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Authors: Gladys Mitchell

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Adders on the Heath

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Adders on the Heath
Mrs Bradley [36]
Gladys Mitchell
G K Hall Co (1963)
Tags:
Mystery

ADDERS ON THE HEATH

Tom Richardson, spending a few days under canvas in the New Forest, returns one night to find a dead man in his tent. When the police arrive the original body-that of a man Richardson had quarrelled with-is gone, and in its place is the body of a man he did not know. When the first body reappears in the wood, suspicion for both deaths falls on Richardson. But Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley comes to the rescue, and all her wits and intuition are required to probe and elucidate the mystery, and to save a man having to stand trial for double murder.

 

 

 

ADDERS ON THE HEATH

GLADYS MITCHELL

 

A New Portway Large Print Book

CHIVERS PRESS BATH

 

 

 

First published in Great Britain 1963

by

Michael Joseph Ltd

This Large Print edition published by

Chivers Press

by arrangement with

Severn House Publishers Limited

and in the U.S.A. with

the author's estate

at the request of

The London & Home Counties Branch

of

The Library Association

1989

 

ISBN 0 7451 7184 2

Copyright © 1963 by Gladys Mitchell

 

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Mitchell, Gladys,
1901-1983

Adders on the heath.-(A New Portway large print book)

I. Title

823'.912 [F]

ISBN 0-7451-7184-2

 

 

 

To

TESSA NIVEN

with love

'Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unexpected, short cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.'

 

Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

 

PRELUDE

 

'I hope they kill nothing in the woods but foxes.'

The Verney Letters,
1738

 

Members of the Scylla and District Social and Athletic Club are rarely seen in action at the White City. Still less often, if at all, do they represent the A.A.A. against Oxford or Cambridge. They are present at the Olympics, (provided that they can afford to be present), as spectators, not as competitors.

Yet the club is a keen one, has a treasurer apt at collecting subscriptions and is not without its aspirants to county honours, for now and again the county will call a member or two for trials, the club's own time-keeping being unreliable.

One candidate for this honour did not impress the judges, who considered his tactics in the two-mile race rather suspect. As he had won it, both he and his girl friend were very much annoyed and referred (in broader and less printable terms) to the bias and favouritism of the chief judge. The girl friend was a club-mate, for the Scylla and District admits women members. It took a very stormy A.G.M. to achieve this, but the treasurer carried the day.

'We're a bit short this year, and you can always bully women into paying the sub.,' he said. 'After all, they need only use the facilities once a week. We can make that a rule.'

'They'll be more nuisance than they're worth,' said someone, but this was only partly true. The club, in fact, had shown a certain amount of enlightenment and good sense in admitting women to membership, but this was allied, perhaps, to an equal lack of caution, for the ladies (God bless them!) were apt to be both critical and partisan. In addition, those ladies who joined the Scylla and District proved to be a vociferous, enthusiastic body, sometimes (alas!) divided among themselves, as when Aileen Crumb got a flyer over Doreen Dodds and beat her by three yards in the two-twenty-('Crumb's got the crust of Old Nick, and, of course, the starter was her uncle,' ran the ugly comment of the Dodds' supporters)-and there were other incidents which divided the ladies into two camps. Still, taken on the whole, they were as close-knit a body as the Amazons, although following a somewhat different ideology, as they warred only on other women and never attempted to tackle Theseus and his men.

All the same, there had always been one exception to that which, otherwise, was their fixed rule. When lined up for the high hurdles or the short sprint, they were adept at
not quite
beating the gun, and so were the terror of the timid, red-blazered starter.

'Still,' said Corinna May to her fellow-hurdler and second string, Dulcie Cobham, 'it takes the males to spike each other on the bends, and, personally-and I have it for a fact because he told me so himself-I happen to know that poor old Bert was spiked, yes, and jostled, too, by that pot-bellied so-and-so in the two miles this afternoon. Bert could of won, and he certainly did ought to have done, and, if he had, he'd of stood a good chance of being picked for the county at the White City British Games, Whitsun. It was a damn' shame!'

