THE PERJURED ALIBI
by Walter S. Masterman
MY VISIT TO CROWFIELD
I take small credit for my share in the strange affair of the Crowfield murder. Chance, and a somewhat churlish invitation from my friend, Kenneth Darent, took me to the village, and a series of accidents, rather than any particular shrewdness on my part, led me ultimately to the solution of the problem, where other and better brains had been baffled.
I was at a loose end in Town at the end of the season, limp and bored with life, and willing—Heaven knows—for any change from the sickly clamour of London.
Darent and I had soldiered together in the same regiment, though he was senior to me, and had every promise of a distinguished career, when the news of his father’s death, and his inheritance of the small but very ancient property of Crowfield Hall, caused him to send in his papers. By chance my own father died almost at the same time, leaving me without any relation I had ever heard of.
My father, an Indian judge, had lived in that country for so many years that I hardly felt his loss as a personal sorrow, my recollection of him dating back to my schooldays, when he had paid breathless flying visits to see me: a hard, stern man, with little sympathy in him.
He had always made me an allowance, paid my small debts, and occasionally written me formal and concise letters of advice. But his death was the snapping of the last link with any family connexion, and made me realize that I was now completely alone in the world. It was our common loss and loneliness that drew Kenneth and myself together, and when I received a letter from my father’s lawyers—Erskine, Martyr & Green—informing me that the amount left to me by my father would provide an ample income for a man of lazy habits and modest tastes, I decided to leave the Service, and Kenneth and I came home by the same boat from Egypt, where we were stationed at the time.
He was full of plans for the future: the estate had been in his family for centuries, and he meant to do great things there, for I gathered from hints he threw out that it had rather gone to pieces, and required careful administration.
We parted company in London, with a promise on his part that when he had been able to get things settled he would invite me to the Hall.
I stood on the platform with him, watching his sunburnt, handsome face, keen grey eyes and firm jaw, upright as a dart, a man who stood out above his fellows. A sense of complete loneliness crept over me as the train steamed out of the station.
But five years had passed since that day, and never a line had I received from him, and the promised invitation had never come. I had written to him several times, giving him my addresses, for I had been travelling a good deal, but had not even received an acknowledgement, so that when at last I did get his letter it came as a complete surprise to me. I did not answer the letter, as my plans were very uncertain, and I did not like the ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ tone, but a sudden hot spell in August made London intolerable, and so one morning I told Hoad, my man-of-all-jobs and formerly my batman, to pack my suitcase, and bring my car round. It was a sudden decision, taken on the spur of the moment, but I felt that if I was not welcome I could go on to the sea-side instead.
I knew that the town of Wickstead was the nearest of any size to Crowfield, and drove down there on a lovely August morning, through beautiful country of woods and old-world villages bright with flowers.
From this sleepy old market town I climbed up a long hill by a winding country road, little used, and found myself at the crest, where crossroads marked the beginning of the little straggling village of Crowfield, sleeping in the sunshine like a contented cow.
At one corner stood an old stone-built church with a square tower, surrounded by a churchyard thickly dotted with tall yew trees, and at the opposite corner was a building that, at the moment, was a more attractive sight to me, an ancient inn, half timbered and covered with creepers. It stood back from the road, with a large space in front for vehicles to draw in, marked off by white pillars linked together by a chain. Two great chestnut trees gave ample shade with their widespread branches. A sign swung nobly overhead, depicting a crown, and on the lintel of the door the name of the inn was neatly painted, with that of the licensee—A. Willis.
Beneath the sign stood a long rustic table such as used to stand outside most English inns, with benches of rough, unpolished oak.
There was a homely atmosphere about the inn that attracted me after the garish cocktail bars of London, and my mind turned to thoughts of beer—a large, cool tankard of freshly drawn country beer.
The door opened directly into a large, low-roofed room with oak rafters, at the farther end of which there stood a huge sideboard adorned with highly polished pewter.
Two men were sitting at a small table; they looked up at my entrance and then resumed their conversation. A fresh-looking country girl entered from a farther door, carrying a tray on which were two of the very tankards I had visualized in my mind.
“Come on, Polly, m’dear, put ’em on the table—we’re thirsty.” The speaker was a stout, pleasant-faced man of middle age, with a yellow coat and drab gaiters. He turned his red face to me: “Perhaps you will join us, sir? I heard your car draw up outside—’tis a hot day.”
I ordered a similar tankard, which the girl went out to fetch, and the man, whom I took to be a farmer, smiled affably.
“You are a stranger to these parts mabbe?” he asked.
