Love's Arrow Poisoned
"I'll swear he never duns his murderer or heaven; he keeps good hours and goes not late at nights about the churchyard, gossiping with death" - Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Darcy and Captain Perry approached the breach in the wall carefully, the former slightly in advance of his companion, stepping gingerly over the ground in order to avoid destroying any traces that might be discernible, his head bent over in close scrutiny of the area immediately before him. When they had approached to within fifteen feet of the wall, Darcy straightened up abruptly and remarked in a voice of false calm, "We are in luck."
He gestured towards the ground in front of the wall, where a strip of earth, which had been largely denuded of its grassy covering by the traffic of feet and shade -- leaving behind a strip of mud above ten feet deep and covering the whole width of the gap -- revealed the most distinct traces they had hitherto seen. Perry joined him and they stood side by side, contemplating the ground with attention from the position they occupied, without drawing any closer. After a few moments thus engaged, Darcy edged along the side of the strip, leaning forward occasionally to enable himself to better scrutinize the impressions. At one point he laid his stick on the ground and studied the marks attentively, before recommencing his previous activity. When he had almost reached the wall he turned back and, after passing Perry, who still stood unmoving, alternately watching Darcy and studying the ground, he approached the wall along the other side of the strip. Having again advanced almost to the wall, he turned back and approached the Captain, who was now looking exclusively at the marks with concentration again. Darcy remained silent, allowing Perry time to observe and cogitate, and glanced back in the direction from which they had approached.
"What do you make of it?" Perry's voice interrupted his train of thought. He turned his attention back to his companion.
"I should be interested to hear your own observations," Darcy replied. "What do you see?"
Perry regarded the ground again and answered slowly, "I see the tracks of what appear to be three lines of footprints. Two travel in the direction of the body, that is they are pointing into the clearing. One is travelling in the opposite direction, outwards."
"Yes," agreed Darcy, "that's the way I read it too. These," he pointed with his stick to one of the lines of impressions, "are Sutton's."
"How can you infer that?"
Darcy shrugged modestly. "Well, the person who made them entered the clearing, but there is no corresponding line of footsteps to show him leaving. Also, more specifically, they match his boots, which I took a good look at when we were examining the body. See the maker's mark -- that symbol which looks rather like a five-pointed star; I saw it on his soles. You can also see the impressions made by his stick, which we saw beside the body and which he carried in his left hand. The other had no stick, or if he did he possibly carried it 'at the trail', that is by the middle, since he left no such marks with it. How tall was Sutton?"
The Captain considered. "Oh, about five feet and nine inches, though as you saw he was a powerfully built man."
"Then the stride would appear approximately correct as well; it is a good three inches shorter than my own and seems a little deeper than the others, suggesting his extra weight, though the last is a little conjectural."
"What of the other tracks?" asked Perry, impressed.
Darcy smiled. "I understood that we were going to hear your own conclusions."
Perry returned the smile mischievously. "Well, you seem to be making enough deductions to suffice for both of us. Do carry on." He waved his hand in invitation and raised his brow in a manner that bespoke amusement alloyed with keen interest.
"Very well," rejoined Darcy readily, "though it is important to remember that we must separate what is fact from what is inference. We may have to testify to what we have seen before a judge, so it is important that you make your own observations, in order to verify any inferences I make with your own eyes."
Perry nodded his understanding of this point, and Darcy began by beckoning him towards the wall on the left of the gap.
"Look here." He indicated with his stick. "What can you see?"
"It appears," replied the Captain, after studying the footprints for a moment, "as though Sutton, if we assume this track is his, which I think we can given the individuality of the maker's mark, has stepped in one of the prints belonging to the other person."
"Yes," Darcy concurred. "Now look here." He pointed to some marks further along.
Perry looked again. "Ahh, I think I see where you are leading. The opposite has occurred, as we saw in the clearing. The other person had trodden in one of Sutton's footsteps."
"And which direction are the other person's steps travelling?" probed Darcy, eyeing him shrewdly.
"Well, here they are leaving the clearing," Perry answered. He considered for a moment, before returning to the place Darcy had first indicated with increased attention. "In the other, they are entering," he said with suppressed excitement.
"Yes, we have confirmation of what we saw in the clearing. Both of them were here at the same time, though this tells us more then the other traces did. It allows us to conjecture the order of events."
"Yes, I see," said Perry. He began to pace in excitement, as the realization of what the traces appeared to indicate struck him forcibly. "It would seem that the other person entered the clearing first. Then a little later, Sutton comes on the scene and treads in the other's footprints. Later still, the first person leaves, stepping in Sutton's track. Sutton is left behind, and is dead."
Darcy nodded appreciatively at this exposition, though he added cautiously, "The last is not deductible from the footmarks alone, though it is a reasonable inference. We can not tell how much time may have passed between the arrival of the first person and Sutton, nor before the former left. However, since the traces at the gate in the churchyard wall show no one except the sexton went that way and it is far-fetched in the extreme to imagine Sutton stabbed himself in the back, you are probably correct. It would appear that it comes to this -- either some other person whom we have no knowledge of entered the clearing another way, perhaps as we suggested over the wall or through some gap in the hedge, or the person who left those two lines of footprints murdered Sutton."
"Then we have only to identify the person who left those marks and we have our murderer," stated Perry firmly, as though the idea of another trespasser could be dismissed.
"Hmm," Darcy replied non-committally, his eyes fixed on the ground.
"What can we tell about him?" the Captain persisted.
Darcy considered. "Not a great deal, I am afraid. There is no individuality in the footprints as there are in the case of Sutton's to make identification easy should we wish to incorporate or eliminate anyone from our enquiries. But, let us catalogue what information we can in the hope that it will give us some indication, or serve as corroboration if we have reason to suspect anyone in particular."