'Oh, I don't know,' said Dulcie, who was a fair-minded girl except where her own boy friend was concerned. 'It's easy enough to jostle and even spike people without really meaning to. I mean, you've got to do the best you can for yourself, haven't you? Anyway, they ought to start the distance races further back up the straight, and then there wouldn't be that fight for the inside place at the first bend.'

'All the same,' said Corinna, sticking to her guns, (for she was hoping to go steady with Albert when, at the age of twenty, she retired from the track), 'poor old Bert
was
jostled and he
was
spiked, and it was done by that bitchy Lord Haw-Haw that everybody hates and despises. He never does run fair. I don't know why we still have fixtures with that bloody lot, I don't really!'

'Oh, I don't know. They've got some quite good runners,' said Dulcie, biting back her opinion of Albert Colnbrook's own shady mannerisms on bends screened by water-jump hedges. '
Quite
good runners,' she repeated.

'Oh,
you
!' exclaimed Bert's girl friend, exasperated, but, so far, unwilling to quarrel, since she was expecting Dulcie to act as pace-maker over the first two hurdles in the inter-club competition. 'You'd stick up for Satan if he was a long-distance runner!'

'Well, anyhow, he'd probably burn up the opposition,' retorted Dulcie, who had been brought up on the Bible.

Corinna's sentiments (or something remarkably like them) were being expressed in a men's dressing-room some weeks later.

'Bumping and boring are a recognised part of their technique on the track, and one expects this and makes allowances. And, of course, some of those blighters know exactly what to do behind the little hedge at the water-jump. But when it comes to cross-country running and an ugly great lout offers to put a fist in your face because, in jumping a brook just ahead of him (and that, of course, was what he couldn't stand), you happen to throw a bit of soft mud in his eye, well, give me Heton and 'Arrer, or even Ox and Tab. Why, the poisonous bounder actually threatened to murder me!' complained a young man named Richardson.

'What
did you
do?' asked his audience, towelling themselves vigorously and indicating that they were not particularly stirred by these disclosures.

'Me? Well, I said, "Sorry, old boy. See you later for a drink." You have to play soft with these yobs, and the match was only a friendly. But would he play ball? No.'

'So then?' asked someone, in a bored tone.

'He took it upon himself to tell me how I was raised and reared.'

'And you?' asked Mr Bones, still unenthusiastic.

'I slapped him in the kisser and told him I would remember him in my will.'

'Meaning you'd twist his head off?' The question came from a dried-and-dressed as he parted his hair.

'Well, actually, he fell in the brook, so I cantered lightly on, but took jolly good care I didn't sit next to him at that rather decent supper they gave us, if you noticed.'

'What was his name?'

'A. B. Colnbrook, but I shouldn't think he'd ever been to sea!'

'Albert Basil. My second cousin knows him, in a way. She did a lot of research last year on people's psychological reactions to winning and losing, and A.B.C. was one of her favourite guinea-pigs.'

'Good Lord! It's a small world!'

'So the angels probably say from their rather precarious seats in outer space. It
must
look a small world to them.'

'Did your second cousin concentrate on studying athletes?' asked a chunky long-jumper, pulling on his sweater.

'Lord, no! Bingo, the dogs, the flat, steeple-chasing, the pools-everything was grist to her mill.'

'And what did she do with her notes?' asked a high-hurdler. The audience, almost fully dressed, was alert at last.

'Sent them to some bloke who was doing a book on how to tame hyenas.'

'And how
do
you?'

'I haven't read the book. I don't know.'

'Did Albert Basil figure as a hyena?'

'So far as I was concerned, he figured as a bloody great gorilla.'

'Oh, he isn't as chesty as all that!' objected a shot-putt man from a corner of the dressing-room.

