Love's Arrow Poisoned
"'Tis murder, murder!" - Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Had Sir Thomas been desirous of obtaining the maximum response from the minimum of information, then the effect of his disclosure would have gratified that gentleman beyond his wildest expectations. As it was, nothing was further from his intention and, being of an habitually phlegmatic character, he was surprized at the reaction his statement elicited. The General looked at him in alarm, his face betraying the countenance of a man who had just received bad news and now only waited for confirmation that all his worst fears are justified. Captain Perry, after involuntarily uttering a most ungentlemanly oath, pursed his lips and shook his head in shock and disbelief. Darcy merely looked stunned and remained thus for several seconds. There was an astonished silence in the room for some moments, until Darcy recovered his senses sufficiently to request more information, though he managed no more than the preliminary clearing of his throat before he was forestalled by the General.
"Good god man!" he exclaimed, "you certainly know how to break up a party! But you must have more details than that a man has died, else why the manner of your coming here?"
Sir Thomas inclined his head in acknowledgement at the first half of this statement and explained succinctly in response to the second, "The man has been stabbed, according to the information contained in the note which summoned me."
Despite the attitude of a man who was steeling himself for the worst possible news, the General was incredulous. "Murdered?!" he cried in astonishment.
Darcy, this revelation coming on top of all the others of an unpleasant nature he had received since arriving, sank into a nearby armchair with a groan. First there had been the discovery that Wickham had disappeared, then the extent of his debts had been revealed and now they were hearing of the very real possibility that he had.... Darcy shook his head in an attempt to regain his wits.
"Is there any clue," asked he hesitatingly, "to the man's identity?"
"No," answered Sir Thomas slowly, "except that he appears to be dressed like a gentleman. Also, the place where he was found, which is a quiet area away from the, er, less celubrious quarters under my jurisdiction, would seem to discount the usual circumstances. You must be aware, Mr. Darcy, that this kind of crime is rare enough, thank God, and usually the result of overindulgence in drink or domestic strife. This, apparently involving a gentleman and not in one of the areas I might expect it, seemed unusual enough for me to consider the coincidence of the General's request to me. I could not but help wondering if there was a connection. Since the General's house is on the way, I decided to stop here and inform you to see if you wanted to come along. If it is in any way connected with your enquiries it would be better you were there to see all. If not, then you can be back in an hour and no harm will be done."
Darcy, who had by now recovered slightly from the initial shock, rose with decision and said, "I will accompany you, Sir Thomas. Unfortunately, my carriage is not available as my wife went out in it earlier but..."
"My carriage is outside, Mr. Darcy, and there is room for us all," Sir Thomas interrupted.
"I cannot go, I really must see to my other business; indeed I am already late," said the General, "but Perry, I would like you to go with Sir Thomas and Darcy, with you permission, Sir Thomas?"
Sir Thomas nodded his acceptance of this request and Perry intimated his willingness by replying, "Of course, sir." He was gratified at being a member of the party. He had found the investigations he had undertaken so far intriguing and now it appeared as though events could be about to take an even more serious turn than they had supposed. If the dead man should turn out to be Wickham, then the possibilities were numerous and confusing. His discoveries so far might become important in light of what could be awaiting them.
Darcy, who seemed suddenly bursting with energy, exclaimed, "The let us be off immediately."
After collecting their overcoats and other accessories, Darcy and Perry joined Sir Thomas in his carriage and within seconds they were travelling rapidly to their destination. The first few minutes were spent in complete silence, except for the street noise which permeated from without, each man lost in his own contemplations. Darcy tapped his fingers nervously on the frame of the window as they flew along the streets. However fast they were travelling -- and Sir Thomas' coachman was certainly no slouch -- he grew more and more impatient, cursing every barrow boy or tradesman's cart that slowed their progress, though his imprecations were voiced internally and not aloud. Since the possibility that Sir Thomas' information suggested had first imbedded itself in his brain he was consumed with the need to know. Could it be true? Were all his dealings with that man, which had blighted his life for so many years, at an end forever? Had he finally succumbed to the inevitable consequence of his own progressively more extreme actions?
He exhaled the breath he had been unknowingly holding noisily as his meditations drifted from the question of the possibility that in a very few minutes he might be looking on the dead body of his childhood friend, to the consequences which would arise should it be true. He thought for the first time about Mrs. Wickham and her unborn child, and felt some guilt as he realized that part of him did not want the suspicion which had originated the moment Sir Thomas had made his disclosure to be unfounded. He could not approve of Lydia's behaviour, though he always tempered his disapproval of her when he considered Georgiana had almost suffered the same fate, but she had seemed genuinely attached to Wickham and now might find herself widow to a murdered man at sixteen, with a child to care for -- should the shock not cause her to miscarry.