The unspoken implication of the last of this speech caused Perry to look at him keenly, since there was but one person of whom they had knowledge who might have a motive for Sutton's elimination, given the right circumstances, and his name had not been uttered by either of them. Darcy, who did not feel inclined at that moment to pursue the idea, noticed the look but ignored it, and Perry refrained from direct comment, as he was eager to hear Darcy's interpretation of the tracks and was convinced they would be obliged to discuss the other matter before too long.
They both studied the trails in silence for some little time, each moving over the whole area and pausing to closely examine any particularly distinct impressions. After a few minutes, during which no words were spoken, Perry saw Darcy again lay his stick on the ground beside one line of footprints and enquired, "You did that before, what is the object?"
Darcy looked up. "I am measuring the length of the stride. My stick is thirty-three inches in length, and the distance between these two prints twenty-nine or thirty inches, about the same as my own stride. He was a tall man."
"He could not have been running or hurrying in some way which would increase the length of his stride and give a false impression?" Perry enquired.
His companion regarded him with undisguised respect. "Good point, but no I do not believe so. The impression of his boots is even. If he had been running the toes would be deep and we would hardly see the heels in the ground. The same applies to a lesser extent if he was hurrying, but I can see no indication of it."
Perry nodded. "Anything else?"
"I would suggest he was a young, active man." Darcy offered.
"How do you reach that conclusion?"
For answer Darcy beckoned him near the wall on the right hand side of the gap. "Look here."
The Captain studied the ground for a moment then shook his head, "I am sorry, I do not see..."
"Well, rather than walk straight through the middle of the breach in the wall, our man seems to have stepped onto the stones on this side. They are only a foot or so high at that point, but he has taken a large stride from the top into the clearing. The first print is above forty inches from the wall, and deeper than the rest, which suggests he is young and fit, for an older man would have walked through the middle. They also suggest he came towards the gap from the direction of the village, as he was on that side, which we should verify by taking a look at any impressions on the other side of the wall when we have finished here."
Perry nodded in appreciation, "Yes, I see. You are very observant, sir."
Darcy felt a small surge of gratification at this praise, but a moment's self-reflection enabled him to quash it effectively. "Not always," said he wryly, thinking of one or two occasions when had been less successful in his inferences concerning two sisters from Hertfordshire. He shook this thought off and suggested, "The man who could really tell us about all these tracks is my groom, Farrow. That man could track a deer for miles through the forest when the autumn leaves are down. His father was head-keeper to my father and myself before his death and he taught me some of his tracking skills; and his son has inherited his talent, as well as his knowledge. I think it would be advantageous to have his opinion on all of this; and he is by far the best person to look over the rest of the ground for any other traces we may have missed -- someone climbing over the wall or through the hedge as we postulated before. I believe I will send a note off to summon him when we rejoin Sir Thomas and Doctor Tredgold, provided there is no objection."
"I can not believe there will be. But, pardon me, sir, you do not really believe that he will find evidence of any other person do you?"
Darcy considered this carefully, then shook his head. "No, I do not," he admitted. "It is just...some parts of this seem quite clear, others not so."
"Yes," Perry agreed, "there are one or two things which puzzle me as well."
His companion eyed him with interest. "Such as?"
"Well, firstly," ventured Perry, "how came Sutton and... well, the other man, to be here at all? I would not have thought it a likely spot for a private conference. And when they do get here, they walk into the middle of the clearing, where they can be seen clearly by any passing stranger. They did not even move out of sight of the gap in the wall. I do not understand that."
Darcy smiled tolerantly. "You believe they would have done better to have hidden themselves behind the wall or amongst the trees?"
"Yes, it would seem more discreet."
"More discreet, but also more dangerous," countered Darcy promptly. "If they had done so, they would have been far more susceptible to anyone intent on eavesdropping on their discourse. No, if you want to discuss something privately without interruption, the centre of a field -- or anywhere where you can have forewarning of any approach -- is an excellent place to choose."
Perry's eyebrows rose in surprize. "I had not thought of it that way, no doubt you are correct."
"Also the risk of being observed may be less than we think. The chances of anyone passing the gap are small, especially if we consider the likely time they were here," Darcy continued.
"How can we deduce that?"
"Remember what the sexton told us," Darcy reminded him. "He told us that he looked into the field an hour or so before sunset yesterday and it was empty, yet when he reached the body this morning it was cold and stiff. That suggests it happened last evening, possibly around sunset as it would be hazardous to be here after dark, when a light might be necessary; and you would want enough light to observe your counterpart in a business meeting, which we must assume it was, given what we know of Sutton." He pondered for a moment, then apparently struck by a thought added ruminatively, "Though if it was after dusk, it may explain one of the things which is unclear to me."
"Which is?" quizzed the Captain, intrigued.
Darcy raised his arms wide in indication. "Look at those marks. If you had come here, met a man, murdered him by stabbing him in the back and then walked calmly away, would you leave those tell-tale footprints behind you?"
Perry smiled grimly. "Your point is a good one, sir," he responded after some consideration, "but I am by no means convinced that any particular attention would have been paid to these traces had you not been one of the party. Sir Thomas obviously did not grasp the significance of the evidence at the churchyard gate and though he may have made it his business to check this area, I find it hard to believe he would have extracted as much information as you have out of what traces there are. There does not appear to be any individuality to the footmarks of the second man as there are in Sutton's with their maker's mark, so we have only your surmises as to his height and age -- not conclusive evidence in itself."
"True," Darcy acknowledged, unconvinced, "but it was still a risk."
"Perhaps the choice of location was not within the murderer's control?" suggested Perry.
"In what way?"
"If Sutton and... well, whoever is responsible met by appointment..."
"Which they must have, surely," Darcy interjected, "to be in so secluded a place, far from Sutton's -- and probably the murderer's -- usual locale."
"Yes, then perhaps it was Sutton who chose the place and the murderer was forced to take advantage of the opportunity presented, without considering the risk too closely. He could be fairly confident that the body would not be discovered until at least this morning, ample time to get away if that was his intention."