'
Beer, beer, beer, beer, beer, said the privates
!' carolled and quoted an anxious voice; and the dressing-room emptied rapidly.

 

CHAPTER ONE

TENT ON THE COMMON

 

'Camping without a permit is an offence against the New Forest Bye-Laws.'

Forestry Commission Guide to the New Forest

Her Majesty's Stationery Office

 

Richardson was in another hostelry some few weeks later. The handsomely-appointed bar-drinks (praise be!) at pub prices-occupied the segment of a circle at the south-west angle of the lounge. The furniture in the remainder of the large, light room was pleasant and, considering its
raison d'être,
supremely functional. At each polished table there were two small, hard-seated, red-leather, hip-fitting armchairs and two deep and comfortable
fauteuils
loose-covered in a gaily-patterned chintz which pictured riders, horses and hounds.

There were more horses and hounds on the lampshades and on the long curtains. The fire-irons depended from a stand in the shape of an outsize horseshoe and on the walls four early-nineteenth-century prints demonstrated various stages in a fox hunt.

Additions to the furniture included a deep, wide settee upholstered to match the armchairs, and two high-backed wooden settles whose Spartan discomfort was only partially alleviated by the addition of the mattress-like cushions which covered their seats. A bright fire burned in a modern brick-built fireplace and the arch of this fireplace was decorated with some highly-polished and unusual horse-brasses.

Richardson-Tom to his very few friends-was drinking a pint of bitter and looking forward to his lunch. He had travelled from London that morning by train, had hiked, pack on back, from the station to the common, had erected his tent and then had come back to the hotel for his meal. Deliberately he had left his car with a friend who was going to join him later. His lonely, very short holiday was to be spent on foot until the friend arrived, and then would stretch itself out to a fortnight or more.

Lunch was at one o'clock. He was given a table which faced the garden. The time was the Thursday of the third week in September, but the only tree which showed even the first touch of autumn was a huge horsechestnut whose leaves here and there glowed bronze against the green.

The lawn, broken only by a couple of circular flowerbeds and some bordering trees, appeared to stretch into infinity, for, either by good fortune or careful landscaping, the end of it could not be seen from the dining-room windows because it took a turn to the right by some tall Scots pines, a cypress and a circle of rhododendron bushes.

The flower garden, rich in many varieties of dahlias, Michaelmas daisies, late carnations and some roses, was also out of sight of the dining-room-at any rate from where Richardson sat-so, his satisfying lunch over, he took a turn in the garden before he left for his encampment on the common. He discovered that the lawn he had seen from his seat at table was bounded by a short wattle fence at the end of a hedge of yew. A magnificent and friendly collie joined him in his perambulations and in company with the dog he traversed the lawn, picked up a couple of fir cones from beneath the dark trees which bordered the gravel walk, came back across the lawn past the great horsechestnut tree, idly picked up a burr in whose prickly sheath the hard nut gleamed and shone, turned into the flower garden, glanced at the geraniums and tomato plants in the greenhouse and wondered whether the stables still contained horses. Then he went into the house and drank coffee, paid his bill and made his way back to camp.

The road went very slightly uphill and was bordered by oak, thorn, hazel, birch and holly. On his right these screened a wide stretch of open land (known locally as a lawn), on which were cattle and forest ponies. To his left the undergrowth, trees and brambles grew as thickly as in the woods, but here and there a gravel path led to a fair-sized house. Civilisation thus encroached upon the wild, but, a little farther on, past a fenced enclosure whose use he did not, at that time, understand, came a vast expanse of open commonland around which the distant woods made a bluish, saucer-like rim.

Richardson struck off to the right, and, skirting a rough road with a surface of loose gravel, he followed a clear track which ran for a few hundred yards alongside the road and then left it for a well-defined causeway. This crossed a newly-planted area of young pine-trees and was bordered by shallow ditches along whose edges the bell-heather and the ling were still in flower.

