Authors: Edmund Crispin
Tags: #Gervase Fen
“Garstin-Walsh was still upstairs dressing. But the Exeter man, Jourdain he was called, had heard me give my name to the housekeeper, and lost no time in introducing himself. ‘You’ll be curious,’ he said dogmatically, ‘about that body they’ve just taken away.’ I denied this, but it was no good, he insisted on telling me about the affair just the same. And stripped of inessentials, the story I heard, while we waited in the hall for Garstin-Walsh to come down, was as follows:
“A year previously, the ramshackle cottage near Garstin-Walsh’s house had been rented by one Saul Brebner, he whose remains were at present
for the Exeter City Mortuary. A powerful, malignant, drunken, slovenly man of about fifty was Brebner, and the people of Uscombe had gone in fear of him almost from the day of his arrival. He was without family, lived alone in squalor, had money in spite of working not at all, and divided his time fairly evenly between poaching and
The Three Crowns.
The police kept an eye on him, of course, but he succeeded in steering clear of them. And the only person in the village who ever had a good word to say for him was, surprisingly enough, Garstin-Walsh.
“That there was a reason for this the village soon discovered: Brebner had been Garstin-Walsh’s batman in the 1914 war, and it was realised that Garstin-Walsh’s toleration of the creature derived from this. However, the toleration wasn’t by any means mutual: Brebner made no secret of his loathing for Garstin-Walsh, and from time to time, when in liquor, was heard to hint that there were phases of the Colonel’s career which would not bear investigation. The village, which quite liked Garstin-Walsh, discounted these innuendos as the vapourings of malice, and even when Brebner became more specific, referring to misappropriation of supplies in France, refused to take him seriously. Indeed, on the night of the incident which wrote
to Brebner’s unlovely existence, he was so vituperative about Garstin-Walsh in the public bar of
The Three Crowns
that there was very nearly a riot, and when he left the pub at closing time—half past ten—he was dangerously enraged as well as, what was normal, dangerously drunk.
“Garstin-Walsh reached home that evening at about a quarter to eleven (I’m referring, you understand, to what to me, visiting him, was the previous evening). He’d spent the day acting as starter at the village sports, had dined at the Vicarage, and afterwards had worked with the Vicar at the parish accounts; and he got back to his house just in time to meet his solicitor on the doorstep, the said solicitor having driven there, on urgent business, from Exeter. Well, they went into the study, a large room on the ground floor, and got on with whatever it was they had to discuss. And according to the solicitor, a respectable old party named Weems, it was exactly five to eleven when the french windows burst open and Brebner, carrying a double-barrelled shotgun, lurched into the room.
“It was all over in a moment. Brebner levelled the gun at Garstin-Walsh and fired off one barrel. But he was pretty far gone, and the pellets spattered the room without touching their target. The second barrel remained. Steadying himself, Brebner aimed again. And Garstin-Walsh, grabbing up the pistol which he’d been using all day to start races, and which he’d reloaded immediately on his return, fired just in time to save his own life. It was good shooting, partly because the end of the room where Brebner stood was in semi-darkness, and partly because Garstin-Walsh, according to Weems’ deposition, was fairly thoroughly unnerved. Brebner staggered, dropped the shotgun, and collapsed on the carpet with a bullet in his head.
“Well, the village constable was summoned; and since Brebner, though unconscious, was still just alive, a doctor was summoned too. The doctor refused to have Brebner moved, and Garstin-Walsh was forced to allow him to stay in the study with a nurse to look after him, until next morning at nine o’clock he died there without recovering consciousness.”
Humbleby sucked complacently at his cheroot. “That, then, was the story Jourdain told me while we waited for Garstin-Walsh to appear. A clear case of self-defence, and a very good riddance, and the only reason Jourdain was there was to have a look at the study where the thing had happened, for the purpose of making the usual routine report.
“He’d just finished his tale when Garstin-Walsh came downstairs. Garstin-Walsh has always been a stringy, bony sort of man, and even when I first knew him he looked old; so the years have really altered him very little, in comparison with the rest of us. At the moment he was a bit haggard and white, and I guessed he hadn’t slept much; I got the impression, too, that all the time he was talking to us he was preoccupied, inwardly, with some sort of intellectual balancing trick: I mean that he had the precarious,
air you notice in people who are trying to think of two things at once. But he was very civil with us, brushing aside my suggestion that should go away and come back at some more convenient time; and he took Jourdain and myself into the study as soon as the nurse, who’d been packing and tidying, quitted it.