I informed him that this was my first visit to the village, and noticed that the two men exchanged glances at my words. Some unaccountable instinct made me stop at that, and not mention Darent’s name. My genial friend turned to his companion, a sallow fellow with a taciturn, shifty face, clothed entirely in black, who had remained silent, nursing a black dispatch-case.
“This is Mr. Turnbull, the lawyer from Wickstead, and my name is Hickmott, of Daly’s Farm—now you know us both.”
He picked up his tankard and took a mighty draught. The lawyer’s face twisted into a wry smile, as though the process was one he found some difficulty in executing.
“Your health, sir,” he said curtly.
“My name is Tracey,” I replied. “I have just run down from Town, and stopped at this delightful inn for a drink.”
Observing that Hickmott had emptied his tankard, I touched a brass bell that stood on the table, and the girl appeared. Hickmott extended a large, muscular arm and seized the girl by the waist. “And this is Polly Willis, bless her heart—I’ve known her since she was born, haven’t I, Polly?”
The girl grinned at his clumsy gallantry, and I gave the order for the tankards to be replenished.
To my surprise the lawyer placed a claw-like hand over the top of his.
“Not for me, thank you—not for me,” he snapped, as though fearing poison rather than good beer. The action was churlish, but Hickmott laughed boisterously: “Liver! He can’t stand much, can you, Turnbull?”
“It’s not that at all: I have had sufficient, and I have work to do—I am over-late already.”
I suppose he read my looks, for he added hastily: “Hickmott will drink with you till closing-time, and after, maybe; he’s nothing but a walking barrel, a cask to be filled as soon as it is empty.”
Hickmott roared heartily: “Hear that now, Polly—it’s all due to messing about with deeds and wills that’s made him like that.” He cast an amused glance at Turnbull, and smacked him on the knee—“And mortgages and marriage settlements, eh?”
Turnbull’s face went black, and he shot a look of fury at the farmer.
“Never in forty years have I seen such a scandalous—” He stopped as quickly as he had begun, and pulled himself together. “I don’t suppose our village gossip would interest Mr. Tracey,” he added with a wan smile, shut his mouth tightly, and fumbled with his black case, while Hickmott picked up the newly-filled tankard that Polly had fetched.
“Are you staying long here, sir,” he asked after wiping his large mouth with the back of his hand, “or just passing through, like?”
“I have nothing particular to do. I just came down for a change from London.”
“You haven’t come down for the wedding, sir?” Polly asked eagerly.
“What wedding?” An absurd idea came to me that Kenneth might be the bridegroom.
“Why, haven’t you heard, sir?” The girl was agog with her news. “Sir John Barton at the Towers is to be married to Miss Browne, the rector’s daughter, to-morrow, and there’s to be a grand party at the Towers to-night.”
It was all so much Greek to me, but further discussion was cut short by the entrance of Mr. Willis, a typical country landlord, large and stout and perspiring profusely.
“Well,” he said, addressing the farmer, “thank the Lord that’s over. Next time he gets like that I’ll send him home in a cart.”
“Drunk again, I suppose?” Hickmott asserted rather than queried.
“Drunk—he could hardly walk—and hung on to my arm like a lump of lead, and singing some Italian stuff all the way down to the Hall.”
A sudden misgiving came to my mind at the mention the Hall, but I remained silent.
“One of these days,” the landlord continued, “he’ll fall into one of his own quarry pits and break his neck—why, what’s the matter, Mr. Turnbull?”
The lawyer had been twisting his face into some sort of signal as Willis spoke.
“I am afraid,” he said in a quiet, venomous tone, “this conversation will hardly interest an entire stranger.”
The landlord noticed me for the first time, and his face went even redder than before. “No, sir,” he said awkwardly; “we are proud of our village and we don’t want Mr. Darent’s name blazed abroad, so to speak.”
“You wooden-headed fool,” Turnbull exclaimed, “why go and mention names at all! With this wedding we shall have crowds of Pressmen and others coming down—perhaps Mr. Tracey is—er—”
“No, I am not,” I said sharply. “I have no profession at all, and I certainly didn’t come here to collect village scandal.”
“Then may we inquire,” the lawyer said testily, “for what purpose you have come to our village?”
“I came,” I said slowly, looking steadily at Turnbull, “to stay with an old friend of mine—Mr. Kenneth Darent.”
A roar of laughter from Hickmott greeted my words, and the fool slapped his thigh in coarse, uncontrolled merriment that made me go hot with rage. “Well, if that isn’t real funny,” he said between his bursts of laughing. I don’t suppose I should have minded the asinine guffaws of this bumpkin, but the sneering bark that Turnbull gave and the sight of his eyebrows raised in supercilious contempt made me see red.
