The only important society in existence to-day is the E.C.F.–the Eclectic but Comprehensive Fraternity for the Perpetuation of Gratitude towards Lesser Lights. Its founders were William Lemming, of Lemming and Orton, print-sellers; Alexander Hay McKnight, of Ellis and McKnight, provision-merchants; Robert Keede, M.R.C.P., physician, surgeon, and accoucheur; Lewis Holroyd Burges, tobacconist and cigar importer–all of the South Eastern postal districts–and its zealous, hard-working, but unappreciated Secretary. The meetings are usually at Mr. Lemming’s little place in Berkshire, where he raises pigs.
I had been out of England for awhile, missing several dinners, but was able to attend a summer one with none present but ourselves; several red mullets in paper; a few green peas and ducklings; an arrangement of cockscombs with olives, and capers as large as cherries; strawberries and cream; some 1903 Chateau la Tour; and that locked cabinet of cigars to which only Burges has the key.
It was at the hour when men most gracefully curvet abroad on their hobbies, and after McKnight had been complaining of systematic pilfering in his three big shops, that Burges told us how an illustrious English astrologer called Lily had once erected a horoscope to discover the whereabouts of a parcel of stolen fish. The stars led him straight to it and the thief and, incidentally, into a breeze with a lady over ‘seven Portugal onions’ also gone adrift, but not included in the periscope. Then we wondered why detective-story writers so seldom use astrology to help out the local Sherlock Holmes; how many illegitimate children that great original had begotten in magazine form; and so drifted on to murder at large. Keede, whose profession gives him advantages, illustrated the subject.
‘I wish I could do a decent detective story,’ I said at last. ‘I never get further than the corpse.’
‘Corpses are foul things,’ Lemming mused aloud. ‘I wonder what sort of a corpse I shall make.’
‘You’ll never know,’ the gentle, silver-haired Burges replied. ‘You won’t even know you’re dead till you look in the glass and see no reflection. An old woman told me that once at Barnet Horse Fair–and I couldn’t have been more than seven at the time.’
We were quiet for a few minutes, while the Altar of the Lesser Lights, which is also our cigar-lighter, came into use. The single burner atop, representing gratitude towards Lesser Lights in general, was of course lit. Whenever gratitude towards a named Lesser Light is put forward and proven, one or more of the nine burners round the base can be thrown into action by pulling its pretty silver draw-chain.
‘What will you do for me,’ said Keede, puffing, ‘if I give you an absolutely true detective yarn?’
‘If I can make anything of it,’ I replied, ‘I’ll finish the Millar Gift.’
This meant the cataloguing of a mass of Masonic pamphlets (1832-59), bequeathed by a Brother to Lodge Faith and Works 5836 E.C.–a job which Keede and I, being on the Library Committee, had together shirked for months.
‘Promise you won’t doctor it if you use it?’ said Keede.
‘And for goodness’ sake don’t bring me in any more than you can help,’ said Lemming.
No practitioner ever comprehends another practitioner’s methods; but a promise was given, a bargain struck; and the tale runs here substantially as it was told.
That past autumn, Lemming’s pig-man (who had been sitting up with a delicate lady-Berkshire) discovered, on a wet Sunday dawn in October, the body of a village girl called Ellen Marsh lying on the bank of a deep cutting where the road from the village runs into the London Road. Ellen, it seemed, had many friends with whom she used to make evening appointments, and Channet’s Ash, as the cross-roads were called, from the big ash that overhung them, was one of her well-known trysting-places. The body lay face down at the highest point of a sloping footpath which the village children had trodden out up the bank, and just where that path turned the corner under Channet’s Ash and dropped into the London Road. The pig-man roused the village constable, an ex-soldier called Nicol, who picked up, close to the corpse, a narrow-bladed fern-trowel, its handle wrapped with twine. There were no signs of a struggle, but it had been raining all night. The pig-man then went off to wake up Keede, who was spending the week- end with Lemming. Keede did not disturb his host, Mrs. Lemming being ill at the time, but he and the policeman commandeered a builder’s handcart from some half-built shops down the London Road; wheeled the body to the nearest inn–the Cup o’ Grapes–pushed a car out of a lock-up; took the shove-halfpenny board from the Oddfellows’ Room, and laid the body on it till the regular doctor should arrive.