This conjecture, matching as it did the assumed activities of the gentleman they had both avoided mentioning thus far, was received less than enthusiastically, though Darcy was forced to concede its plausibility. "Yes," he replied heavily and pondered again.
After a few moments silence, Perry broke into his reverie again by asking him to elucidate what other aspects of the situation remained unclear to him and Darcy responded with a wry grimace. "One, I am sure, has occurred to you. You said before that one or two things puzzled you."
"Yes, the location of their tete-a-tete was one. The other was the wound."
"Exactly, that struck me as soon as we saw the body." Darcy paused a moment to gather his thoughts, then turned to Perry and continued in the manner of an advocate cross-questioning a witness. "You are Alfred Sutton, lawyer and money-lender. Your business is often conducted with desperate and insecure people who do not look upon you with a friendly eye. You make an appointment to meet one of your business associates in a secluded spot at a quiet time of day, obviously with the intention of ensuring that you will not be observed or interrupted. You arrive as arranged and your appointee is already here waiting and you engage in the interview that brought you hither. Do you then conveniently turn your back on the other person, giving him the perfect opportunity to dispatch you? It beggars belief!"
"Yes," the Captain agreed, "Sutton was altogether too downy a bird to do such a thing. It is most confusing. I can not imagine what caused him to let down his guard in such a manner, he always struck me as a careful man who could see well ahead. I have never heard of anyone getting the better of him in a battle of wits."
"Well, someone got the better of him this time, and the consequences were fatal," Darcy supplied grimly. He considered for a moment, then suggested, "Perhaps we should confine ourselves to gathering intelligence for the present and leave the exercise of trying to interpret it until a more appropriate time."
Perry agreed, and Darcy suggested that they take at look at the ground on the other side of the wall, as he had proposed earlier, a scheme which Perry accepted readily. They passed through the gap by climbing over the low stones that remained on the left hand side, thus avoiding disturbing any traces as well as they could. A few moments on the other side enabled them to gather what information they required, since although there was evidence that the pathway which stood some feet away running parallel to the wall was quite well used, again only three tracks ran between it and the gap.
Perry was the first to break the silence. "It appears that you were correct, sir. The other man did come from the direction of the village, and seems to have returned that way too."
"Yes, the knowledge may prove useful. It would be worthwhile to have enquiries made there to ascertain if anyone observed a stranger pass through yesterday afternoon or evening, though if he came with the intention to commit murder he would have attempted to keep out of sight as much as possible."
"That is true enough, and if he was returning to Newcastle there may be a way to return there that does not require him to pass through the village at all. The sexton may be able to help us with the local topography."
Darcy nodded. "Sutton came from the same direction, which suggests he came here from Newcastle, though his movements will have to be examined and verified if possible. I wonder if he kept a pocketbook or some other record of his appointments? It would be too much to hope that he kept any details of his 'clients' on him, though a thorough search of his chambers may reveal some information."
"A good idea," said Perry, "and, speaking of pocketbooks, do you think it would be helpful for me to make some notes and simple drawings of these traces? It will not take more than a few minutes and would make it easier to describe the situation to anyone else, later on."
"It is an excellent idea, I was going to suggest something similar to Sir Thomas when we rejoined him and the doctor." They passed back into the clearing in the same manner they had departed it and, after looking over in the direction of the aforementioned doctor and magistrate, who along with the Constable were still gathered around the prostrate form on the ground, Darcy continued, "They seem to be still engaged in their examinations, so why do not you proceed?"
Perry nodded and fell to work on the task immediately, drawing a simple diagram of the area to illustrate the way the tracks interacted with each other, and then began to make some notes to clarify any details the sketch could not depict. As he worked, Darcy initially remained silent, taking the opportunity to again study the ground and glancing up from time to time at the party in the centre of the clearing. He broke the silence only once during these occupations, to enquire of Perry, "What would you estimate the distance from here to where the body lies to be?"
The Captain looked up and cogitated for a moment, his eyes travelling back and forth between the two locations. "Somewhere between two and three chains*, but nearer two, I would hazard," offered he tentatively. When Darcy made no response beyond a non-committal nod, he returned his attention to his note-taking.
After a few minutes, Perry indicated that his undertaking was complete and suggested that they rejoin the doctor and Sir Thomas. Darcy, realising that now was the last chance to accomplish his earlier resolution regarding the latter, acquiesced but did not immediately make any movement towards the other party, instead turning to his companion and beginning hesitantly, "Captain, before we do, I must confer with you on a somewhat delicate matter."
Perry nodded, indicating his readiness to listen, but offering no other encouragement, and Darcy meditated on the best method to convey his apprehension at the way Sir Thomas might view their suspicions regarding Wickham's dealings with Sutton. After a short deliberation, he continued, "Captain, I have no desire to cast aspersions on Sir Thomas' ability to fulfil his duty as magistrate, nor on his impartiality in carrying out that office. I am sure he would not want to see any innocent person convicted of this terrible crime. However, my intention in coming here was to clear up this Wickham business as promptly and inconspicuously as possible -- with the minimum of publicity. No doubt, viewing the matter from the standpoint of a superior officer in his regiment, you can appreciate this desire."
"Certainly, sir," answered Perry readily, "as I mentioned in my express, the reputation of the regiment is a great concern to myself, and to the General of course. I am convinced he would want to protect it from any damage that might result from Mr. Wickham's activities. But what are you suggesting, sir?"
"Certainly not concealment," Darcy assured him promptly. "Merely that we adopt some caution in relating information that might cause Sir Thomas to raise a public hue and cry for Wickham -- that we confine ourselves to facts and not conjectures in our communications. Otherwise, whether Wickham is involved in this or not, his recent activities will be known all over Newcastle by sunset."
"Agreed," the Captain concurred, "if Wickham is not involved, then nothing would be gained by broadcasting his connection with Sutton."