“I would be pleased to know the cause of this hilarity,” I said sharply, addressing the lawyer.
“Oh, you’ll find out quick enough,” Hickmott gurgled.
“I am speaking to you, sir,” I said, facing the lawyer.
“If I were you, young man,” he said in a quick, dry voice, “I would turn my car round, and go back to London as fast as possible.”
I stood up and faced them; I am afraid my temper is none of the best. “What’s wrong with Mr. Darent?”
The landlord stood foolishly scratching his head, and Hickmott became suddenly quiet, and looked sheepishly at the floor, his laughter gone. The answer came from Turnbull, who leant forward over the table. “What’s wrong, young man? I’ll enlighten you. He’s hardly ever sober, and when he is his temper is so bad that every one avoids him. He’s heavily in debt, and never does a stroke of work. The Hall is a ramshackle old farmhouse falling to pieces, that ought to have been pulled down years ago; it’s not fit to keep cows in. He’s a drunken blackguard, a libertine and a thief—that’s what is wrong with your old friend Mr. Darent!”
The words came in a thin stream of vitriolic abuse from the lawyer’s cruel lips. He never raised his voice once, and even the bright sunshine through the latticed windows seemed to grow dark.
I could stand no more, not another word, and I saw he had taken breath to continue. I laid hold of his coat collar and dragged him over the table. If he had struggled, I should have hit him, but he only whined for help. I pushed him to the open door, and flung him into the yard outside; so that he fell sprawling to the ground, spread-eagled like some huge bird of prey. His precious dispatch-case, to which he had clung despairingly, as though he feared I should wrench it from him for some reason, had fallen open; and it did me good to see the papers flying in all directions, and the lawyer picking them up like a black hen pecking corn.
He got the papers into his case, and I saw that his hand was bleeding. I made a step towards him, meaning to see whether I had hurt him, but he gave one glance at me—a look of deadly hate—and rushed up the road as though the fiend himself were after him.
I came back to the group by the window, dusting my hands, and feeling better.
“And now, Mr. Hickmott, will you tell me in a more polite manner what is wrong with my friend?”
It was Willis, the landlord, who answered.
“It’s a most unfortunate thing, sir; you couldn’t have come at a worse time. Mr. Darent had an awful row with that lawyer this morning, and they hate each other like cat and dog.”
“What was the quarrel about?” I asked sternly, meaning to get to the bottom of this matter.
“Well—you’ll soon know, I reckon,” Willis said haltingly. “Better have it said and done with. It was about this wedding.”
“It’s my belief,” Hickmott said with heavy sincerity, “that that lawyer fellow’s got a strangle hold on Mr. Darent—with them papers he had.”
“Why should they quarrel about this wedding?” I was entirely in the dark in the matter.
“I should ask Mr. Darent if I were you, sir,” Willis answered, with a glance at Hickmott. “All I know is that if I hadn’t collared hold of him, he’d have half murdered that lawyer. He picked up a pewter pot, but Polly got between them, and Mr. Darent’s always had a soft spot for Polly, and then I took him home.”
“If you take my advice,” Hickmott said, looking anywhere but at me, “you’ll stay and have lunch here.”
It didn’t look as though I should get much lunch at the Hall, if half of what I had heard were true, and Darent would hardly be in a fit state to receive me. After all, I hadn’t told him I was coming.
“We shall have lunch ready at one o’clock,” Willis said, his instincts as a landlord asserting themselves. “But if you would care for it earlier, I’ll ask Mrs. Willis.”
I glanced at the clock and saw the time was half-past twelve. “That will do for me—I’ll take a stroll round the village.”
I wanted to get away from these people, and think what was best to be done. I had made rather an exhibition of myself, but the lawyer had angered me beyond endurance.
I felt better outside, and the sight of my car made me wonder whether it would not be wiser to take Turnbull’s advice and to return to Town, but the very fact that the advice had come from him made me obstinate. I walked idly over the road to the old church, having a liking for ancient buildings. The churchyard was restful and cool, tall yews forming an avenue to the church door that reminded me of the Alyscamps at Arles. On each side were ancient tombs, and gravestones the inscriptions half obliterated by time. Among the lichen-covered tombstones, I saw something that set my teeth on edge. A large white marble vault stood out like an act of blasphemy, amid these simple village memorials, and above it was a vulgar white angel with hands crossed over her breast. It was as incongruous as the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. I stepped between the grassy mounds to examine this thing.
The vault was surrounded by a space in which flowers were in bloom, with a white marble kerb and railings. In gold lettering I read the inscription:
Sacred to the Memory of
beloved wife of Sir John Barton, Bart.
