Authors: Edmund Crispin
Tags: #Gervase Fen
Humbleby gaped. “But Sir Lucas can’t have been knifed before he
the circular room. Sir Charles said—”
“Ah yes. Sir Charles saw him go in—or so he asserts. And—”
“Stop a bit.” Humbleby was much perturbed. “I can see what you’re getting at, but there are serious objections to it.”
“Well, for one thing, Sir Lucas
“A murderer who struck at him
… Oh, I’ve no doubt Sir Lucas acted in good faith: Otto, you see, would be the only member of the house-party whom Sir Lucas
to have a
. In actual fact, Sir Charles had one too—as I’ve just discovered. But Sir Lucas wasn’t aware of that; and in any case, he very particularly didn’t want Otto to marry his daughter after his death, so that the risk of doing an ex-Luftwaffe man an injustice was a risk he was prepared to take… Next objection?”
“The name on the window. If, as Sir Lucas said, his
action on recovering consciousness was to denounce his attacker, then he’d surely, since he was capable of entering the pavilion after being knifed, have been capable of writing the name on the
of the window, which would be nearest, and which was just as grimy as the inside. That objection’s based, of course, on your assumption that he was struck before he ever entered the pavilion.”
“I expect he did just that—wrote the name on the outside of the window, I mean.”
“But the people who saw it were on the
Inside a bank, for instance, haven’t you ever noticed how the bank’s name—”
“The name Otto,” Fen interposed, “is a palindrome. That’s to say, it reads the same backwards as forwards. What’s more, the capital letters used in it are symmetrical—not like B or P or R or S, but like A or H or M. So write it on the outside of a window, and it will look exactly the same from the inside.”
“My God, yes.” Humbleby was sobered. “I never thought of that. And the fact that the name was on the
would be fatal to Sir Charles, after his assertion that he’d seen Sir Lucas enter the pavilion unharmed, so I suppose that the ‘contriving’ Wilburn noticed in the fight was Sir Charles’s, not Otto’s: he’d realise that the name must be on the outside—Sir Lucas having said that the writing of it was the very first thing he did—and he’d see the need to destroy the window before anyone could investigate closely… Wait, though: couldn’t Sir Lucas have entered the pavilion as Sir Charles said, and later emerged again, and—”
“One set of footprints,” Fen pointed out, “on the hall floor. Not three.”
Humbleby nodded. “I’ve been a fool about this. Locked rooms, as you said, on the brain. But what was Sir Charles’s motive—the motive Sir Lucas didn’t know about?”
“Belchester,” said Fen. “Belchester Cathedral. As you know, it was bombed during the war, and a new one’s going to be built. Well, I’ve just rung up the Dean, who’s an acquaintance of mine, to ask about the choice of architect; and he says that it was a toss-up between Sir Charles’s design and Sir Lucas’s, and that Sir Lucas’s won. The two men were notified by post, and it seems likely that Sir Charles’s notification arrived on the morning of Christmas Eve. Sir Lucas’s did too, in all probability; but Sir Lucas’s was sent to his home, and even forwarded it can’t, in the rush of Christmas postal traffic, have reached him at Rydalls before he was killed. So only Sir Charles
; and since with Sir Lucas dead Sir Charles’s design would have been accepted…” Fen shrugged. “Was it money, I wonder? Or was it just the blow to his professional pride? Well, well. Let’s have another drink before you telephone. In the hangman’s shed it will all come to the same thing.”
It was in the village of Chigfold, isolated on a corner of one of the Devon moors, that Gervase Fen encountered the only man who has ever seemed to him to be definitely evil.
A word like ‘evil’ needs (he will tell you) to be used with precaution: the descent of Avernus has no milestones which mark out for the traveller—or for others watching him—the stages of his journey. And yet at the same time there is, perhaps, somewhere along it a Point of No Return. On the maps of infamy it is never shown, since for each individual its location will be different. Moreover, the setting foot across it, in the downward direction, involves a spiritual crisis so acute, and an effort of will so intolerably degrading, that it is only very rarely passed. But that young St. John Leavis had passed it, Fen never for a moment doubted. It was not the attempted parricide which produced this overwhelming conviction; that, horrible though it was, seemed to Fen merely the ratification of a treaty already concluded. Rather, it was a wholesale reversal of normal personality which you scented the instant you met the man, and which made even the dullest-witted of ordinary wholesome sinners inexplicably uneasy in his company.
