by Miles Burton



Reuben Dukes worked his crowbar into the door and its frame and gave it a sharp wrench. As the door flew open revealing the interior of the bathroom, there was an instant’s silence, broken by a shrill scream from Hetty Dukes and a deeper “Mercy on us!” from her mother.

Reuben strode into the room, snatched a bath towel from the rail and flung it over the naked figure. Then he turned to the two women standing petrified upon the landing.

“Down into the kitchen, both of you,” he growled in a deep voice. “Your master and I can manage this job. We’ll call you if we want you.”

He waited until his wife and daughter had clattered downstairs, then looked searchingly at his master. From the very first, from that moment ten minutes ago, he had a vague suspicion that something queer had happened. Hetty had come dashing breathlessly into the cowshed with the amazing story that Mr. Basil had fainted in the bathroom and that they couldn’t get the door open. Fainted! Mr. Basil had merely fainted by the look of him. But in his master’s dim, short-sighted eyes he could read nothing but helpless bewilderment.

Mr. Geoffrey Maplewood was not looking his best. He was wearing fur-lined bedroom slippers and a purple silk dressing-gown under which were a pair of pale green pyjamas. He had not yet shaved, and a dark shadow covered his thin, pallid cheeks and receding chin. His black hair, usually so carefully groomed, was in disorder and hung in ridiculous wisps over his high forehead. Meeting his bailiff’s steady glance, he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again irresolutely.

Reuben shook his head slowly, indicating that it was a bad business, whichever way one looked at it.

“Best send for the doctor straight away, sir,” he said brusquely.

Mr. Geoffrey Maplewood suddenly found his voice. “Yes, yes. the doctor, of course,” he gabbled. “Dear me, I can’t remember his name. I hardly know him. I can’t understand it. Basil’s always been so extraordinarily healthy. I’ve never known anything like this to happen before.”

But Reuben was not listening to him. He had crossed the passage to the head of the stairs and was leaning over the banister. “Hetty?” he called.

His daughter could not have been far away, for she answered him immediately. “Yes, Dad.”

“Run along to the farm and ring up Dr. Prescott. Tell him that Mr. Maplewood’s nephew has been taken bad suddenly, and ask him to come along as soon as he can. Hurry, now.”

A door slammed as Hetty sped on her errand. Reuben turned towards the bathroom and stood staring gloomily at the motionless figure, of which only the head and shoulders were now visible, protruding from the decent shrouding of the towel.

“We’d best get Mr. Basil into his room before the doctor comes, sir,” he said. “He’s awkward lying there like that, as he is.”

“Yes, yes, certainly,” Mr. Maplewood agreed mechanically. “Into his room, of course, the farther one at the end of the passage. Do you think we can carry him between us, Dukes?”

“You leave that to me, sir,” Reuben replied. By general consent he was the strongest man at Tenteridge, or for many miles round. He entered the bathroom and with an apologetic gesture removed the towel. He had been quite right when he said Basil Maplewood was awkward where he was, for that young man was lying in an extraordinary position. His body was on its right side on the bathroom floor, with the right leg drawn up closely against it. His left leg hung over the bath so that the inner side of the knee rested upon the porcelain rim, and the foot and ankle dangled in the water.

With one arm under both thighs and the other supporting the small of the back, Reuben lifted his burden with scarcely an effort. He carried Basil Maplewood to his room and laid him gently on the bed, drawing the sheet over him for the sake of decency. Then he left the room, closing the door quietly but determinedly behind him. Mr. Geoffrey Maplewood was not to be seen. He had presumably retired to his own bedroom, for the door of this was now shut. Reuben, after a further glance through the open door of the bathroom, went downstairs and joined his wife in the kitchen.

Emily Dukes looked up eagerly as he came in. “Oh, there you are, then!” she exclaimed. “Whatever have you been doing? Isn’t there anything I can do for the poor young gentleman?”

Reuben shook his head slowly. “There’s nothing you can do, no, nor the doctor either,” he replied. “Trust me to know a dead man when I see him.”

“Dead!” Mrs. Dukes exclaimed shrilly. “Why, how can that be? Mr. Basil was as well as could be not half an hour ago.”

Reuben raised a warning hand. “Not so loud, Mother,” he replied. “There’s so need to make a fuss. It’s no affair of ours if Mr. Basil’s dead. It’s for the master to explain how it happened. And the less you or I know about it, the better.”

But Mrs. Dukes was not to be silenced. “It’s all very well for you to talk like that,” he said; “but they’ll be asking questions of us, as you know well enough. And when I took Mr. Basil his cup of tea, he was as spry as I’ve ever seen him.”

Reuben shrugged his shoulders. “That’s as may be,” he said. “He’s none so spry now. What’s become of that girl? It’s time she was back here by now.”

“That’ll be her,” replied Mrs. Dukes as light footsteps became audible outside the back door. And a moment later Hetty, breathless and attractive, burst into the kitchen.

“I spoke to the doctor himself,” she announced. “He says he’ll get out his car at once and be round here inside ten minutes.”

Her mother glanced at the clock. “Just after nine,” she remarked. “Being Sunday morning, the doctor hasn’t got his surgery till ten.”

Reuben snorted. “Surgery!” he exclaimed. “There’s something more for him to do upstairs than daub iodine on sprained wrists.” He stopped abruptly, catching a warning glance from his wife.

But the significance of his tone had not been lost on Hetty. “Why, is the young gentleman as bad as all that?” she asked.

“How should I know, child?” her father replied gruffly. “It’s for the doctor to say how bad he is. What else is he coming for?”