"I am glad we see this the same way."
"Yes, but..." Perry hesitated.
"What is it?"
"What if he is responsible?" asked Perry apprehensively.
"Then he can take what's coming to him," replied Darcy grimly. "Come, let us rejoin the others."
Elizabeth was rather surprized, considering the manner in which their visit had proceeded thus far, when Amelia extended an invitation to the visitors to join them for luncheon. Her sister Bella seconded this request with enthusiasm, adding the further proposal that they take a walk in the neighbouring park beforehand. Elizabeth, having spent two days in the confined space of the Darcy carriage -- and then having been compelled by circumstance and her husband's attentiveness to use it again so far that day -- would have been delighted by the prospect merely for the sake of her health, notwithstanding the opportunity it might offer to effect a separation from Lydia; so she could converse with one of the sisters without the hindrance that her presence occasioned.
Lydia seemed delighted by Amelia's suggestion, though rather less so by the other, if her facial expressions were any indication, but Elizabeth was in no mood to subjugate her wishes to her sister's preferences after her immature and tactless display to date. Consequently, she accepted both the invitations with alacrity and -- since Lydia was determined that she should be a party to all the interaction between her sister and her 'friends' -- ten minutes later saw the four young women strolling together in the pleasant though rather confined space of the local gardens. Once again the misfortune fell upon
Miss Amelia, as she was the one who found herself walking beside Lydia, since the path was too narrow to admit them all. However, as this arrangement suited the latter -- since she was not insensible to Miss Bella's lack of warmth toward her and felt sure Miss Amelia would desire her advice on her forthcoming nuptials -- and Amelia was becoming inured to Lydia's behaviour, they each managed to bear it with fortitude.
Elizabeth and Bella strolled in advance of the other pair and at first, aware of the dangers of being overheard, limited their conversation to safe topics. Elizabeth took the opportunity to enquire more particularly about Mr. Fitton, and her companion thanked her expressively for her concern.
"Indeed," continued she, "as you can imagine, it has been a very trying experience for us to see him as he is -- a shadow of the strong, self-reliant man he was formerly. Our mothers death, twelve years ago, was a major blow, of course, but our aunt was a great help to him in raising Amelia and myself and I must say -- though I accept I am hardly an impartial witness -- I believe was as good a father as anyone could wish for. Since my aunt's death, however, the situation has become difficult. First, his health began to fail and that naturally had an effect on his business, which he has always conducted with vigour and integrity. Unfortunately, the state of his affairs has put further strain on his constitution and that is the very thing that must be avoided at all costs."
"How distressing for you," exclaimed Elizabeth sympathetically. "Pray, if I am not intruding on you private concerns, what does the doctor say? Has he told you the exact nature of your father's condition? What is his prognosis?"
"Of course you are not intruding Mrs. Darcy, please do not imagine so." Bella took Elizabeth's hand briefly and pressed it in a gesture of reassurance. "In fact I am glad to speak of it. The doctor informs us that although there has been a general decline in my father's condition, due to some organic disease, the most serious problem is a disorder of the heart -- an aneurysm is the precise term, I understand. The doctor was at first reticent to go into any more detailed explanation, but I would not rest until I knew all the particulars and so he finally admitted that there is no hope of recovery. He communicated that a sudden shock or any physical overexertion could prove fatal, and though he told us that if he was careful my father could live for several years yet, he admitted that the end could be sudden and unexpected. That is the most difficult part of our current situation -- the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring."
"So serious? I had not realized," said Elizabeth. She glanced back to observe that the other two had by this time fallen behind far enough to enable her to venture further. "And how is he contending with the news of your sisters engagement? Do you not worry if the prospect of losing his eldest daughter might be detrimental to his well-being?"
Bella looked at her keenly for a moment. "I was not aware you knew of that," she said in surprize, then after a few seconds contemplation her expression changed to one of understanding. "Of course," she added almost to herself, "Mrs Wickham must have communicated our news to you; but, indeed, you need have no concern on that score; my father is very much in favour of the match."
"I am glad to hear it, for it would be most distressing to your sister, I am sure, should her choice not be acceptable to your father with his health in a fragile state. Especially as he must in any case be rather wary of any possible suitor for yourself or your sister, considering your aunt's generous provision for you both."
Elizabeth thought she saw Bella's eyes flicker again in shock at this speech, but the expression was so fleeting she could not be certain that her own eyes had not deceived her. Almost before she had even begun contemplating what she thought she had seen, Bella turned and regarded her openly, and her look conveyed both intelligence and candour. She smiled warmly.
"Yes, that is why we have been reticent to broadcast the information too widely. However," she glanced back to Lydia and her sister, who were by now fully fifty yards behind them, and her smile faded, "sometimes it is not possible to keep these things quiet -- especially if the intelligence is of interest to certain people."
Though she was convinced it was not Bella's intention, this disclosure caused Elizabeth to begin to feel a distinct discomfort at the role she had adopted in order to gather knowledge about the Wickhams' situation. She had set out to accumulate any facts that seemed relevant indiscriminately, but felt a twinge of guilt at prying into the Fittons' affairs -- especially by utilizing information Lydia should not have been communicating. Perhaps, if she had been feeling slightly less generous, she would have told herself that the Fittons should have known better than to informed Lydia of anything they did not want all of Newcastle to know within hours -- even allowing for the fact they were relatively new acquaintances unaware of her lack of tact -- and must accept the consequences. But reflecting that as regards Amelia's engagement they had not done so, and her source had informed her about their dowries without their knowledge or consent, she could not but feel some qualms about her methods. This feeling was intensified by the fact that she had taken an instant liking to both of the sisters. Amelia's placid and pragmatic manner reminded her a little of Charlotte Collins' -- she would have said her sister Jane had not Amelia obviously experienced enough to convince her the world could not be viewed through rose-tinted spectacles -- and Bella's forthright and open manner, which she combined to such effect with her good-humour, could not fail to make anyone warm to her. She stopped and turned to her companion.