‘He was out,’ Keede said, ‘so I made an examination on my own. There was no question of assault. She had been dropped by one scientific little jab, just at the base of the skull, by someone who knew his anatomy. That was all. Then Nicol, the Bobby, asked me if I’d care to walk over with him to Jimmy Tigner’s house.’
‘Who was Jimmy Tigner?’ I asked.
‘Ellen’s latest young man–a believing soul. He was assistant at the local tinsmith’s, living with his mother in a cottage down the street. It was seven o’clock then, and not a soul about. Jimmy had to be waked up. He stuck his head out of the window, and Nicol stood in the garden among the cabbages–friendly as all sin–and asked him what he’d been doing the night before, because someone had been knocking Ellen about. Well, there wasn’t much doubt what Jimmy had been up to. He was altogether “the morning after.” He began dressing and talking out of the window at the same time, and said he’d kill any man who touched Ellen.’
‘Hadn’t the policeman cautioned him?’ McKnight demanded.
‘What for? They’re all friends in this village. Then Jimmy said that, on general principles, Ellen deserved anything she might have got. He’d done with her. He told us a few details (some girl must have given her away), but the point he kept coming back to was that they had parted in “high dungeon.” He repeated that a dozen times. Nicol let him run on, and when the boy was quite dressed, he said “Well, you may as well come on up-street an’ look at her. She don’t bear you any malice now.” (Oh, I tell you the War has put an edge on things all round!) Jimmy came down, jumpy as a cat, and, when we were going through the Cup o’ Grapes yard, Nicol unlocked the garage and pushed him in. The face hadn’t been covered either.’
‘Drastic,’ said Burges, shivering.
‘It was. Jimmy went off the handle at once; and Nicol kept patting him on the back and saying: “That’s all right! I’ll go bail you didn’t do it.” Then Jimmy wanted to know why the deuce he’d been dragged into it. Nicol said “Oh, that’s what the French call a confrontation. But you’re all right.” Then Jimmy went for Nicol. So we got him out of the garage, and gave him a drink, and took him back to his mother. But at the inquest he accounted for every minute of his time. He’d left Ellen under Channet’s Ash, telling her what he thought of her over his shoulder for a quarter of a mile down the lane (that’s what “high dungeon” meant in their language). Luckily two or three of the girls and the bloods of the village had heard ’em. After that, he’d gone to the Cup o’ Grapes, filled himself up, and told everybody his grievances against Ellen till closing-time. The interestin’ thing was that he seemed to be about the only decent boy of the lot.’
‘Then,’ Lemming interrupted, ‘the reporters began looking for clues. They–they behaved like nothing I’ve ever imagined! I was afraid we’d be dragged into it. You see, that wretched Ellen had been our scullery-maid a few months before, and–my wife–as ill as she was…But mercifully that didn’t come out at the inquest.’
‘No’ Keede went on. ‘Nicol steered the thing. He’s related to Ellen. And by the time Jimmy had broken down and wept, and the reporters had got their sensation, it was brought in “person or persons unknown.”‘
‘What about the trowel?’ said McKnight, who is a notable gardener.
‘It was a most valuable clue, of course, because it explained the modus operandi. The punch–with the handle, the local doctor said–had been delivered through her back hair, with just enough strength to do the job and no more. I couldn’t have operated more neatly myself. The Police took the trowel, but they couldn’t trace it to anyone, somehow. The main point in the village was that no one who knew her wanted to go into Ellen’s character. She was rather popular, you see. Of course the village was a bit disappointed about Jimmy’s getting off; and when he broke down again at her funeral, it revived suspicion. Then the Huish poisoning case happened up in the North; and the reporters had to run off and take charge of it. What did your pig-man say about ’em, Will?’