Silence fell upon the kitchen, broken only by the sounds of Mrs. Dukes’s rather aimless pottering over the gas stove. She hardly knew what to be getting on with, since it seemed now that that breakfast she had been preparing would never be eaten. Such a shame, for she’d gone to a lot of trouble. Dried haddock stewed in milk with sausages and bacon to follow. With an air of resignation she took the sizzling frying-pan off the stove and laid it on the table.

The kitchen clock ticked its way deliberately through the minutes, until at last Reuben’s straining ears caught the sound of an approaching car. “There’s the doctor,” he exclaimed. “Run and open the front door, Hetty, there’s a good girl.”

The car drew up at the gate and a few seconds later Dr. Prescott appeared at the front door, bag in hand. He was a youngish man, small and wiry, with an alert look in his stern gray eyes. “Here I am, Miss Dukes,” he said briskly. “Where’s the patient?”

At the sound of his voice Reuben had entered the hall from the kitchen. “I’ll show you if you come this way, Doctor,” he replied.

“Hallo, you here, Dukes!” exclaimed the doctor in some astonishment. “All right, lead the way, I’ll follow.”

As they mounted the stairs, a bedroom door opened and Mr. Geoffrey Maplewood appeared. He had been dressing, but had not completed the operation, for he was in his shirt sleeves, unshaven and with hair unbrushed. But he had put on his glasses and recognised the doctor.

“Oh, good morning,” he said. “I’m so glad you’ve come, Doctor—”

The doctor finished his sentence for him. “Prescott,” he remarked crisply. “I hear your nephew has been taken ill, Mr. Maplewood.”

“Yes, a most extraordinary thing. Fainted in the bathroom. I’ve never known such a thing to happen to him before. And with the door locked, too. We had to send for Dukes. If it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know how we should have got into the room.”

Dr. Prescott nodded a trifle impatiently. “Yes, yes, you can tell me about that later. I had better see your nephew first.”

Reuben put an end to the conversation. “This way, sir,” he said. He walked along the passage and opened the door of the farthest bedroom. “In here, sir.”

The doctor entered the room, closely followed by Reuben, who shut the door after them. Prescott approached the bed and drew back the sheet. For several seconds he stood there, silent and motionless, with a gathering frown upon his face. At last he swung round and faced Reuben with accusing eyes. “You knew that this man was dead?” he asked sharply.

Reuben’s eyes met the doctor’s unfalteringly. “I guessed as much, sir, when I carried him in here from the bathroom,” he replied.

“All right, I shan’t want you in here. Go and stand in the passage and see that nobody goes into the bathroom until I’ve had a chance of looking in there myself.”

It was ten minutes or more before Prescott emerged from the room to find Reuben standing sentinel over the bathroom. The door of Mr. Geoffrey Maplewood’s bedroom was once more shut and he could be heard moving about inside. The doctor listened for a moment and then addressed Reuben abruptly. “What was the dead man’s name?”

“Mr. Basil Maplewood, sir,” Reuben replied. “He was Mr. Maplewood’s nephew, but he didn’t come from these parts. He lived at a place called Hithering Court, which I believe is near Staplemouth.”

“How long has he been staying here?”

“He only came over with Mr. Maplewood yesterday afternoon, sir.”

“There’s no electric light laid onto this house, is there?”

“No, sir. Mr. Maplewood put in calor gas a couple of years or so ago. Before then they used to use lamps.”


“No, sir. Mr. Maplewood always uses the telephone down at the farm.”


“No, sir. I’ve heard Mr. Maplewood say that he doesn’t care for it.”

“All right. From what I can make out, you carried the dead man out of the bathroom yourself. Is that so?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Maplewood sent for me to break the door open, so I came along with my bar and—”

“Never mind all that for a moment. How was the dead man lying when you found him? Show me.”

Reluctantly Reuben lowered himself to the floor and assumed the position in which he had found Basil Maplewood. “Just like that, sir,” he said.

“With the left foot hanging over the edge of the bath?” Prescott inquired. “You’re quite sure of that?”

“Perfectly certain, sir. Mr. Basil’s left foot was actually in the water.”

Prescott put his hand into the water, which was still warm and perfectly clear, with no trace of soap in it. He looked carefully round the room without, however, touching any of the objects it contained. While he was so engaged, Mr. Geoffrey Maplewood appeared. He had a razor and a towel in his hand and was evidently about to shave at the basin in the bathroom.

But Prescott barred the way. “I shouldn’t go in there, if I were you, Mr. Maplewood,” he said quietly. “In fact, I think it would be safer if everybody left the house until it has been properly examined. There’s something here that isn’t quite right, I’m afraid.”

“Dear me, how very disturbing,” Mr. Maplewood exclaimed. “But Basil, my nephew? You’ve managed to bring him round all right, I hope?”

The doctor looked Mr. Maplewood straight in the face. “Your nephew is dead, Mr. Maplewood,” he said abruptly.

The razor clattered from Mr. Maplewood’s hand onto the floor. “Dead!” he repeated uncomprehendingly. “Dead?” His eyes blinked rapidly behind his glasses under Prescott’s steady gaze. “I can’t believe it. Why, I heard him whistling as he went into the bathroom. What did he die of?”

“That is a matter for a coroner’s jury to decide,” the doctor replied quietly. “You understand, of course, Mr. Maplewood, that it is my duty to communicate with him. And, meanwhile, I should like to repeat my suggestion that everybody should leave the house immediately.”

Mr. Maplewood recoiled nervously from the bathroom door. “Is there any danger?” he asked.

“It would appear that there is very considerable danger,” Prescott replied dryly.



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