"I am sorry, Miss Fitton," said she sincerely, "if my sister's lack of discretion has caused your family any difficulty. Please forgive me for mentioning the subject -- it is none of my concern." She turned to resume her stroll, her face averted in embarrassment when a hand on her elbow stilled her. She looked up to see Bella regarding her with a combination of alarm and sympathy.
"Mrs. Darcy, please...did I not say just a moment ago that you were not intruding and that I was thankful of the opportunity to talk to you?" Elizabeth nodded. "Do you have some reason to doubt my sincerity?" Bella asked.
"No, certainly not, but you were speaking of your father, not your sisters engagement or your monetary expectations," replied Elizabeth in an expressionless voice.
"So we were," acknowledged Bella with a grin, after a moments contemplation. "But please put your mind at ease." She glanced back again to regard the others, who had reduced the gap between them but still lagged some distance behind, and, keeping her eyes fixed on them, said earnestly, "Whatever Mrs. Wickham's faults may be you are not responsible for her. I am sure that you could be trusted to keep any private communication to yourself, if requested."
"And anyway...." continued Bella, turning back to look directly at Elizabeth, "now my sister is engaged there is no longer any need for concealment, is there?"
"Not in her case, perhaps," answered Elizabeth, her equilibrium somewhat restored, "but what about yourself? You will no doubt not be too long behind Amelia in entering the state of matrimony. You can not wish the details of your aunt's will to become general knowledge, surely? You would be the subject of so much attention -- much of it unwelcome, I daresay."
Bella laughed heartily, a musical sound that dispersed any remnants of uneasiness between the two women. "Do you distrust my ability to handle myself in such a situation, Mrs. Darcy?" she teased. "Perhaps you think I will fall for the first handsome man with a sad story that comes into my path?"
Elizabeth flinched involuntarily at that question, though she was sure it was asked without any intention to inflict pain, although the slight emphasis in Bella's address and the completely unguarded look which accompanied it gave her pause. "No, indeed," was all the response she could manage.
"Or perhaps you believe that the choice might be so great that I will be incapable of making any decision at all, and spend my days encouraging so many suitors that I shall earn a reputation as a tease and my character will be forever tainted?" She glanced back briefly at Lydia and her sister as she said this and raised her brow.
Elizabeth, sensing that far more was being communicated than Bella's words might imply, decided that her best response was to adopt the same attitude. She followed Bella's gaze and replied, "No, I am convinced -- given your appraisal of the men of the regiment -- that you can be decided enough when the occasion demands. As for the other, I am sure you can recognise insincerity when you come across it -- even if some others are taken in by it." She turned her eyes from Lydia back to her companion and quirked her brow in return.
Bella laughed again, took her arm, and resumed a rapid pace down the path. "I am glad to see we are in agreement," said she, her light tone belied by the expressive look in her eye, which convinced Elizabeth that she had not imagined the subtext of their discussion. They walked in silence for a short time, till Bella slowed their pace and said, "But, to return to our original subject, you have no cause for alarm where I am concerned. The knowledge of my dowry can not harm me, as I have no intention of getting married."
"Ahh, you say that now," Elizabeth retorted playfully, "but that is probably because you have not yet met the right person. One day, I am sure, the right man will come along, and then..."
"I don't think so," said Bella, her tone tinged with only the merest trace of wistfulness, to Elizabeth's surprize.
"I can understand," said she, unsure of the correct response to this rather fatalistic attitude, uncharacteristic as it appeared to be, and groping slightly in the dark to determine its origin, "that if a persons experiences in....that area are at first not successful they might convince themselves that they have no chance of finding happiness. But I am sure it will happen. And, with your dowry, at least you should not have any monetary considerations to interfere in your choice."
"Perhaps," Bella replied as if unconvinced. "But," she added in a brighter tone, "at least I am not completely dependent on marriage to ensure my future security."
"Did your sister not tell you?" asked Bella mischievously. "Do not worry, I believe she was unaware of all the particulars. You see, the money comes to me on my twenty-fifth birthday, if I am still unmarried."
"I did not know," said Elizabeth simply.
"So you see," continued Bella, "in seven years or so I will be able to do what I please, within reason of course."
"And until then...?" The question hung in the air for a few moments.
"Yes," Bella said, in the most sombre tone she had used thus far, "as you say. Until then I am dependent on others."
"I am sure," Elizabeth assured her, hoping to address her unspoken fear, "that should anything happen to your father, your sister and her new husband will do all they can for you, Miss Fitton."
"Yes," Bella said as though her mind were elsewhere, "I am sure."
She squeezed Elizabeth's arm as if she were thanking her for her sympathy and appeared to emerge from her reverie. "And please," she added, "call me Bella?"
When Darcy and the Captain rejoined the other gentlemen, Sir Thomas immediately made enquiries as to whether their investigation of the area near the wall had yielded any results. Darcy admitted with studied modesty that they had made some progress, adding, "We found definite traces of two persons. One of them, as you may have anticipated, was Sutton; we could discern his track quite easily from the fact that it entered the clearing and did not leave again and because the footprints matched the pattern on the soles of his boots." He indicated towards the feet of the corpse, which had been turned over during their absence, no doubt to facilitate the doctor in his examinations, and now lay on its back alongside the place it had previously occupied. "The other person is not so easily identified, unfortunately, as his tracks show no singular characteristics by which we might recognise him again; we can only estimate his height, which appeared a little above the average. We were also able to deduce the order of their arrival -- the other man first and then Sutton -- and that they both appeared to come from the direction of Newcastle, the unidentified man also returning that way. Since the traces are ephemeral, Perry has made some diagrams and notes that will help explain it to anyone else at a later date."