‘Oh, Griffiths said: “‘Twas Gawd’s own Mercy those young gen’elmen didn’t ‘ave ‘alf of us ‘ung before they left. They were that energetic!”‘
‘They were,’ said Keede. ‘That’s why I kept back my evidence.’
‘There was the wife to be considered too,’ said Lemming. ‘She’d never have stood being connected with the thing, even remotely.’
‘I took it upon myself to act upon that belief,’ Keede replied gravely. ‘Well–now for my little bit. I’d come down that Saturday night to spend the week-end with Will here; and I couldn’t get here till late. It was raining hard, and the car skidded badly. Just as I turned off the London Road into the lane under Channet’s Ash, my lights picked up a motor-bike lying against the bank where they found Ellen; and I saw a man bending over a woman up the bank. Naturally one don’t interfere with these little things as a rule; but it occurred to me there might have been a smash. So I called out: “Anything wrong? Can I help?” The man said: “No, thanks. We’re all right,” or words to that effect, and I went on. But the bike’s letters happened to be my own initials, and its number was the year I was born in. I wasn’t likely to forget ’em, you see.’
‘You told the Police?’ said McKnight severely.
”Took ’em into my confidence at once, Sandy,’ Keede replied. ‘There was a Sergeant, Sydenham way, that I’d been treating for Salonika fever. I told him I was afraid I’d brushed a motor-bike at night coming up into West Wickham, on one of those blind bends–up the hill, and I’d be glad to know I hadn’t hurt him. He gave me what I wanted in twenty-four hours. The bike belonged to one Henry Wollin–of independent means–livin’ near Mitcham.’
‘But West Wickham isn’t in Berkshire–nor is Mitcham,’ McKnight began.
‘Here’s a funny thing,’ Keede went on, without noticing. ‘Most men and nearly all women commit murder single-handed; but no man likes to go man-hunting alone. Primitive instinct, I suppose. That’s why I lugged Will into the Sherlock Holmes business. You hated too.’
‘I hadn’t recovered from those reporters,’ said Lemming.
‘They were rather energetic. But I persuaded Will that we’d call upon Master Wollin and apologise–as penitent motorists–and we went off to Mitcham in my two-seater. Wollin had a very nice little detached villa down there. The old woman–his housekeeper–who let us in, was West Country, talkin’ as broad as a pat o’ butter. She took us through the hall to Wollin, planting things in his back-garden.’
‘A wonderful little garden for that soil,’ said Lemming, who considers himself an even greater gardener than McKnight, although he keeps two men less.
‘He was a big, strong, darkish chap–middle-aged–wide as a bull between the eyes–no beauty, and evidently had been a very sick man. Will and I apologised to him, and he began to lie at once. He said he’d been at West Wickham at the time (on the night of the murder, you know), and he remembered dodging out of the way of a car. He didn’t seem pleased that we should have picked up his number so promptly. Seeing we were helping him to establish an alibi, he ought to have been, oughtn’t he?’
‘Ye mean,’ said McKnight, suddenly enlightened, ‘that he was committing the murder here in Berkshire on the night that he told you he was in West Wickham, which is in Kent.’
‘Which is in Kent. Thank you. It is. And we went on talking about that West Wickham hill till he mentioned he’d been in the War, and that gave me my chance to talk. And he was an enthusiastic gardener, he said, and that let Will in. It struck us both that he was nervous in a carneying way that didn’t match his build and voice at all. Then we had a drink in his study. Then the fun began. There were four pictures on the wall.’
‘Prints–prints,’ Lemming corrected professionally.
”Same thing, aren’t they, Will? Anyhow, you got excited enough over them. At first I thought Will was only playing up. But he was genuine.’
‘So were they,’ Lemming said. ‘Sandy, you remember those four “Apostles” I sold you last Christmas?’
‘I have my counterfoil yet,’ was the dry answer.
‘What sort of prints were they?’ Burges demanded.
The moonlike face of Alexander McKnight, who collects prints along certain lines, lit with devout rapture. He began checking off on his fingers.