“It was a pleasant room, its pleasantness a bit marred, at the moment, by surgical smells and paint smells (the painters hadn’t finished with it till supper-time the previous day); and while Jourdain explained that he’d come to look at the shot-holes and so forth—rather needlessly, since he’d already said all that to the housekeeper, and she, presumably, had conveyed it to Garstin-Walsh—I had a look round. There was more shabbiness than I should have expected: Garstin-Walsh had—has—an unusually spick-and-span sort of mind, so that the threadbare carpet and the dented brass coal-scuttle, which you wouldn’t notice these days in most people’s houses, surprised me at first. But of course, there was, in view of Brebner’s insinuations and independent income, one very plausible explanation of the shabbiness. And it’ll show you how superficial my friendship with Garstin-Walsh was when I say that the possibility of blackmail neither shocked nor astonished me particularly, and that I wasn’t conscious of there being any disloyalty involved in my having my suspicions about Garstin-Walsh’s professional past.
“So there we all were: Garstin-Walsh fidgeting in a monkish kind of dressing-gown which he wore over his shirt and plus-fours instead of a coat, Jourdain gabbling away as only a County D.I. can gabble, and myself thinking disinterested thoughts about consignments of service dress which had gone astray, and never been recovered, during the first months of 1917. It’s no use my pretending I was comfortable. I wasn’t. On the other hand, my uneasiness had nothing whatever to do with blackmail or its pretexts, or with the problem of what, in this particular instance, I ought to do about them—since I intended, very firmly indeed, to do nothing about them whatever. No, it was more the sort of sensation you have when in crossing a road you hear a car coming at you and can’t for the moment either see it or judge, from the sound of it, what direction it’s coming from. I remember I was actually humming quietly, to keep my spirits up, as I strolled over to the french windows to have a look at the view.
“And that was when it happened.
“The village constable hadn’t confiscated Garstin-Walsh’s revolver—there was no reason, after all, why he should—and apparently Garstin-Walsh had taken it to bed with him. Anyway, he had it on him now, in a pocket of his dressing-gown, and I was just on the point of making some remark about the garden when he suddenly whipped the thing out, shouting incoherently, and fired it at me. I was simply flabbergasted, of course. I stood there helplessly trying to remember the details of Gross’s suicidal method of disarming people with guns, and Jourdain stood there goggling, and one shot smashed a vase on a table beside me, and another smashed a pane of the french windows, and a third went heaven knows where, and then, when I thought my last hour had certainly come, Garstin-Walsh waved me away—still shouting, still incoherent—and backed out of the french windows and fled. Almost immediately Jourdain went after him—and to cut a long story short, caught up with him at the bottom of the garden, where he’d stopped and was standing like a man in a trance, staring at the revolver in his hand as if he couldn’t imagine what it was or how he’d come by it. He surrendered it, and returned to the with Jourdain, like a lamb; and he was more dazed and bewildered than I’ve ever seen anyone in my life. He knew what he’d done, all right, but he couldn’t account for his motives in doing it. ‘It—it was like last night,’ he stammered.
‘When I saw you standing by those windows I remembered Brebner, and the gun was in my pocket and-‘
“Well, it wasn’t attempted murder, because plainly there was no malice; and there’s no such thing as attempted manslaughter. So we telephoned his doctor and got him to bed, still quite bemused—and in bed, for all I know, he is still. The doctor, of course, understood all about it: it was delayed shock, or post-traumatic automatism or some such thing, and the only surprising feature of the business was that I was still alive. I can tell you, I felt quite ashamed of myself for upsetting what otherwise would have been a perfect sample-phenomenon for the medical text-books… Well, I went away, and today, as you know, travelled up here to Oxford, and—”
“Why?” Fen interrupted. ‘Why did you come to Oxford? To see me?”
“You’re not satisfied, then?”
‘I’m not,” said Humbleby. “Everything about the affair fits, and seems quite innocent, excepting just one obstinate little fragment.”