The causeway reached a woodland path and then a clear brown stream. There was a rustic bridge with a handrail and on the opposite side a narrow track ran roughly east and west along the river. Richardson turned to the right to skirt the wire-fence boundary of an enclosure and swung left with the path at the end of this fencing to find himself upon a veritable waste of heath across which stretched a broad, grassy ride. This crossed a gravelled road which led, on the left, to a house and on the right to a fairly wide bridge.

Richardson crossed the road and followed the broad green ride until, at a bend in the river, he came to the spot on which he had set up his tent. The tent was a sordid little affair, not more than three feet wide and only high enough to allow the occupant to choose whether to lie flat, kneel, crouch or sit. It sufficed for his needs, however, and had the supreme advantages of being small to pack and light to carry. The rest of his paraphernalia was under a waterproof sheet a yard from the tent-flap and was as meagre as long experience of lone camping could possibly make it. He was, like the immortal Merkland of
John MacNab
, not dressy. His heavier luggage he proposed to leave at the station until he booked in at the hotel.

Although it was almost the end of the third week in September, an Indian summer seemed likely. Richardson had not taken the weather into his calculations in fixing his holiday, but merely the fact that, so late in the season, he would be likely to get the camping site to himself. Still, it was pleasant to see the sunshine and feel its grateful if unseasonable warmth. He was not-and would not so have described himself-a naturalist, but he liked to have some definite interest or occupation during a lonely holiday and had decided, this year, to observe and, if possible, photograph, the fauna of the forest. He hoped for deer, badgers, foxes, hares, the irrepressible rabbit and even the otter. If he neither spotted nor photographed any of them, he would still be of Stevenson's opinion that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive. He was a sinuously fit young man and could move like a cat. He possessed, also, an almost cat-like capacity for being able to see in the dark.

He spent the afternoon in prospecting for likely badger setts and foxes' holes and, finding himself alone in the wide waste over which a visitor could be distinguished a long way off, he discovered a spot along the water at which, under the nearside bank, where the river turned a sharpish bend, there was a natural bathing-place four or five feet deep. It was not big enough for swimming, but proved to be an excellent hole for a cold and refreshing dip. All afternoon he did not see a soul, but, on taking a brisk walk after his rough towelling, he heard, in the woods at the far side of the heath, the sound of foresters felling a mighty tree.

He returned to the hotel for tea. He had decided that there was no point in spending time shopping in the village, and there was no farm near enough to make it worth the trouble of carrying milk, water and eggs back to his camp. Richardson, besides, was a good trencherman but an indifferent cook. Neither did he want to spend time collecting dead wood for a fire, although the Forest by-laws allowed for this. He had, too, (after hearing of the devastating experience of a friend), a dread of starting a conflagration. His sleeping-bag of wool and camel-hair provided sufficient warmth at night, and comfort was assured by the inflatable mattress on which, over a groundsheet, it rested. He thought that he would be perfectly happy until his friend arrived on the Saturday.

He enjoyed his tea and lingered over it. When he took the road again it was ten minutes to five. He passed two girls on horseback; and several cars and a lorry either passed or overtook him; otherwise the world, so far as he was concerned, was empty of human beings. He reached camp and decided to continue to follow the course of the river. It was not possible to keep close to the bank because of bushes, thick and dense in places, and some patches of marshy ground, but he met the water again at frequent intervals and came, at last, to the borders of a wood.

Here all trace of a path was lost. He continued to follow the stream until impenetrable thickets and a good deal of mud made progress less than tolerable. He struck back, through the trees-pine, oak and beech-and regained the open heath. A fair, broad trackway, recently used by wheeled vehicles, led him between gorse and bramble towards his tent.

He was within a quarter of a mile of his camp when he spotted the runners. There were two of them jogging along across the heath, apparently out for a training spin, for they were obviously in no hurry. In fact, as he watched, they slowed up and then stopped. Rather to his surprise, the shorter of them put field-glasses to his eyes and, after scanning the countryside for a full three minutes, he handed the glasses to his companion.