‘The firrst,’ said he, ‘was the draped one of Ray–the greatest o’ them all. Next, yon French print o’ Morrison, when he was with the Duke of Orleans at Blois; third, the Leyden print of Grew in his youth; and, fourth, that wreathed Oxford print of Hales. The whole aapostolic succession of them.’
‘I never knew Morrison laid out links in France,’ I said.
‘Morrison? Links? Links? Did you think those four were gowfers then?’
‘Wasn’t old Tom Morrison a great golfer?’ I ventured.
McKnight turned on me with utter scorn. ‘Those prints–‘ he began. ‘But ye’d not understand. They were–we’ll say they were just pictures of some garrdeners I happened to be interested in.’
This was rude of McKnight, but I forgave him because of the excellence of his imported groceries. Keede went on.
‘After Will had talked the usual buyer’s talk, Wollin seemed willin’ to part with ’em, and we arranged we’d call again and complete the deal. Will ‘ud do business with a criminal on the drop o’ course. He gave Wollin his card, and we left; Wollin carneying and suckin’ up to us right to the front door. We hadn’t gone a couple of miles when Will found he’d given Wollin his personal card–not his business one–with his private address in Berkshire! The murder about ten days old, and the papers still stinkin’ with it! I think I told you at the time you were a fool, Will?’
‘You did. I never saw how I came to make the mistake. These cards are different sizes too,’ poor Lemming said.
‘No, we were not a success as man-hunters,’ Keede laughed. ‘But Will and I had to call again, of course, to settle the sale. That was a week after. And this time, of course, Wollin–not being as big a fool as Will–had hopped it and left no address. The old lady said he was given to going off for weeks at a time. That hung us up; but to do Will justice, which I don’t often, he saved the situation by his damned commercial instincts. He said he wanted to look at the prints again. The old lady was agreeable–rather forth-comin’ in fact. She let us into the study, had the prints down, and asked if we’d like some tea. While she was getting it, and Will was hanging over the prints, I looked round the room. There was a cupboard, half opened, full of tools, and on top of ’em a new–what did you say it was, Will?–fern-trowel. ‘Same pattern as the one Nicol found by Ellen’s head. That gave me a bit of a turn. I’d never done any Sherlockin’ outside my own profession. Then the old lady came back and I made up to her. When I was a sixpenny doctor at Lambeth, half my great success–‘
‘Ye can hold that over,’ McKnight observed. ‘The murrder’s what’s interestin’ me.’
‘Wait till your next go of gout. I’ll interest you, Sandy. Well, she expanded (they all do with me), and, like patients, she wanted advice gratis. So I gave it. Then she began talking about Wollin. She’d been his nurse, I fancy. Anyhow, she’d known him all his life, and she said he was full of virtue and sickness She said he’d been wounded and gassed and gangrened in the War, and after that–oh, she worked up to it beautifully–he’d been practically off his head. She called it “fairy-kist.”‘
‘That’s pretty–very pretty,’ said Burges.
‘Meanin’ he’d been kissed by the fairies?’ McKnight inquired.
‘It would appear so, Sandy. I’d never heard the word before. ‘West Country, I suppose. And she had one of those slow, hypnotic voices, like cream from a jug. Everything she said squared with my own theories up to date. Wollin was on the break of life, and, given wounds, gas, and gangrene just at that crisis, why anything–Jack the Ripperism or religious mania–might come uppermost. I knew that, and the old lady was as good as telling it me over again, and putting up a defence for him in advance. ‘Wonderful bit of work. Patients’ relatives are like that sometimes–specially wives.’
‘Yes, but what about Wollin?’ I said.