He stared out of the window in silence and contemplation. What was the truth -- that this was merely a wild goose chase that was completely unconnected with their investigations, or that Wickham had been slain?
At the moment he could not decide which he would prefer.
Elizabeth may have succeeded in cutting short Lydia's jeremiad on those subjects she felt most comfortable being able to hold a discourse on, but unfortunately their sudden cessation did not make her task any easier. She began with a few tentative enquiries on the Wickhams' domestic situation, asking whether their servants had been with them since they arrived in Newcastle, but every question, though answered briefly without any sign of concealment, only gave Lydia the opportunity to ply her with similar enquiries on her own situation. She answered these with a similar brevity to her sister, but when they began to get rather impertinent she found she had to bite her tongue to avoid scolding her. Questions like 'How many servants do you have at Pemberley?', 'How many horses and carriages?', 'How many rooms does your London house have?' &c. were met with polite replies, but when Lydia ventured on to 'I expect you can spend what you like on clothes, how much do you get for your own expenses?', 'I'll wager you have some lovely jewels?' and -- this last accompanied with a conspiratorial leer -- 'Well I suppose it is all compensation for putting up with that cold fish Mr. Darcy, I expect you manage to avoid him as much as possible?' she was probably completely unaware how near she was to receiving the first box on the ear from Elizabeth in well over ten years.
Elizabeth sat there quietly seething for some time before finally replying with apparent calm to the last enquiry with, "No, we spend as much time as possible together. And what of you and Wickham, do you see as much of one another as you would like?"
That had the desired effect and Lydia abruptly changed the subject, to tell her about the local shops and warehouses and how hard it was to find a really good dressmaker as her funds were limited (with a pointed look which Elizabeth uncharacteristically seemed to miss). Elizabeth sympathized and, in the hope of extracting a little useful information, asked her about her dealings with the local tradesman. Lydia acknowledged somewhat reluctantly that they were decent enough, though rather inflexible about when they received payment (with another pointed look). Elizabeth sighed inwardly as she realized that Lydia was informing her in a not particularly subtle way -- though little better could be expected from Lydia -- that the price of discovering the true nature of the Wickhams' domestic imbroglio's was going to be her guarantee to help settle any household debts they might have accumulated. She considered the question as practically as she was able to; an exercise which was initially not particularly successful since Lydia's previous remarks had almost persuaded her to convince Darcy that they should return to Derbyshire immediately and allow the Wickhams to suffer the fate they deserved. A few moments reflection on how that course of action would affect her family, however, enabled her to regain some sense of perspective. Compared to Wickham's debts of honour the amount involved was likely to be small and she could not allow Lydia to find herself in the situation where she was having to ward off the bailiffs.
She therefore stated in a tone in which encouragement was alloyed with sympathy, "I am sure when you have been here longer they will see you are to be trusted. I realize it must be difficult for you to run the household without any previous experience, Lydia. If you need any help with the accounts I am more than happy to oblige and if you have any immediate difficulties I am sure they can be dealt with."
This was all Lydia had been hoping for, though she might perhaps have missed the circumspect manner in which Elizabeth had worded the last sentence, which committed her to nothing. She got up and embraced Elizabeth with genuine warmth and said, "Thank you Lizzy, you don't know what a relief it will be to me if you would help. You know I have never been good with figures and it makes my head ache just to think about them sometimes."
"Yes, you never were a good scholar, were you?" Elizabeth teased.
"Well, I never saw the point of learning mathematics," Lydia countered with a toss of her head.
Elizabeth laughed and persisted, "Well, perhaps you are reconsidering your opinion now you find that it might come in useful?"
"Definitely not!" stated Lydia firmly, and laughed.
She seemed to brighten considerably after this exchange and a return of her usual energetic manner was visible. After considering for a moment, she said, "Lizzy, I should like to go out, I have been stuck in here too long. Would you like to come with me?"
Elizabeth, fearing that her promise of a few moments before had encouraged Lydia to contemplate a determined raid on the local shops, which was Lydia's usual form of entertainment, replied guardedly, "Where would you like to go?" then added with more enthusiasm, "Shall we go for a walk? Is there a park nearby?"
