if indeed there proved to be a mystery attached to the crime. Of course the police would take things out of his hands. It was their job to apprehend criminals. It was his job to instil his fellow-men with a brotherly love which would make criminals impossible. The argument was good. But the little imp of curiosity was better.
“Pendrill,” he said, sharply. “Come here. Look at that!”
He was pointing to an indifferent yet graphic oil-painting of a full-rigged windjammer diving head-long into a watery abyss. The canvas, a large one, was fixed high up on the wall, and puncturing the stormy sky about an inch from the gilt frame was the unmistakable mark of a bullet.
“Bullet No. 1,” said Pendrill. “The left-hand window.”
“And over here?” demanded the Vicar, indicating a splintered hole in an oak beam just under the ceiling.
“No. 2,” said Pendrill. “The right-hand window.”
“And the third?” asked the Vicar.
“Probably somewhere about the room. Spent, of course. The bullet went clean through the brain. I made sure of that.”
“Possibly this has something to do with it,” said the Vicar as he ran his fingers over a deep dent in the face of an oak sideboard. “The bullet’s on the ground somewhere. Perhaps we——”
He was cut short by a further clanging of the front-door bell, announcing the fact that P.C. Grouch, after a stiff ride up the hill, had arrived at Greylings. Cowper showed him in and, at a nod from Pendrill, returned to his whiskey in the kitchen.
The Boscawen constable was panting with exertion after pedalling his thirteen-odd stone up the long rise from the cove. He was not cut out for speed and the unaccustomed need for haste, coupled with the alarming news that Tregarthan had been shot, had left him somewhat out of breath. He removed his helmet, wiped round the inside of it with his handkerchief, dabbed his forehead and nodded to the two men.
“Evening, gentlemen. Nothing been moved, I take it?”
“Nothing, Constable,” said the Doctor. “Not even the body.”
“He was dead when you got here, I suppose, sir?”
The Constable crossed over and took a long look at the body. It was the first time in the whole of his career that he had been called in to investigate a possible murder and he was not inclined to underrate the importance of the occasion.
“Umph,” he said. “Shot through the head. No chance of it being suicide, I suppose?”
The Vicar pointed to the bullet holes in the window.
“Exactly,” said Grouch. “No man could shoot himself through a window. What about accident, gentlemen?”
“Hardly,” interposed the Doctor. “One shot—yes—but not three. Three shots have entered the room.”
“Who first found the body, sir?”
“Miss Tregarthan. She’s lying down in her room. I sent her there until you arrived, Constable. I’ve warned her that she may have to answer a few questions.”
“Quite right, sir. I’ll need a statement. Anybody else in the house at the time?”
“The Cowpers. Mrs. Cowper is upstairs with Miss Tregarthan. Cowper is in the kitchen.”
“I’ll want a word with them, too,” said Grouch. “I’ve phoned police headquarters at Greystoke. They’re sending over an Inspector. In the mean-time ...” He pulled out his note-book and flicked it open with a thumb. “Suppose we have a few words with Miss Tregarthan.”
“Perhaps you would like me ...” said the Vicar, edging a little toward the door.
“No, it’s all right, sir. I dare say the Inspector would like to ask you a few questions. Besides, I’m sure the young lady will feel more at home with you gentlemen in the room.”
Ruth came down, still obviously shaken, but now more in control of her feelings. Some of the colour had drained back into her cheeks. The Doctor was about to place a chair for her when the Constable shook his head.
“Perhaps there’s another room available,” he said, with a quick nod toward the body. “The dining-room, perhaps.”
In the more ordinary atmosphere of the dining-room, where a fire was still flickering, the air was cleared of a good deal of its tension. Ruth sank at once into an arm-chair, whilst Pendrill and the Vicar drew up a couple of chairs at the table. Grouch placed his helmet on the sideboard and took up his position opposite Ruth on the hearth-rug.
“Now, Miss Tregarthan, I understand from the Doctor that you were the first to discover the deceased. Have you any idea as to what time that would be?”
“I know almost to the minute,” replied Ruth, in a restrained voice. “When I came in I remember the hall clock striking the quarter.”
“And you went directly into the sitting-room?”
“I take it you’d been out?”
“You discovered the body, then, at nine-fifteen.”
“Exactly nine-fifteen by the hall clock.”
“Which way did you come into the house, miss? Down the drive?”
Ruth hesitated for a moment, looked down into the fire and said quickly.
“No—along the cliff-path. I’d been out for a walk.”
The Constable glanced up sharply.
“Ah!—the cliff-path. You didn’t notice anybody suspicious hanging about?”
“I suppose you realise, miss, that Mr. Tregarthan was shot from the side of the house?”
“Yes, I realise that now,” returned Ruth quietly.
“From which way did you approach the house?”
“From the village.”
“And you met nobody on your way here?”
“And you heard nothing out of the ordinary—shots, for example—no firing?”
The Constable sighed and drummed his pencil on the mantelshelf. That particular line of enquiry seemed to have drawn a blank.
“You entered the house, miss——?”
“From the side door. There’s a path——”
“I know,” cut in Grouch. “The path runs at right-angles to the cliff path along the garden wall.” He smiled benignly. “You see, miss, I knew this place long afore you were born.”
There was a pause, during which the Constable seemed to be working out his next line of approach.
“When you passed the bottom of the garden by the cliff-path did you notice the curtains were undrawn?”