‘Wait a bit. Will and I went away, and we talked over the fern-trowel and so forth, and we both agreed we ought to release our evidence. There, somehow, we stuck. Man-hunting’s a dirty job. So we compromised. I knew a fellow in the C.I.D., who thought he had a floating kidney, and we decided to put the matter before him and let him take charge. He had to go North, however, and he wrote he could not see us before the Tuesday of next week. This would be four or five weeks after the murder. I came down here again that week-end to stay with Will, and on Saturday night Will and I went to his study to put the finishing touches to our evidence. I was trying to keep my own theory out of it as much as I could. Yes, if you want to know, Jack the Ripper was my notion, and my theory was that my car had frightened the brute off before he could do anything in that line. And then, Will’s housemaid shot into the study with Nicol after her, and Jimmy Tigner after him!’
‘Luckily my wife was up in town at the time,’ said Lemming. ‘They all shouted at once too.’
‘They did!’ said Keede. ‘Nicol shouted loudest, though. He was plastered with mud, waving what was left of his helmet, and Jimmy was in hysterics. Nicol yelled:–“Look at me Look at this! It’s all right! Look at me! I’ve got it!” He had got it too! It came out, when they quieted down, that he had been walking with Jimmy in the lane by Channet’s Ash. Hearing a lorry behind ’em–you know what a narrow lane it is–they stepped up on to that path on the bank (I told you about it) that the school-children had made. It was a contractor’s lorry– Higbee and Norton, a local firm–with two girders for some new shops on the London Road. They were deliverin’ late on Saturday evening, so’s the men could start on Monday. Well, these girders had been chucked in anyhow on to a brick lorry with a tail-board. Instead of slopin’ forward they cocked up backwards like a pheasant’s tail, sticking up high and overhanging. They were tied together with a few turns of rope at the far ends. Do you see.’
So far we could see nothing. Keede made it plainer.
‘Nicol said he went up the bank first Jimmy behind him–and after a few steps he found his helmet knocked off. If he’d been a foot higher up the bank his head ‘ud have gone. The lorry had skidded on the tar of the London Road, as it turned into it left-handed–her tail swung to the right, and the girders swung with it, just missing braining Nicol up on the bank. The lorry was well in the left-hand gutter when he got his breath again. He went for the driver at once. The man said all the lorries always skidded under Channet’s Ash, when it was wet, because of the camber of the road, and they allowed for it as a regular stunt. And he damned the road authorities, and Nicol for being in the light. Then Jimmy Tigner, Nicol told us, caught on to what it meant, and he climbed into the lorry shouting: “You killed Ellen!” It was all Nicol could do to prevent him choking the fellow there and then; but Nicol didn’t pull him off till Jimmy got it out of the driver that he had been delivering girders the night Ellen was killed. Of course, he hadn’t noticed anything.
‘Then Nicol came over to Lemming and me to talk it over. I gave Jimmy a bromide and sent him off to his mother. He wasn’t any particular use, except as a witness–and no good after. Then Nicol went over the whole thing again several times, to fix it in our minds. Next morning he and I and Will called on old Higbee before he could get to church. We made him take out the particular lorry implicated, with the same driver, and a duplicate load packed the same way, and demonstrate for us. We kept her stunting half Sunday morning in the rain, and the skid delivered her into the left-hand gutter of the London Road every time she took that corner; and every time her tail with the girders swiped along the bank of that lane like a man topping a golf-ball. And when she did that, there were half-a-dozen paces–not more–along that schoolchildren’s path, that meant sure death to anyone on it at the time. Nicol was just climbing into the danger-zone when he stepped up, but he was a foot too low. The girders only brushed through his hair. We got some laths and stuck ’em in along the path (Jimmy Tigner told us Ellen was five foot three) to test our theory. The last lath was as near as could be to where the pig-man had found the body; and that happened to be the extreme end of the lorry’s skid. ‘See what happened? We did. At the end of her skid the lorry’s rear wheels ‘ud fetch up every time with a bit of a jar against the bank, and the girders ‘ud quiver and lash out a few inches–like a golf-club wigglin’. Ellen must have caught just enough of that little sideway flick, at the base of her skull, to drop her like a pithed ox. We worked it all out on the last lath. The rope wrappings on the end of the damned things saved the skin being broken. Hellish, isn’t it? And then Jimmy Tigner realised that if she had only gone two paces further she’d have been round the corner of the bank and safe. Then it came back to him that she’d stopped talkin’ “in dungeon” rather suddenly, and he hadn’t gone back to see! I spent most of the afternoon sitting with him. He’d been tried too high–too high. I had to sign his certificate a few weeks later. No! He won’t get better.’