This suggestion did not sit well with Lydia, who was determined not to miss this god-given opportunity to ride -- and more significantly to be seen -- in the Darcy carriage. She passed her new acquaintance over in her head, wondering who she would most like to see her arriving in such style. After a few seconds, a smile crossed her lips.
"I would like to visit my friend Miss Fitton," she said. "Would you like to come and meet her? I'm sure you will like her and her sister."
As she was anxious to meet any of Lydia's new acquaintances, in the hope that they might be able to shed some light on events and also in the hope they were more sensible and perceptive than her sister, Elizabeth agreed with alacrity. "Yes, I will be glad to make their acquaintance. You mentioned them in your last letter, I believe."
Lydia admitted she had, and rang for the maid so she could prepare to depart. Elizabeth, sensing by her manner the true nature of the reason for the call, since she remembered being told by Captain Perry the previous night that Lydia had visited the sisters two days before and they had not returned the courtesy in the meantime, could not resist asking mischievously, "Is it close enough to walk, Lydia?"
Lydia replied with slightly more happiness than she was trying to convey that it was not really, and she had to be careful in her condition.
"Very well, we shall take the carriage," Elizabeth offered, rolling her eyes and smiling tolerantly.
The silence between the gentlemen in Sir Thomas' carriage, which had been palpable since their departure from the General's house, was eventually broken by Perry, requesting any further particulars Sir Thomas might be able to share with the others. The magistrate brought a note forth from the pocket of his greatcoat and scanned it, remarking, "The discovery was made this morning in a field which is adjacent to the churchyard of St. Stephen's at Woolsington, some three or four miles away. The sexton was the man who sent the note which informed me of the particulars, so I assume it was he who found the body. I despatched a constable immediately. The constables under my charge are under strict instruction not to disturb anything until myself and the doctor arrive in such cases, and Hood, the constable, is a reliable man."
Perry nodded. "And the doctor, Sir?"
"I sent my man to summon him. Doctor Tredgold is an experienced man who practises in the Quayside district. No doubt there is a local man whom we could consult if we wished, but I have relied on Tredgold before in such matters and prefer to have someone whose knowledge and discretion I am confident I can trust."
"Very wise, I am sure," Perry concurred.
Darcy, who had recovered from his introspection as this colloquy began, now asked, "Since the sexton did not recognize the man, we can assume that he is not a local to the area?"
"Yes, I would imagine so," Sir Thomas confirmed.
"Then, forgive me," Darcy began uncertainly, "I do not know the geography of this area. Can you suggest any reason a stranger might go there? Is it, for instance, a place frequented by trippers?"
The others seemed struck by this question. A look of confusion crossed the magistrates face. "Now you mention it, it is not the sort of place to attract the casual visitor," he said slowly, "it is merely a small village with one inn and few houses. And it is not on the road to anywhere significant." He lapsed into silence and his face betrayed he was ruminating the possible explanation.
Perry leaned forward and remarked to Darcy in a low tone, "I can tell you this, sir. It is on the road to Ponteland, if one wants to go quietly and avoid witnesses."
Darcy's eyebrows shot up and the light in his eyes confirmed he had understood the Captain's meaning.
"Ahh, yes," he almost whispered in a dry tone, "where Mr. Nash has a property."
While she waited for Lydia to complete her preparations for the journey, Elizabeth requested that Farrow be sent for, with the stated intention of informing him of their plans so he could arrange the carriage. The actual reason was to enquire from him if their departure would disrupt his investigations among the domestic staff, who had been asked to provide him with some refreshment in the kitchen, and how these were progressing. Farrow, who had already become a favourite with the women, Clara the maid and Mrs. Morris -- who combined the roles of housekeeper and cook -- with his polite and easy manners, replied that he was quite at liberty to accompany Mrs. Darcy and her sister. Indeed, he would have done so whatever the state of his own enquiries -- which were progressing slowly but surely -- in deference to Darcy's request that he look after his wife. He told Elizabeth that he would have the carriage readied immediately and took his leave of the others, with a request that if any message came for him or Mrs. Darcy while they were gone it would be delivered without delay to their destination.
Having done this much, he went outside to have a confidential interview with the man the Colonel had ordered to watch the house, whom he had observed on their arrival. Having approached him discreetly, he revealed who the carriage belonged to and their connection to the Wickhams. He further explained that Mrs. Wickham's sister was to accompany her to visit some friends and the man thanked him for the information, since if he had seen them departing in the carriage he may have been tempted to try and follow, in the suspicion the visitors might be taking Mrs. Wickham to her husband. He informed Farrow he would remain at his post to watch in case Wickham appeared, until relieved at midday.