Died Aug. 23rd, 19—.
Aged 26 years.
‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.’
My gorge rose at this insult to the churchyard, and then I remembered the conversation at the inn. Tomorrow Sir John Barton was to marry the rector’s daughter, and the date on the tomb was only three years ago.
And Kenneth had quarrelled with the lawyer over the wedding, and had nearly brained him. I decided that I would not return to London.
Here was some mystery that would relieve my boredom. The west door was open, and I entered the cool building and looked round. It was a fine old church; not large, but with massive stone pillars and rounded Norman arches. The east window was ‘Early English,’ probably added a century later to the original building, and the small deep-set lancet windows contained some good glass of the old dull blues and crimsons of the thirteenth century.
I walked up the central aisle towards the altar rails, when I became aware that I was not alone. A man stepped from behind a pillar, and his dress told me that he was the rector. Middle-aged, and of good proportions, with the high, intellectual forehead of a scholar, he seemed to be part of the church itself. In that dim light I could see little but the outlines of his face, but the hard, keen eyes and straight mouth gave me the impression of one who could be a terror to evil-doers in the village, as well as a masterful shepherd. These impressions came to me later, for after the glare of the sun outside the church was dark. He came forward to me with a smile.
“You are looking at our church, sir; it is well worth a visit, though few nowadays care to stop and admire churches.”
“I have just run down from London,” I replied. “I am afraid I came in here while waiting for my lunch, though I am much interested in old buildings.”
“But not their uses, perhaps.”
“That all depends on the uses to which they are put.”
“My name is Browne, the local incumbent—All Souls, Oxford—were you at the ’varsity?”
“I was in the Service,” I replied somewhat stiffly. “My name is Tracey.”
“It is a treat for me—a real treat—to be able to converse with an educated man for a change—one is buried alive in this village; but let me tell you something about the church.”
Without waiting for a reply he went on with the zeal of an enthusiast. “The tower now—doubtless you admired that twelfth-century tower, a landmark for miles. It has another claim to interest—a cresset burned on the tower to announce the coming of the Spanish Armada.”
He went on with a description of the woodwork of the pulpit, and of the windows, when a shadow crossed the entrance, and a girl’s clear voice called out: “Aren’t you coming, dad? We shall be late for lunch.” The speaker herself came into the church. I could only see that she walked with the free, springing step of the country-bred girl, and the easy grace that only comes from an outdoor life. As she came forward she saw me.
“This is Mr. Tracey—my daughter Margorie. I am afraid we must break off this interesting conversation, but I hope we shall see you again if you are staying here for any time—you must come to the rectory.”
Even as he spoke I could sense that he was rattling off a formula of politeness rather than an invitation. I looked keenly at the girl. Even in that glimmering light I could see the perfect oval of a face eager and vivid, framed in a cluster of brown curls—for she wore no hat—and the perfect poise, as she stood there waiting.
So this was the cause of all the trouble—and she was to be married on the next day to Sir John Barton. I determined to force the issue.
“I am staying with my old friend Kenneth Darent.”
The rector’s mouth compressed to a straight line, and a slight frown appeared on his face, but it was to the girl that I turned in astonishment. She opened wide her deep hazel eyes, with an expression of mortal dread.
“Mr. Darent?” she stammered. “Are you staying with him?”
I could not take my eyes from her face, but heard the rector say in a matter-of-fact voice from the gloom: “Dear me, that is most interesting. Margorie, we shall have to get off, or your mother will be scolding me.”
The girl made no movement—she had leant against a pillar, cupping her face in her hands: only her great eyes were still fixed on me.
“You will be staying here over to-morrow?” she whispered.
“I hope so; I expect to be here for some days.”
“You didn’t come here especially for to-morrow?” She halted over her words.
“Of course not, my dear,” the rector said impatiently. “I don’t suppose that Mr. Tracey is in the least interested in your wedding.”
“I am sure I am most interested,” I said politely. “I shall certainly come if there is room for me.”
There was no particular meaning in my remark; it was the merest politeness, to break off the conversation that I felt had become embarrassing.
The girl clutched my arm feverishly. “No! You mustn’t come—you must keep him away—take him for a drive somewhere.”
“Margorie,” the rector intervened sternly, “you forget that you are talking to a total stranger.” He addressed me: “Please take no notice of what my daughter has said—she is naturally a little overwrought— what girl would not be on the day before her wedding?” He took his daughter’s arm, and almost hustled her from the church, with a hurried good-bye, and I heard his voice talking gravely as they rounded the corner.
Well, I had come to a queer village. I returned to the inn, determined to see the matter through.