“But you didn’t know anything was amiss?”
“Why should I?” asked Ruth quietly.
“Exactly. You didn’t. You were wearing a mackintosh?”
“Yes—it was raining as you know.”
“I take it, miss, that you got pretty wet?”
“I was soaked,” agreed Ruth, puzzled by these seemingly irrevelant questions.
“And yet,” went on the Constable, “you came straight into the sitting-room, without taking off your wet things and without realising that there was anything amiss with Mr. Tregarthan?”
“Yes—no—that is ...”
Pendrill and the Vicar were startled by Ruth’s sudden hesitation. So far she had answered the Constable’s questions without pausing to consider her replies. But this apparently innocent question about a wet mackintosh, for some strange reason, seemed to disturb her.
“Well, miss?” reiterated Grouch.
“I don’t think I was worried about my clothes at the time. I’m used to the wet. It wasn’t unusual for me to go in to my uncle before taking off my outdoor things.”
“I see. Now, Miss Tregarthan, will you describe what you saw when you entered the room?”
Ruth did so in a low voice, pausing every now and then to regain control of her emotions. She still seemed on the verge of an hysterical breakdown, though her evidence was clear and concise.
“And after finding your uncle apparently dead what did you do?”
Ruth went on to describe how she had summoned the Cowpers and then rushed to the phone and called up the Doctor at Rock House. Learning that he was dining at the Vicarage, she had phoned there and told him of the tragedy. She had then returned to the sitting-room and ascertained, as far as she was able, that her uncle was dead. At the sound of the Doctor’s car on the drive she had rushed out to meet him.
At the conclusion of her story the Constable turned to Pendrill.
“Could you give me some idea, sir, as to the time you received the phone call?”
The Doctor thought for a moment.
“I’m afraid I can’t. It was after nine. I know that, but the Vicar and I were talking——”
“Wait a moment,” cut in the Reverend Dodd excitedly. “I think I can help you, Constable. The telephone bell rang about twenty minutes past nine. I happen to know because it’s one of my—er—idiosyncrasies to listen to the church clock during a storm.” He then went on to explain about his fears for the safety of the tower. “Subconsciously I suppose I was waiting for the quarter chimes while I was talking with Doctor Pendrill. I distinctly remember hearing them. The tower, as you know, is only a stone’s throw from the Vicarage and when the wind is in the right direction ...”
“Thank you, sir,” said Grouch, with an appreciative nod in the Vicar’s direction. “I think that more or less fits in with Miss Tregarthan’s idea as to the time she found the body.” He turned to Ruth, who was now lying back with closed eyes in the armchair, as if trying to shut out the abnormal spectacle of a policeman in the Greylings dining-room. “Thank you, miss. I don’t think there’s anything more I want to ask you. You’ve been very helpful, Miss Tregarthan, and in an unofficial capacity I should like to offer you my sincere sympathy for what has happened.” As Ruth, escorted by the Vicar, crossed unsteadily to the door, the Constable added: “Now, sir, would you mind calling Mrs. Cowper. I’d like to hear what she has to say.”
Mrs. Cowper came into the room in much the same way as she would have entered a lion’s cage. She looked both nervous and apprehensive. Her eyes, reddened with weeping, glanced from the Doctor to the Vicar and then came to rest, with a sort of fascinated glassiness, on the Constable. Grouch waved her unceremoniously into the arm-chair and without wasting time, put the housekeeper through a similar catechism to that which he had adopted in the case of Ruth Tregarthan.
“Now, Mrs. Cowper, I want you to be pretty sure about what you’re going to tell me,” he warned. “It’s easy to imagine things at times like these. But I want the facts. That’s all. The plain facts. Now—when did you last see Mr. Tregarthan alive?”
Mrs. Cowper, taking the Constable’s warning to heart, considered this question deeply before essaying to answer it. She cast a wary eye at the other inmates of the room as if suspecting a trap and replied with a sort of defiant deliberation.
“It was when I took in his coffee as usual at a quarter to nine. He was a regular man, was Mr. Tregarthan, and he liked things done regular. Quarter to nine he liked his coffee taken in and a quarter to nine he had it.”
“Were the curtains drawn to when you went in?”
“No. I drew them myself. That’s usual.”
“Right across the windows?”
“Right across, Mr. Grouch,” said Mrs. Cowper decidedly. “No one can lay it up against me that I didn’t perform my duties to-night the same as usual.”
It was obvious that Mrs. Cowper’s nervousness was taking the form of an indignant resentment that she was suspected to have been in any way responsible for her master’s death. She knew Grouch, unofficially, as Grouch had married her sister-in-law, and this did nothing to ease the abnormality of the situation. Grouch in his official capacity was another being from Grouch sitting over a cup of tea in Annie’s parlour down at Laburnam Cottage. A fact which put Mrs. Cowper off her balance.
“Now that’s all right,” said the Constable soothingly. “I’m not trying to incriminate you, Mrs. Cowper. I only want straight answers to straight questions. Understand?” He consulted his note-book. “So you last saw Mr. Tregarthan alive at a quarter to nine or thereabouts. Now, after that time, did you hear any unusual sounds—shots—any firing? Eh?”
“No—I heard nothing unusual except the storm, of course. All them crashes of thunder right over the chimneys. I remember remarking to Cowper that——”
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