Farrow thanked him and returned to have a few words with the coachman, narrating the directions to their destination, which he had obtained from Clara. By the time these explanations were complete, the ladies emerged from the house; Mrs. Wickham with much ceremony and furtive glances up and down the street to see if their departure was being observed by her neighbours. Farrow handed her into the carriage with an exaggerated display of deference and decorum, which caused Elizabeth to suppress a smirk, sure as she was that it was for Lydia's benefit. As she followed, she caught Farrow's eye with a look of combined amusement and gentle reproach and he responded with a smile and a look which told her he understood her warning. Lydia might be foolish but she was the mistresses sister and should not be an object of ridicule. He closed the carriage door and gave another slight bow of studied formality before getting up to join the coachman.
Lydia settled herself comfortably in the seat, attempting to occupy as much space as possible. She had never been in so luxurious a conveyance before, and spent the first five minutes, when she wasn't leaning out the window in an attempt to see and be seen, in praising its qualities in an excited voice to Elizabeth, who sat opposite her composedly. Elizabeth, who despite her younger sister's insinuations earlier, had not married Darcy so she could travel in a comfortable coach or wear expensive jewellery, was still well aware of the fortunate advantages of her new situation. However, to hear Lydia's effusions, which were all too familiar as they were an almost perfect recital of Mrs. Bennet's from the time when she first been informed of Elizabeth's engagement, was not likely to improve her equanimity. She contained her rising displeasure at the direction of the conversation by reflecting on the irony that Lydia could believe she and Wickham had married for love and Elizabeth had married Darcy for more material considerations. Considering the truth of the matter, especially as it related to the Wickhams -- for Lydia could be forgiven for her ignorance as far as she and Darcy were concerned, given Elizabeth's opinion of him when they had first met -- she felt she could almost find some amusement in Lydia's opinions, did they not show again her complete lack of sense and blindness to the truth about her husband's real character. Indeed, she reflected, as far as Lydia was concerned, she did appear to be in love with Wickham, or as in love as she was capable, and did they not say love is blind? Would Lydia's attachment survive the current crisis, should the whole story be revealed to her, she wondered? Elizabeth suppressed the temptation once again to tell Lydia some painful truths about Wickham and his dealings with the Darcy family or to correct Lydia's assumptions about her relationship with Darcy. However, a short carriage ride was not the time or place and she had still not discovered anything relevant to their enquiries. She therefore steered the discussion in another direction by expressing a wish to know a little more about the Fitton family before they arrived.
Lydia, totally ignorant of the impertinent manner of her discourse and altogether too self-absorbed to realize its effect on Elizabeth, or the others obvious alteration of the subject, was more than happy to oblige her sister with as much detail as she could about her 'dear friends'. Since she had always been a determined gossip, Elizabeth listened in interest but with a silent warning to herself to verify anything Lydia told her before accepting it as truth.
"The Fittons live in -- Street, which is quite a nice area, though close to the centres of trade in the town," Lydia was saying, "there are three of them, Mr. Fitton and his two daughters, though I have not seen much of him as he is not very well they tell me."
"I am sorry to hear that," said Elizabeth sympathetically, "and what of Mrs. Fitton?"
"Oh, she died ten years ago or more."
"I see. So he has been compelled to raise them on his own since then."
"Yes, and run his business, which is similar to our Uncle Gardiner's, from what I am told," Lydia informed her. "Amy tells me that their aunt used to look after them quite often, but she died two years ago and there has been just the three of them since, except for an uncle they never see."
"They seem to have suffered quite a lot of misfortune, to lose their mother and aunt and to have a sick father to look after."
"Yes, and Wickham tells me his business has suffered in the last year or two, no doubt because his illness has prevented him attending to it properly."
"Oh, Mr. Wickham knows the family?" Elizabeth asked as nonchalantly as possible.
"Yes, of course," answered Lydia, as though the question were superfluous. "He has even offered to help Mr. Fitton when he is unable to tend to his business himself, but Amy told me her father was most thankful, but did not like to take advantage of Wickham's generosity."
Elizabeth almost snorted at this, but checked herself in time. Wickham helping anyone without an ulterior motive was unbelievable, but at least the Fittons seemed to have seen through his facade of concern and helpfulness. "Most considerate of him," she murmured, without entirely avoiding some sarcasm in her tone, which however Lydia completely missed.