We commented according to our natures, and then McKnight said:–‘But– if so–why did Wollin disappear?’
‘That comes next on the agenda, Worshipful Sir. Brother Lemming has not the instincts of the real man-hunter. He felt shy. I had to remind him of the prints before he’d call on Wollin again. We’d allowed our prey ten days to get the news, while the papers were busy explainin’ Ellen’s death, and people were writin’ to ’em and saying they’d nearly been killed by lorries in the same way in other places. Then old Higbee gave Ellen’s people a couple of hundred without prejudice (he wanted to get a higher seat in the Synagogue–the Squire’s pew, I think), and everyone felt that her character had been cleared.’
‘But Wollin?’ McKnight insisted.
‘When Will and I went to call on him he’d come home again. I hadn’t seen him for–let’s see, it must have been going on for a month–but I hardly recognised him. He was burned out–all his wrinkles gashes, and his eyes readjustin’ ’emselves after looking into Hell. One gets to know that kind of glare nowadays. But he was immensely relieved to see us. So was the old lady. If he’d been a dog, he’d have been wagging his tall from the nose down. That was rather embarrassing too, because it wasn’t our fault we hadn’t had him tried for his life. And while we were talking over the prints, he said, quite suddenly: “I don’t blame you! I’d have believed it against myself on the evidence!” That broke the ice with a brick. He told us he’d almost stepped on Ellen’s body that night–dead and stiffening. Then I’d come round the corner and hailed him, and that panicked him. He jumped on his bike and fled, forgetting the trowel. So he’d bought another with some crazy notion of putting the Law off the track. That’s what hangs murderers.
‘When Will and I first called on him, with our fairy-tales about West Wickham, he had fancied he might be under observation, and Will’s mixing up the cards clinched it…So he disappeared. He went down into his own cellar, he said, and waited there, with his revolver, ready to blow his brains out when the warrant came. What a month! Think of it! A cellar and a candle, a file of gardening papers, and a loaded revolver for company! Then I asked why. He said no jury on earth would have believed his explanation of his movements. “Look at it from the prosecution’s point of view,” he said. “Here’s a middle- aged man with a medical record that ‘ud account for any loss of controls–and that would mean Broadmoor–fifty or sixty miles from his home in a rainstorm, on the top of a fifteen foot cutting, at night. He leaves behind him, with the girl’s body, the very sort of weapon that might have caused her death. I read about the trowel in the papers. Can’t you see how the thing ‘ud be handled?” he said.
‘I asked him then what in the world he really was doing that had to be covered up by suicide. He said he was planting things. I asked if he meant stolen goods. After the trouble we’d given him, Will and I wouldn’t have peached on him for that, would we, Will?’
‘No,’ said Lemming. ‘His face was enough. It was like–‘ and he named a picture by an artist called Goya.
‘”Stolen goods be damned,” Wollin said to me. “If you must have it, I was planting out plants from my garden.” What did you say to him then, Will?’
‘I asked him what the plants were, of course,’ said Lemming, and turned to McKnight. ‘They were daffodils, and a sort of red honeysuckle, and a special loosestrife–a hybrid.’ McKnight nodded judicially while Lemming talked incomprehensible horticulture for a minute or two.