"Excellent," responded the magistrate, impressed by their reasoning and thoroughness, "that will prove most helpful. I will look over the area when we are finished here, so I can say with truthfulness that I saw things at first hand, though I am sure I will not discover anything you have missed."
"I am sure you are too modest, Sir Thomas," said Darcy, "and remember, a fresh pair of eyes can sometimes observe something which was overlooked before."
"True," Sir Thomas concurred.
"And how have your enquiries progressed?" asked Darcy.
"Tredgold?" Sir Thomas addressed the doctor, who was engaged in returning his instruments to his bag, a few feet away.
He snapped his bag shut and rose to join them. "He was killed by a single, savage blow," he informed them without ceremony, "which deflected from a rib before piercing the heart, and would have caused almost instantaneous death. I can not recall ever having seen a wound that penetrated so deeply. His assailant must have been a powerful man, the blade was imbedded up to the hilt."
"I see," said Darcy thoughtfully. "And the weapon?"
For reply the doctor handed him an object which had been wrapped in a kerchief. Darcy took it and, drawing back the cloth folds, contemplated it for some moments, balancing it in his hands as though to test it weight and studying every part of it intensively. It was approximately ten inches in length and uniformly narrow all the way along, before tapering to a fine point, both edges of which were honed to razor-like sharpness. It lacked any protrusion or shoulder where the blade joined the handle, which was almost as circular as a rod, and was unadorned by leather or other protection. It was not heavy, but when he flexed it slightly in his hands he could observe that it was strong; he could not be certain of its composition, but the lack of weight allied with the sturdiness led him to speculate it was made of some kind of light, tempered steel.
"This is rather singular," stated Darcy at length.
"Yes," agreed Sir Thomas, "it is certainly unlike any kind of knife I have ever seen before."
"I have," ventured Darcy, to the others' surprize, "though not in this country, but during my grand tour. It is quite similar to what the Italians call a 'stiletto', a long thin knife used as a weapon in that country. This is hardly the most practical example I have seen, though."
He handed it to the waiting Perry, who after likewise studying it carefully, agreed. "Yes, the absence of any guard or covering on the hilt makes it difficult to understand how it could have been used with such force. The man must have been wearing gloves at least, or it would slip through his hand as he struck." He refrained from adding that at least the murderer had not used a military dagger, which would have escalated their suspicions of a certain gentleman.
Darcy turned back to the doctor. "And there were no other wounds or signs of a struggle?"
"One," the doctor answered with a knowing smile, "and only one; apart from some light bruising on his face from when he fell on it. Here." He beckoned them towards the corpse and indicated the white shirtfront of the dead man, and Darcy and Perry craned their necks to observe where his finger pointed. A small irregular hole with singed edges, through which they could see discoloured skin, told them enough to conjecture what had occurred.
"It looks like a burn," conjectured the Captain.
"Quite correct," Tredgold nodded, "and it was caused by this." He reached into the pocket of his coat and drew out a long thin cigar, flattened out by the weight which had been laying upon it. "We found it under the body," he informed them, "when we turned it over. It would appear he was smoking it when he was attacked."
"May I?" Darcy asked, indicating that he wished to make a closer inspection of it.
"Of course." The doctor handed it over, and he scrutinized it carefully, paying particular attention to both ends.
"An expensive cigar," he mused, after a few moments. "These are made in the Dutch East Indies and are of an unusual length for their thickness, not a common cigar by any means. Smoked without a holder, I see," he indicated the clearly visible teeth marks at one end. "Did you find his cigar case?"
"Yes," supplied Sir Thomas, "Hood here has all the personal effects from the body." He gestured to the Constable, who from the cavernous pocket of his greatcoat withdrew a large handkerchief with its corners tied together to enclose several items. Untying one knot and reaching in, he picked out a leather cigar case and handed it to Darcy. That gentleman took it, and opening it, examined the contents.
"Three more exactly alike, though untouched, of course," he commented. He compared the length of one of the unsmoked cigars to the exhibit Tredgold had handed him. "He had smoked only about half an inch of this before he was interrupted, which could have occupied no more than a matter of a few minutes. It must have dropped from his mouth when he was attacked." He studied the ground where the body had originally lain. "Yes, see here, there are two round depressions in the grass. I would venture they were created by his knees. He probably collapsed on to those first, then fell forward onto his face."
"Seems quite likely," the doctor agreed blandly, as though the point was an unimportant one.
Darcy, seemingly satisfied that he had extracted all the information he could from that clue, did not pursue this train of thought further, merely handing the cigar case back to Hood and asking of Sir Thomas, "What else did you find on the body?"
The magistrate answered this with a look which Darcy would, in other circumstances, have interpreted as conveying sardonic amusement, his lips forming a slight smirk and his eyes twinkling with humour. A glance passed between Sir Thomas and the Constable, who, however, betrayed no emotion whatsoever, and Darcy felt a conviction that something unusual had been discovered, though it seemed probable from their reactions that the magistrate and his assistant were having difficulty deciphering its relation to the rest of the evidence. For direct answer, however, Sir Thomas merely turned to the Constable and prompted, "Hood?"
The Constable opened the bundle in his hands fully this time and, bending down onto one knee, laid the handkerchief on the ground, allowing Darcy and the Captain to get a glimpse of its contents. Their eyes travelled over the group of objects revealed and both immediately observed, lying on the top and obscuring, by dint its size, most of the other contents, one of the items that they had earlier discussed hoping to see.
"That looks like some kind of pocket-book. I wond..." began Perry.
"Yes," interrupted Darcy eagerly, "is there any note which might give us an indication of whether he came here in consequence of a specific appointment, and who the other person might be?"
"See for yourself," the magistrate answered, his voice tinged with a little frustration. He nodded to Hood, who reached down and, retrieving the object deliberately, passed the slim leather-bound book to Darcy. That gentleman opened it with a face which betrayed both anticipation and keen interest but, when he had rapidly perused a couple of pages, his countenance changed to one of chagrin and disappointment and he fully understood Sir Thomas' earlier reaction. He continued to hold it in his hand for several moments, looking off into the distance, apparently deep in thought.