"And what of the daughters?" she enquired. "Miss Amy, was it, and...?"
"Bella," Lydia supplied. "Well, Amy is one and twenty and Bella is nineteen. They are both very pretty and the officers of the regiment and local gentlemen think very highly of them."
"Really?" Elizabeth said, wondering if the sisters might be the primary reason for Wickham's interest in the family. "I suppose their situation, with a sick father whose business is going through troubles and no other relatives who can help, makes it difficult for any man to consider a serious attachment to them?" she probed.
"You would think so," said Lydia in delight, "but wait 'til you hear the rest. Not all know this, but as a friend I am in on the secret. It's true that their father can give them nothing, indeed I believe everything will go to his brother, the uncle they never see. But remember the aunt I mentioned?"
"The one who died two years ago?"
"Yes," Lydia confirmed, almost jumping up and down in excitement, "well, she has left them a dowry each."
"Well, that will be a help to them," said Elizabeth calmly. "Hopefully it will be enough to allow them to marry who they like if the opportunity should arise."
"Enough!" Lydia exclaimed, annoyed by Elizabeth's placid response to what she considered to be first-rate gossip, "It is no less than twenty thousand pounds each!"
"Twenty thousand pounds," Elizabeth repeated numbly. She was surprized. That was the sort of sum that might bring out the worst in people. She again considered Wickham's interest in the Fittons in the light of this revelation. If he had been unmarried she would have found no difficulty in imputing a motive to his attentions. But Wickham was married and so that idea seemed to be mistaken. Perhaps it was seduction rather than monetary gain which had been his object -- at least as far as the sisters were concerned?
"I can understand their wish to keep such information quiet, Lydia," said she thoughtfully. "Two pretty young women with such dowries would be the object of much attention, whether they desired it or not."
Lydia, who had one final piece of information, but was determined to get as much gratification out of its recounting as possible, merely agreed with an attempt at nonchalance, "Yes, though I fear Amy does not take advantage of it as she could, despite my advice."
Elizabeth ignored the temptation to pursue how any woman of one and twenty with sense would feel to be advised by Lydia and, aware that her sister's manner betrayed that she had more to tell, decided to keep to the point. She was determined not to gratify Lydia's vanity, as she was sure Lydia desired, by showing any approbation for her penchant for idle gossip, even if in this case it might prove valuable later. She merely asked calmly, "Oh, how?"
Despite her disappointment that her ruse had failed, Lydia could not refrain from replying, "She is engaged! It was arranged about a month ago."
Puzzled initially by this reply, which seemed to show Miss Fitton taking excellent 'advantage' of her situation, Elizabeth soon discerned that it was the object of Miss Fitton's affections rather than the subject of them that met with Lydia's disapproval. "To whom?"
"To Mr. Sutton," Lydia affirmed, with a dismissive shake of the head.
"And who is Mr. Sutton? And why do you not approve?"
"Oh, he's a lawyer or some such thing," answered Lydia with an indifferent shrug. "I'm sure he is wealthy, anyway, he always seems well turned out. But he is five and forty if he's a day! Though I suppose he is not overly ugly. And she could have her pick of any men hereabouts! If she had informed everyone about her dowry then more may have shown an interest, I told her. Now she is to marry Mr. Sutton, who is no fun at all. No doubt you can understand her reasons, I cannot."
Elizabeth controlled the anger she felt at the last sentence of this statement and, after taking a few seconds pause to regain her composure, asked simply, "Perhaps she loves him?"
Lydia snorted. "Well, I have never seen any evidence of it, I am sure. She never showed the least interest in him before, from what I could see. In fact, I thought her interest lay in quite another quarter."
"People's opinions can change, Lydia," said Elizabeth with some feeling.
"Well, I do not understand it," Lydia replied with emphasis. "Why, when I think of all the officers she could have her choice of! There's Captain Hammond, he's very handsome, and I'm sure would be more than willing to marry her and her twenty thousand pounds. Or Lieutenant Price, he is the best swordsman in the regiment, they say. I am sure...." She continued in this vein for the remainder of the journey, quite oblivious to Elizabeth's quiet and introspective demeanour as she ruminated on what she had heard.