Yet there was nothing you could put your finger on, saying
is the mark of the beast’. In all externals St. John Leavis was charming; and even if he were now and again petulant, that petulance so closely resembled the petulance of a child that it took you off-guard, compelling you to assume, against your better judgment, that there was a child’s innocence underlying it. At the time when Fen met him, at Chigfold, he was just twenty-five years old—a good-looking young man with crisp, curly fair hair and big light-blue eyes. Laziness, and self-indulgence, had thickened his neck, had fattened his cheeks and chin, blurring, like a gauze, their original fineness, but he remained unusually personable in spite of that. His tastes were literary; his conversation was witty; his manners were impeccable. And by the end of the first five minutes of their acquaintance, Fen detested him.
It was irrational, of course—quite irrational and unfair: in discussing the matter (which he is oddly reluctant to do), Fen confines himself to a simple statement of the fact, making no attempt to justify it. Spiritual issues are irrelevant, in any case. he says, so long as a story is all you want: the act of violence was unquestionably an act of self-interest, and you are quite at liberty to rest content with that—which is a perfectly adequate explanation in itself—and to refuse to delve deeper. The fact remains, however, that to an actual participant the overtones were infinitely more impressive than the note which produced them; and it appears that the only person who was altogether deaf to those overtones, until the terror at last unstopped his ears, was St. John’s victim, his father.
This—in Fen’s opinion—was to be expected. The mere temperamental contrast between father and son was a formidable barrier to mutual understanding in itself, even if you left aside the natural blindness which goes with kinship and over-familiarity. For George Seymour Leavis differed from St. John in every important particular. At forty-seven he was boisterous, ’sporty’, an open-air man; red in the face, active, a faddist in his diet, an unconquerably simple mind. He had made money, a good deal of it, out of steel. St. John, on the contrary, had never made any money out of anything, and avowedly had no intention of trying. And of this attitude, his father, as a self-made man, very definitely disapproved, with the result that St. John’s allowance was exiguous, and he was forced, if he wanted a change from the great sooty Victorian Gothic house in the midlands, to take his holidays—as on the present occasion—in company with Leavis senior. In this circumstance lay the more superficial explanation of the attempt to kill: Mrs. Leavis had died years before, and St. John was his father’s sole heir.
The inn at Chigfold had three guest-rooms; and during that last week of April 1949 they were all occupied, two of them by the Leavises and the third by Fen, who was filling in time before returning to Oxford for the Trinity term. St. John drank, and read, and complained inoffensively of boredom; his father, and Fen, walked—together, for the most part, in the companionable silence which both of them liked better, while exercising, than conversation. Thus uneventfully the first part of the holiday went by. But there came a day when Fen found himself obliged to go walking alone: Leavis
had taken the bus into Tawton, twelve miles away across the moor, in order to attend a Rotary luncheon, and since he had decided to return to Chigfold on foot, would not be in until nightfall. St. John was no walker, even if Fen had had the slightest wish for his company, and in any case was proposing to drive into Barnstaple for the afternoon and evening, and see a film. After an early tea, therefore, Fen put on a mackintosh, recovered his stick from the teeth of the over-exuberant wolf-hound which was supposed to protect the inn against burglars, and thus equipped, set out on his own. Outside the inn, he hesitated. The road running through the little stone-built village beckoned impartially in either direction. But it was on Barnstaple that he turned his back, towards Nag’s Tor and Tawton that he went. Leavis senior had hitherto shown a marked preference for the Barnstaple direction; and this fact, by provoking in Fen a natural reaction as soon as he was left to his own devices, was destined to save Leavis senior’s life.