“And that is?”
‘He unloaded the gun, you see. After he’d shot at me, and before Jourdain grabbed him, he unloaded the gun and threw the spent cartridge-cases away somewhere. When he handed the gun to Jourdain its chambers were empty. And why the devil, I ask myself, stroud he have done
Outside the windows of the first-floor room in which they sat, a clock struck six. Dusk was falling; the gleam had gone from the gilt titles of the books ranged along the walls, and from the college dining-hall you could hear the clink and rattle of plates being laid for dinner. In the broad, high room, with its painted panels, its luxurious chairs, its huge flat-topped desk and its weird medley of pictures, Detective-Inspector Humbleby gestured expressively and fell silent—and for the time being Fen seemed disposed to let the silence stay. His ruddy, clean-shaven face was pensive; his long, lean body sprawled gracelessly, heels on the fender; his brown hair, ineffectually plastered down with water, stood up, as usual, in mutinous spikes at the crown of his head. For perhaps two minutes he remained staring, mute and motionless, into the amber depths of his glass…
And then, suddenly, he chuckled.
“Rather nice, yes,” he said. “Tell me, were the spent cart ridges ever found?”
“No. At the time, of course, we didn’t bother about them. But Jourdain was hunting for them yesterday, and he couldn’t find them anywhere.”
Fen’s amusement grew. “Nor will he ever, I imagine—unless your Colonel Garstin-Walsh is a hopeless blunderer.”
“But how are they important? I don’t see—”
“Don’t you?” Fen lit a cigarette and reached for an ashtray. “I should imagine, myself, that they’re important for the reason that one of them is a blank.”
“A blank?” Humbleby’s face was very much that.
And Fen roused himself, speaking more energetically. ‘You’ll agree that Garstin-Walsh obviously
blanks; no man in his senses starts races at the village sports with live ammunition.”
“Yes, I agree about that.”
“And two of the shots he fired at you smashed things, so they were real enough. But what happened to the third?”
Humbleby was anything but stupid; after a moment’s reflection he nodded abruptly. “If that third shot was a blank,” he said, “then that would mean… No, wait. I see what you’re getting at, but I can’t quite work it out for the moment. So go on.”
“We’re assuming, remember, that Garstin-Walsh got rid of those cartridge-cases advisedly—that he wasn’t in fact, the maniac he seemed. Now, it’s possible to conceive quite a number of solid reasons for his acting as he did; but so far as my deductions have gone, there’s only one of them that covers all the facts. A blank cartridge is recognisably different from a live one. Let’s take it, then, that the spent shells were thrown away in order to conceal the presence of a blank among them, in case either you or Jourdain should be curious enough to investigate the gun. What follows? Quite simply, the fact that Garstin-Walsh fired two live shots and a blank at you. And if he did that, it can only have been because Jourdain was just about to examine the study, and there was a bullet-hole in the wall which had to be accounted for somehow.
“Now, there was
bullet-hole in the wall prior to the Brebner shooting; if there had been, the painters would have found it and repaired it. So what would have happened if Garstin-Walsh hadn’t staged his shooting act with you? Jourdain, finding a bullet-hole in the wall, would have reasoned thus:
“‘This hole must be the result of the single shot Garstin—Walsh fired at Brebner last night.
“‘It can’t have been made subsequently, because Brebner and the nurse were in here all night.
“‘Therefore when Garstin-Walsh fired at Brebner he missed.
“‘But there is a bullet from Garstin-Walsh’s revolver lodged in Brebner’s skull.
“‘Therefore Garston-Walsh must have shot Brebner earlier on, before he returned here and met Weems.
“‘And that doesn’t look much like self-defence; it looks like murder.’
“That Brebner was blackmailing Garstin-Walsh is obvious enough. It’s obvious, too, that Garstin-Walsh decided he must put a stop to it. So as I see it, he must have shot Brebner after Brebner left
The Three Crowns,
have gone to the cottage to remove whatever evidence of misappropriation of Army supplies Brebner was using, and have then returned to his house. He’d shot Brebner in the skull, and so naturally assumed that he was dead, but—”
“Yes, that’s the difficulty,” Humbleby interposed. “The idea of a man with a bullet in his brain rushing about with a shotgun intent on vengeance—”