Sir Thomas' carriage passed swiftly through the small village of Woolsington and came to a halt in the lane adjacent to the church of St. Stephen. All three gentlemen dismounted quickly and Darcy took the opportunity to look up and down the lane in order to familiarize himself with the surrounding area. In the direction from which they had just come he could see the tops of three or four houses and, closest of all, approximately a furlong* distant, an ancient inn -- the sign of which proclaimed it to be the "Black Bull". In the other direction the way wound to the left -- presumably towards Ponteland -- through densely situated trees, each side of the lane bordered with thick hedges. In front of them rose the wall which surrounded the churchyard, its height a uniform five feet or so and topped by spikes; except where it was interrupted by the gate which gave access, at which the constable appeared within moments of their arrival.
"Ahh, Hood," Sir Thomas greeted him, "there you are. All is well I trust?"
"Yes sir," Hood replied promptly, "I have the sexton waiting to see you in the vestry when you are ready. Fortunately, he had told only the minister of the discovery and that gentleman seems to have acted in a sensible manner. He instructed the sexton to send a note summoning us and not tell anyone else until we arrived, so the news has not spread and I have not had to keep a crowd at bay."
"Good, then we can proceed without distraction and interference," Sir Thomas said, gratified. He proceeded to introduce the others to the constable, who accepted their presence without any sign of surprize or displeasure. Indeed, he struck Darcy as a man who was rarely discomposed, his phlegmatic and businesslike manner closely matching Sir Thomas' own. He felt he could understand Sir Thomas' confidence in the man, as expressed on their journey; he seemed a cut above the usual type that became beadle or constable, positions which often attracted persons of mean understanding.
"No sign of Tredgold?" Sir Thomas was asking.
"No, sir, not yet."
"No doubt he will be quite soon behind us. Shall we go through and have a look?"
The constable led the way into the churchyard and they all filed through the gate and took a look at their surroundings. The path on which they stood led to the church door, while on either side gravestones and monuments occupied much of the available space. To their right and left the wall which faced the lane turned at right angles and ran to join another which emerged from behind the church, thus creating an area roughly square in shape in which the church was situated in the upper section. About halfway towards the church door a path ran off to the left to the wall on that side and terminated in another gate, identical to the one through which they had entered. Towards this gate, which was closed, they were led by the constable and they had approached to within a few yards of it when Darcy, who by virtue of his eagerness to solve the question which had plagued him since they had first heard Sir Thomas' information and his long stride was the closest to him, halted their progress with a commanding, "Just a moment, constable."
The constable and the others stopped in their tracks and regarded Darcy with unfeigned interest. He was scanning the path in front of them, and passing the constable he approached nearer to the gate until he stood about ten feet from it. He again looked closely at the ground, then turned his attention to look through the gate to the area beyond, approaching it a little way after carefully stepping off the path to one side. The gate was solid except for a section near the top which contained a square aperture some three foot by two, across which some vertical posts ran in turned wood. He could see the body of a man lying face down some thirty yards away, in the middle of the space, and from his vantage point could clearly see the glint of the knife which protruded from its back. He spent a few moments letting his eyes travel all around the space, then turned around and addressed the others in a firm voice.
"Before we proceed, gentlemen, I believe it would be of material assistance to us if we interview the sexton."
The others, who had been watching his progress with a mixture of surprize and curiosity, were struck by his tone, which brooked no disagreement, had it not been an entirely reasonable suggestion. The constable confirmed the assessment of his character by merely nodding in acquiescence at this plan. Perry, who had witnessed Darcy's suppressed excitement and apparent eagerness before to discover the identity of the man lying on the other side of the gate, immediately suspected he had overlooked something Darcy had not, and waited in silence to see if they were to be acquainted with its nature. Sir Thomas seemed to reflect for a moment before replying with a courteous, "Of course, if you wish it. The doctor has not yet arrived and it is best we do not disturb things before he has had an opportunity to make his examinations," he turned to the constable and added, "Hood, perhaps you could fetch him here, unless Mr. Darcy would prefer to interview him inside?"
Darcy intimated that he would prefer the sexton to be shown to where they were and Hood departed with alacrity to fetch him thither, his calm demeanour masking the curiosity he felt at the events of the last few minutes. As he retreated, Darcy scanned the area on the other side of the gate and the pathway again, before turning to Perry and, after looking skywards for a moment, saying to him, "Tell me, has the weather been fair the last two days?"
"Err, well," replied Perry, intrigued by this sudden lapse into small talk, although the inquiry had not been made in a tone which suggested Darcy was merely attempting polite conversation.