The men were a couple of hundred yards away and it was impossible to gain an impression of anything more than their height and general build, yet something about the taller man struck a chord in Richardson's memory. Tantalisingly, however, he could not recall the circumstances under which he must have met the man. As the fellow was in running kit, however, he assumed that he must be a member of some club with which his own had been associated.

He walked on and then glanced sideways and a little behind him. The taller man was handing back the glasses. They were an odd sort of burden to carry on a cross-country run, Richardson thought. The only rational explanation seemed to be that the two men were to be the hares in a hare-and-hounds chase and were plotting their route. What they had appeared to be watching, however, was a group of forest ponies which had come into view against the dark trees of a fir wood, a Forestry plantation away over to Richardson's right.

He made his way back to camp and when he got there he spread his
anorak
on the ground, sat down on it and lit a pipe. He smoked very little, for he was always in reasonably good training, but a pipe helped contemplation and seemed to fit in with the quiet of the approaching evening.

When he had finished the pipe and knocked it out on to some mud at the edge of the stream, he put everything ready for the night and went off to have dinner at the hotel. He had not expected to see the two runners again, but they must have taken a long cast round when they reached the fencing of the fir wood, for they had come out upon the common. They were near enough now for him to see the taller man more clearly. This time he recognised him. He was the A. B. Colnbrook of the cross-country inter-club incident and the chief actor in another encounter which Richardson still thought of with distaste.

He had no desire to meet the fellow again, and, fortunately, there was no chance of this, for, even as he recognised Colnbrook, the two runners, who had again been using their field-glasses although the light was failing fast, picked up their feet and cantered off on the path which Richardson himself had just left.

On the following morning, having breakfasted at the hotel, he walked into the village for letters. There was a postcard from the friend who had planned to join him.

'Can't manage this week-end. Have to come on Monday at about half-past eleven,' was the gist of the information it contained. Richardson was not at all sorry. He was enjoying his solitude and to have the time of it extended for two or three days did not trouble him, but rather the reverse. He thrust the postcard into his jacket pocket, bought cigarettes, sweets and fruit in the village, stopped a moment at the water-splash to watch a foal which had found some herbage on the bank there, crossed by the footbridge and tramped along the winding road to the hotel. He stayed for lunch and then went for a walk over the common. He photographed a mare and her foal, saw a hare but was not able to get a picture, and took a long cast round which he hoped would bring him back on to the heath.

He covered about eleven miles, using the Ordnance map and a pocket compass, and reached camp too late, he noted ruefully, to go back and get tea at the hotel. He took a plunge in his water-hole, the second that day, and decided to get to the hotel by about seven, have a drink before dinner and then, after dinner, try his luck with flashlight at the entrance to a badgers' sett which a forester he met had pointed out to him.

The sett was about a mile and a half from his camp, in a bank in the middle of the woods. By the time he reached his tent, after having dined at the hotel, the September evening was chilly. He added a thick sweater to his shirt and pullover, then, camera and bulb in hand, he set off for his objective. He carried, besides, a small electric torch, for the going was made treacherous at times by ant-hills and low-growing gorse and the night was moonless and dark.

He took up his position and waited for the better part of two hours. He became cramped and chilly, but there was no sign of brock. There were the usual whisperings and movements of a forest at night, and the brown owls were calling, but, from Richardson's point of view, his vigil was fruitless. He returned to camp, took off his shoes and his jacket and crawled into his tent. His sleeping-bag was warmly lined and the rubber mattress was gratefully springy. In no time at all he was asleep.

Bird-song woke him early. Dawn was at hand and the half-light was eerie. He emerged from his sleeping-bag with care and crawled out of the tent. The trees in the distant wood, where he had watched for the badgers, were no more than a bluish-black blur and when (almost suddenly, it seemed) the bird-song ceased, he could hear the river which, in full daylight, had seemed soundless, rippling softly in song over stones.

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