From Chigfold to Nag’s Tor is a matter of some seven miles across deserted, wind-swept moorland. There is a road, of course—a white road which dips and rises, following the contours of the land like a stretched tape; but except in summer, pedestrians are as rare on it as vehicles, and Fen reached his goal, towards twilight, without having encountered a single living soul. He paused, staring up at the prominence—turf and heather-covered, with outcrops of flaky-looking rock—in whose shape, viewed from the proper angle by a strenuously imaginative man, something dimly equine was said to be discernible. Then he began to climb. It was a longer and steeper ascent than it had seemed from the road; and the rocky gullies, when you actually came to them, were revealed as tolerably deep and dangerous. Fen reached the summit safely, however. And it was not until he was descending again—by the slopes
from the road—that he happened on the elder Leavis’s body.
It lay sprawled and still at the foot of a high pile of rocks—hands clutching, left leg twisted. The drop was a big one, so that Fen, scrambling down circuitously, had little hope that Leavis would be still alive. Pulse imperceptible, he found. But when, after polishing his cigarette-case on his sleeve, he applied it to the pale, sagging lips, it grew ever so faintly misty; with the result that on hearing the distant drone of a car coming up the road he turned and ran, stumbling hurriedly down the lower slopes of the Tor to intercept what proved to be a baker’s van. Having given urgent instructions to its driver, he made his way back to Leavis; and since it would obviously be more risky to move the man, and try to apply first aid, than to leave him as he lay, Fen occupied himself, while he waited, in studying the scene.
His examination was unrewarding, however. That Leavis had fallen from the top of the rocks was plain enough—but as to whether the thing had happened by accident or by design, there was no evidence, for the ground was too dry to take footprints. A gleam of gold, in a tuft of grass immediately beside the body, led to the discovery of a watch which might well have dropped from Leavis’s waistcoat pocket as he fell. But Fen refrained from touching it, for fear of obliterating fingerprints (a precaution which was eventually nullified by the Tawton Inspector of Police, who apparently felt no such qualms); and when he came to consider the problem of whether it belonged to Leavis or not, he found he could remember no occasion in their brief acquaintance on which any question of watches, or the time of day, had arisen… Presently, the light having become too poor for such work, Fen abandoned his search of the area, perched himself on a rock, and lit a cigarette. That mere motive is no proof of attempted murder, he was well aware; yet the feelings which St. John had aroused in him were such that the possibility of accident scarcely even crossed his mind. Proof was the problem—
. And he was still pondering it, still vainly, when the police and the ambulance arrived.
Three days more, and the injured man was sufficiently recovered to be able to talk to visitors.
He had been fairly badly damaged—a broken leg, a broken finger, two broken ribs; and if he had been left to lie out on the moors all night, shock would certainly have finished him. Once that was remedied, however, the doctors pronounced him out of danger, for there was no injury either to the skull or to the internal organs. And if he still looked sick and pale and withdrawn when Fen went to see him at the Tawton Cottage Hospital—well, there was perhaps another reason for that. Entering, Fen had passed St. John who was on his way out, and the rage and fright which he had glimpsed in that plump young face, before the shutters dropped and the expected commonplaces passed between them, had appalled him. It was as well, Fen reflected, that he had succeeded in badgering Inspector Waycott into leaving a man on guard, night and day, in the patient’s room.
The patient himself was making a gallant attempt to appear normal. “Damned stupidity,” he whispered hoarsely, “losing my balance like that. High time I packed it up, if I’m going to nearly kill myself every time I go out alone… I was wanting to see you, though, because they tell me it was you who found me. Lucky you happened along… Thanks, anyway: thanks a lot.”
For a minute or two they talked constrainedly. Then Fen noticed, on the bedside table, the watch he had discovered lying beside Leavis’s body, and picked it up. Flipping it open, he noted idly that it was an English watch with a fourteen-carat gold case: plain but expensive. “I’m glad this didn’t come to any harm,” he said. “It’s a nice thing.”
Leavis nodded in a superficially casual manner; but now he was watching his visitor warily. “I’m glad, too,” he answered. “It was my father gave it me, for my twenty-firster, and I shouldn’t have liked to have it damaged.”
“Ah.” Fen returned the watch to its place. “Well, I’d better leave you now, I think, or the nurse’ll start nagging me.” But as he turned to go, a defect in the little room, of which subconsciously he had been aware since his arrival, suddenly took substance in his mind. “I thought you had a policeman on guard here,” he said sharply. “What’s happened to him?”