"The reason I ask," Darcy persisted, "is that when we departed Derbyshire two days ago, the weather was fine. During that afternoon, it deteriorated and came on to rain by the evening, the rain continuing steadily until the early hours of the morning. It appeared to me that the clouds came from the north, so I wondered if can tell me if it rained here that day, or yesterday, and at what times?"
The Captain, who had followed this at first in some perplexity, now began to see a glimmer of light in the darkness when he considered Darcy's interest in the path and now his enquiry. He smiled and answered, "Yes, I understand. You are correct, it did rain here the day before yesterday. I believe it began at about midday and continued intermittently until very early yesterday morning. I was out early myself and it had stopped recently, shall we say dawn or just after?"
"Thank you. And it has not rained since?"
"I see." Darcy turned away and gazed around again, his eyes distant. Perry began to surreptitiously examine the path himself, without encroaching any further, while Sir Thomas, who had not understood the previous exchange, but was reluctant to own this to the others by further enquiry, merely shrugged his shoulders and awaited the return of the constable in the hope things would begin progressing a little more rapidly.
Within moments, Hood could be seen coming back up the path in company of another, who trailed in his wake as the constable advanced with quick, long strides. He reached the other three some little distance in front and had to wait a moment for the sexton to arrive, before introducing him to them as Mr. Reeve. The sexton's lack of athletic ability was explained when he was revealed to be a small man of fifty or thereabouts, his slightly crooked back and rough hands evidence of his grave-digging duties. His eyes, however, were intelligent and he greeted them with polite deference and enquired how he might be of service.
Sir Thomas led the way with a request he recount how he came to discover the body, to which he agreed with a nod.
"I came out this morning, oh, about nine of the clock, and began to do my work, weeding and such. When I'd been going about an hour, I came over this way, to 'ave a look for a place to put Mrs. Timms, what died two days ago. There's more space left for new graves on this side, see? I should really 'ave started yesterday, but the ground were too wet to dig and firm up the sides, what with the rain, so I left it 'til today, as she isn't being buried 'til three days hence..."
"And what happened next?" asked Sir Thomas in an attempt to keep him to the point.
"As I came up to the end of the path, something caught my eye through the gate. When I got close and seen him, I knew he were dead. I've seen a few in my time, I can tell you, and 'im with that thing sticking out of his back, I knew if were a hanging matter, so I went to see Vicar, and he told me to send word."
"Well, we may want to speak to him later. I don't think there's anything else, unless... Mr. Darcy, have you anything to ask?"
Darcy, who had been quite pleased to let Sir Thomas have his head in the questioning, and quite amused that he had not asked any pertinent questions, nodded and asked without ceremony, "Was the gate locked?"
"Yes, sir," replied the sexton directly, "it usually is."
"How many keys are there?"
"Two. I 'ave one and Vicar 'as one. I gave mine to the constable when 'e arrived."
Darcy nodded. "And when were you last here -- before this morning?"
"Yesterday, sir. I was 'ere all afternoon working, along of my son, Edward."
"And the body was not there then?"
Reeve looked rather startled by the question. "No, sir. We would 'ave seen it."
"Are you sure?" Darcy asked in surprize, "Forgive me, but it would not be easy to observe unless one drew near to the gate. Did you go near it yesterday?"
"No, sir, but we was cutting back that elm tree in the corner," the sexton explained. "I was a good twelve feet up the tree and saw clear into the field."
"I see," said Darcy. "What time did you leave?"
"About an hour before sunset, sir."
"And you were up the tree until then?"
"And the body was not there, and the gate was locked?"
"That's right, sir," the sexton confirmed.
"And since the constable has not been through the gate," Darcy said ruminatively, causing the other three to look at him in surprize, "I take it that you went through this morning when you saw the body?"
"Yes, sir," Reeve admitted, without any trace of discomposure. "I went through to be sure he were dead, and to see if I could recognize who it was. But I could not, sir."
"Can you describe your actions, exactly?"
"I went straight over to 'im, and touched 'is hand. He were cold and stiff. And I didn't recognize 'is face, so I came straight back and went to Vicar."
"Unlocking and re-locking the gate as you went?"
"That's right, sir."
"Thank you." Darcy pondered for a few seconds, during which Sir Thomas and Perry only succeeded in restraining the questions they were longing to ask by observing his concentrated manner. He turned back to Reeve with, "From here it would appear that this is the only means of access into the field. This wall is joined without gap by stout hedges along the lane, and they encircle the field, except for a part I cannot see because of those trees," he indicated the side furthest from the lane. "Is there any other way into the field over that way?"