"Can you decipher it?" asked Sir Thomas, breaking into his reverie.
"No," admitted Darcy, "it appears to be written in some kind of code or private shorthand, though a longer perusal later may enable us to unravel it. Perry?" He handed it to the Captain, who scanned several pages with a bewildered look before returning it to the Constable.
"Looks like gibberish," commented Perry, "just a mixture of odd letters and cursive symbols. No doubt it has some meaning, but its certainly no military code that I've seen before."
"No help there then," Darcy said grimly. He turned his attention back to Sir Thomas, "Let us see what else you found."
"Oh, the usual," answered that gentleman with a shrug, "except that he was carrying more money than I would have expected; but nothing remarkable or out of the ordinary."
"The ordinary can often be most revealing," Darcy rejoined, struggling to keep the exasperation he felt at Sir Thomas' somewhat casual attitude from his voice. "May we see?"
"Of course," the magistrate said, "Hood?"
The Constable pulled the corners of the kerchief out, spreading it flat and began the task of disentangling the jumble of items into some order. "Pocket-knife, tinder box, comb, pocket-watch, a bill from his tailor..." he recited as he worked.
"Did you find his keys?" interrupted Darcy, as this inventory was progressing.
"Yes, sir," Hood replied, separating them from the loose coins at the bottom of the pile and handing them over. Darcy took them and studied them with a look of confusion, but without comment. It was a sizeable bunch, containing three larger keys, which were obviously door keys -- presumably for Sutton's house or chambers -- and several smaller keys, which appeared to belong to items like bureaux or small cash-boxes.
"Anything wrong?" asked Perry quietly, after he had stood thus for some moments.
"What?" replied Darcy startled, emerging from his reverie. "Er, no..." he continued aside to the Captain, "we cannot be sure they are all here of course, but...well, it is just that I was not really expecting these to be discovered on the body."
Perry pondered that reply profoundly, while Darcy returned the keys to Hood, who placed them back among Sutton's other belongings. "What about the money Sir Thomas mentioned?" Darcy asked the Constable.
"Here, sir." Hood passed him a purse. "We found this in his pocket. It contains about twenty pounds in gold and notes. There was also the loose change you can see here," he indicated the coins which had lain among the other items, "in his other pockets -- about thirty shillings altogether."
"But Sir Thomas said that you found more money then you were expecting to find," Darcy prompted, when he and Perry had verified the Constable's statement by looking through the purse.
"Yes, we also found this." Hood drew something out of his other greatcoat pocket and passed it to Darcy, who having unrolled it, discovered that it was a leather money-belt, designed to be worn around the waist.
"Ahh," said he, opening it to reveal a thick wad of banknotes.
"He was wearing it under his waistcoat," provided Hood.
"Two hundred pounds," Sir Thomas supplied, relieving Darcy of the necessity of counting it.
"Exactly two hundred?" asked Darcy.
Hood nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Interesting," mused Perry.
"Yes," concurred Sir Thomas. "What do you say, Darcy?"
"What are your own thoughts, Sir Thomas?" that gentleman countered, in an attempt to avoid revealing the suspicion that he had formed.
"Well," the magistrate responded, apparently not the least discomposed by this evasion. "I would say this represents some kind of payment he received for...well, from one of his clients, say."
"That sounds reasonable," allowed Darcy.
"And since it is a round figure," Sir Thomas continued relentlessly, "I would conjecture that this was only part payment for whatever 'services' Sutton performed for whoever gave him this."
"I wonder you ask my opinion, when you appear to have made some fine deductions yourself," Darcy said evenly. "Have you managed to put a name to this mystery person?"
Sir Thomas' countenance fell slightly. "No," he admitted. "If we could read his pocket-book we might find the answer. But Sutton would hardly walk about with that kind of sum on him for any long period. I believe that he came here to meet someone; and that person gave this two hundred pounds to him."
Darcy seemed to cogitate unhappily on this for some seconds, then his face cleared. "I believe you are right, but we have at present no clue to that persons identity. And if what you describe is an accurate portrayal of what transpired, then several rather intriguing questions follow."
"Such as...?" goaded Sir Thomas.
Darcy smiled at the obviousness of this tactic and replied, "We can discuss that at our leisure later, when we have gathered all the information that we are able. Was there anything else among Sutton's belongings that was out of the ordinary?"
Sir Thomas looked disappointed that his attempt had failed, though he bore it with fortitude. "See for yourself," said he, without any trace of anger, indicating the collection Hood had laid out on the ground. Darcy and Perry let their eyes travel over everything slowly, without observing anything that called for further discussion.
"Nothing there," Perry commented.
"No," agreed Darcy. He stood in silent meditation for a moment, then observed Sutton's hat and stick lying on the floor several feet away, where they had been placed by the Constable so they would not interfere with the doctors examinations. He walked over and picked up the hat first, turning it over and studying the inside with attention, then continuing his inspection by observing the outside minutely. Perry followed him and, while he was engaged, picked up the stick absently and made his own inspection, though his face betrayed no indication that anything of real interest was the result.
"Finest quality," observed Darcy aloud, "hand made, silk lining, a particular man in his dress and toilet, it would appear." He gestured towards the impeccably attired corpse.
"Mmm," agreed Perry inattentively, a look of confusion crossing his face as he continued to scrutinise the stick. "This would appear to match the traces we discovered," he indicated the ferrule at one end, "but..." he trailed off.
"What is it?" Darcy asked with interest.
Perry did not answer immediately, passing his hand up and down the length of the shaft tentatively, as though feeling for something. "Just a moment," he replied.