"Yes, sir, if you're not too particular. That wall behind the church runs on for another fifty foot or so, where it joins the 'edge behind the trees. There's a part of that wall that is fallen -- by the tree roots going under it, I expect. You can get in that way if you don't mind getting your boots a little muddy."
"Thank you, that is most helpful." Darcy indicated he was finished with his enquiries, and the sexton was prevailed upon, after Sir Thomas had thanked him somewhat distractedly, to wait in the lane for the doctor, in order to show him the way when he arrived.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Sir Thomas turned to Darcy and asked, "How did you know that Hood here had not been through the gate and the sexton had?"
Darcy laughed. "Well, it is obvious by observing the path that someone has been through recently. It is clear there is one line of footprints in each direction. Since Perry says that it rained intermittently for nearly eighteen hours until early yesterday morning, it follows that the person went through since then. As to their identity, I could answer that you told us the constable had been instructed not to touch anything, and that he had fulfilled your trust in him. Actually, if you look carefully, you will see the person who came through had a short stride and was slightly unsteady on his feet, which is quite unlike the constable's step. Also, the boots which he wore are a good two sizes smaller than Hood's. I saw his on the pathway when he was leading us towards the gate and they are much larger than the ones which go through."
Sir Thomas and Perry scanned the path to verify these statements. Perry, who had some previous suspicion of what Darcy was trying to clarify, stood up first and asked him quietly, "Why did you insist on seeing the sexton first? You could have confirmed this all after taking a look on the other side of the gate."
"And if he had denied going through?" Darcy countered with his brow raised in query. "I wanted to be sure that those footprints were accounted for before we went through and disturbed anything. If they belonged to the corpse or his attacker we would need to investigate them thoroughly. Now we can enter in the knowledge that we shall not have missed anything."
Sir Thomas had joined them as he finished this response, and congratulated Darcy on his thoroughness, though adding that it did not get them any further.
"I cannot agree, Sir Thomas," Darcy said decidedly. "True it is evidence of a negative kind, but I would merely ask you remember that one -- and only one -- person has been through that gate since yesterday morning."
"You mean, the victim did not come this way?"
"Exactly," Darcy concurred, adding with emphasis, "and neither did the murderer."
"No," Sir Thomas mused. "Let us hope we can find some traces at that other place the sexton mentioned. Shall we go through now?"
The other two expressed their readiness to comply with this suggestion, and Sir Thomas asked Hood to unlock the gate, which he did after taking a large key from his pocket. He stood aside to let them pass and, as they all filed through, Darcy remarked to Perry, "One fortunate consequence of there being only one pair of footprints is that Sir Thomas is saved the task of investigating the likelihood of one of the keys being abstracted, or even copied, as he would have been compelled to do had there been signs several of people passing through the gate. I thought I would ask about the key, though, in case the sexton denied he had left the footmarks."
Perry nodded in understanding. His opinion of Darcy had risen significantly in the last half hour, and he had been reminded by Darcy's interrogation of the sexton of his own similar experience at the hands of Mrs. Darcy the evening before, though the sexton had answered at all times without any sign of discomfort, unlike himself. He again contemplated, with a little amusement, what a well matched pair they were.
By now they were nearing the form sprawled on the ground in the centre of the space, and he watched Darcy for any sign of a return of the uneasiness he had exhibited during the carriage ride. That gentleman, who had seen enough from the gate to answer the question that had been plaguing him during that journey, approached without any outward sign of awkwardness, however.
The man was lying on his front, his face turned away from the direction they approached, and they filed round to the far side to get a closer look, Sir Thomas first, followed by Darcy and Perry. There was silence for a few seconds as they contemplated the sad sight in front of them, then Darcy said quietly, "Well, it is not Wickham."
He had suspected as much from the form of the man as he had observed him through the gate, but to see his conjecture confirmed on closer inspection, thus putting an end to his dreaded suspicions, was gratifying. He realized as he spoke that he was relieved Wickham was not dead, that however much he detested him, he would not have wanted that. "It is not as bad as we feared," he said in relief.
"It may be worse than we feared," came a shocked voice from behind him.
He and Sir Thomas both turned sharply, to see Perry looking on with an expression of horror on his face.
"What do you mean?" They asked in unison, both equally unable to see what could be worse than discovering their quarry dead.
"It is Alfred Sutton," Perry replied numbly.
* Furlong - Old English measure of distance equal to one eighth of a mile (220 yards) i.e. approximately equal to two hundred metres.
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