The other three had now crowded round, aware by his demeanour that something was afoot, and they watched with anticipation as the Captain's face bespoke his intense concentration, before suddenly breaking into a wry grin. "Ahh," said he in satisfaction, "I believe I have it." There was a sharp click and then Perry stood before them, the stick separated into two sections; one consisting of the bottom three quarters, and the other of the top section, attached to which was a long, fine sword blade. He tested it for weight and balance, swinging it with precision -- though still with enough energy to cause Sir Thomas and Doctor Tredgold to step back hastily with alarmed expressions -- before stilling his movements and inspecting it carefully.
"What wonderful work," said he in admiration, "it is a first class blade, and the balance is extraordinary for a swordstick; I can not recall ever seeing one of a higher quality." He passed it to Darcy, hilt first as convention demanded, and that gentleman verified his statements with a few manoeuvres of his own, before surveying it meticulously.
"Indeed," agreed Darcy at length. "Undoubtedly hand-made, probably to his own specifications, and with absolutely no expense spared, judging by the quality of the blade; it is certainly not a novelty piece, or some such souvenir -- it was designed to be used, and to be extremely effective if the occasion demanded."
"Yes," concurred the Captain, "Mr Sutton obviously took his personal safety very seriously, if this is any indication. If his skill with it was anything like as good as that of the craftsman who fashioned it, then it would be most unfortunate for any assailant."
"And yet," Darcy countered, musingly, "he never got the opportunity to use it to defend himself against his attacker."
They all considered this in silence for some moments, each lost in his own contemplations as to how a man who was evidently so much on his guard could have been dispatched without apparently putting up any self-defence.
"Now, doctor, a critical question," Darcy continued, after a short pause. "At what time would you estimate that death occurred?"
The others watched the doctor cogitate profoundly on this question, his lips pursed contemplatively. "Hmm, well I can hardly say to within an hour or so," he began reluctantly, "but, judging from the fact that the cadaveric rigidity is fully established and the condition of the bruises on his face where he fell, I would conjecture that it would be last evening, an hour or two either side of sunset."
Perry caught Darcy's eye at this declaration, agreeing as it did with the latter's analysis while they were investigating the footprints earlier, and gave him a look which bespoke appreciation of his powers of ratiocination.
"His watch, which I noticed amongst his belongings, gave no indication which may help?" Darcy asked Sir Thomas, suddenly struck that they had not considered this when inventorying the dead man's possessions. "It was not damaged or stopped by his falling?"
"No," Hood responded for the magistrate, who had looked at him inquiringly. "His pocket watch was undamaged and had stopped with the hands pointing to just after the hour of two." He reached down to retrieve it from the items which were still lying on the kerchief on the ground, and passed it over. Darcy confirmed this analysis with a short examination, before turning to Sir Thomas.
"With your permission?" he asked. The magistrate nodded his acquiescence and Darcy cautiously wound the watch a little, his action immediately answered by a strong tick and the movement of the second-hand dial. "Yes," he acknowledged to the Constable, "no doubt he wound it every night, and his failure to do so caused it to stop in the early hours of the morning."
Satisfied they had obtained all the information they could about the time the tragedy occurred, he turned to the magistrate and asked, "Sir Thomas, what are your immediate plans?"
"Well, first I must arrange the removal of the body to the mortuary, then I will need to inform the local coroner as he will have to hold an inquest, though that is only a formality."
"Yes, 'wilful murder by person or persons unknown' is the only possible verdict," said Tredgold grimly.
"Unless we can make out a case against someone specific -- in which event it will be 'wilful murder by x' instead," came the magistrate's rejoinder.
"Well, I should be very sure of myself before making such a charge if I were you, Sir Thomas," said Darcy. "I have a feeling that discovering the whole truth is going to be a difficult and complicated business."
"Yes, it would appear so," Sir Thomas replied gravely. "What are your plans, Darcy?"
"Well, as it is nearly time for luncheon, and we are likely to be here a little longer, I thought myself and Captain Perry might try our luck at the local inn," answered Darcy. "The 'Black Bull' is the name, I believe. Might I suggest, as we have the doctor's estimate of the time of death, that as soon as he can be spared the Constable makes some enquiries in the village to see if Sutton, or indeed any other stranger, was observed coming this way yesterday evening?"
"An excellent idea," agreed Sir Thomas, gesturing to Hood, who nodded his head at his approbation of this plan. "I will arrange for my carriage to take the body to the mortuary, it is more convenient than having a hearse sent from town, then have it return here so it is at our disposal. The sexton can help the Constable carry the body, so he will be able to follow you directly and try his luck among the patrons of the inn and with the owners of the nearby houses. Anything else?"
"Yes," said Darcy. "With your permission, I should like to send for my groom, who is extremely skilled at tracking, so he may investigate the whole area for traces of any persons we may have missed. If there are any, then rest assured he will discover them."
Sir Thomas contemplated this request for a moment, then nodded. "I have no objection to that, provided that any evidence he does discover is preserved or recorded."
"Thank you," Darcy said. He paused a moment then continued, "May I venture one more suggestion?"
"Certainly," answered Sir Thomas.
"It is that as soon as we are all finished here, we make it our first priority to utilise these." He reached down and picked up Sutton's keys, dangling them before the others like a lure. "There may be documentation or other evidence which could be valuable to us. From what we know of Sutton's activities, there will possibly be some people who would rather no-one saw his papers, and if news of his death is broadcast before we have a chance to examine everything carefully, we may arrive to discover we have been forestalled."
Sir Thomas sucked his breath in gravely. "Yes, I was planning on having a look over his chambers, but had not quite grasped the urgency that might be required. It shall be as you say, we can go hither as soon as the arrangements are complete here."
"Excellent, then I will write a note for Farrow, my groom, and Perry and I will make our way to the inn. Will you join us there?"
Sir Thomas considered. "Yes, I shall want some luncheon myself, as it is likely to be a long day. Shall we meet there in one hour?"
*Chain - Old English measure of distance equal to 66 feet (22 yards) i.e. approximately equal to twenty metres.
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