‘Gardening isn’t my line,’ Keede broke in, ‘but Will’s questions acted on Master Wollin like a charm. He dropped his suicide talk, and began on gardening. After that it was Will’s operation. I hadn’t a look-in for ten minutes. Then I said: “What’s there to make a fuss about in all this?” Then he turned away from Will and spoke to me, carneying again–like patients do. He began with his medical record–one shrapnel peppering, and one gassing, with gangrene. He had put in about fourteen months in various hospitals, and he was full of medical talkee-talkee. Just like you, Sandy, when you’ve been seeing your damned specialists. And he’d been doped for pain and pinched nerves, till the wonder was he’d ever pulled straight again. He told us that the only thing that had helped him through the War was his love of gardening. He’d been mad keen on it all his life–and even in the worst of the Somme he used to get comfort out of plants and bot’ny, and that sort of stuff. I never did. Well, I saw he was speaking the truth; but next minute he began to hedge. I noticed it, and said something, and then he sweated in rivers. He hadn’t turned a hair over his proposed suicide, but now he sweated till he had to wipe it off his forehead.
‘Then I told him I was something else besides a G.P., and Will was too, if that ‘ud make things easier for him. And it did. From then on he told the tale on the Square, in grave distress, you know. At his last hospital he’d been particularly doped, and he fancied that that was where his mind had gone. He told me that he was insane, and had been for more than a year. I asked him not to start on his theories till he’d finished with his symptoms. (You patients are all the same.) He said there were Gotha raids round his hospital, which used to upset the wards. And there was a V.A.D.–she must have been something of a woman, too–who used to read to him and tell him stories to keep him quiet. He liked ’em because, as far as he remembered, they were all about gardening. But, when he grew better, he began to hear Voices– little whispers at first, growing louder and ending in regular uproars–ordering him to do certain things. He used to lie there shaking with horror, because he funked going mad. He wanted to live and be happy again, in his garden–like the rest of us.
‘When he was discharged, he said, he left hospital with a whole Army Corps shouting into his ears. The sum and substance of their orders was that he must go out and plant roots and things at large up and down the country-side. Naturally, he suffered a bit, but, after a while, he went back to his house at Mitcham and obeyed orders, because, he said, as long as he was carrying ’em out the Voices stopped. If he knocked off even for a week, he said, they helled him on again. Being a methodical bird, he’d bought a motor-bike and a basket lined with oil-cloth, and he used to skirmish out planting his silly stuff by the wayside, and in coppices and on commons. He’d spy out likely spots by day and attend to ’em after dark. He was working round Channet’s Ash that night, and he’d come out of the meadow, and down the school-children’s path, right on to Ellen’s body. That upset him. I wasn’t worryin’ about Ellen for the moment. I headed him back to his own symptoms. The devil of it was that, left to himself, there was nothing he’d have liked better than this planting job; but the Voices ordering him to do it, scared the soul out of him. Then I asked him if the Voices had worried him much when he was in the cellar with his revolver. He said, comin’ to think of it, that they had not; and I reminded him that there was very little seasickness in the boats when submarines were around.’
‘You’ve forgotten,’ said Lemming, ‘that he stopped fawning as soon as he found out we were on the Square.’
‘He did so,’ Keede assented. ‘And he insisted on our staying to supper, so’s he could tell his symptoms properly. (‘Might have been you again, Sandy.) The old lady backed him up. She was clinging to us too, as though we’d done her a favour. And Wollin told us that if he’d been in the dock, he knew he’d have come out with his tale of his Voices and night-plantings, just like the Ancient Mariner; and that would have sent him to Broadmoor. It was Broadmoor, not hanging, that he funked. And so he went on and on about his Voices, and I cross- examined. He said they used to begin with noises in his head like rotten walnuts being smashed; but he fancied that must have been due to the bombs in the raid. I reminded him again that I didn’t want his theories. The Voices were sometimes like his V.A.D.’s, but louder, and they were all mixed up with horrible dope-dreams. For instance, he said, there was a smiling dog that ran after him and licked his face, and the dog had something to do with being able to read gardening books, and that gave him the notion, as he lay abed in hospital, that he had water on the brain, and that that ‘ud prevent him from root- gatherin’ an’ obeying his orders.’
‘He used the words “root-gathering.” It’s an unusual combination nowadays,’ said Lemming suddenly. ‘That made me take notice, Sandy.’
Keede held up his hand. ‘No, you don’t, Will! I tell this tale much better than you. Well, then Will cut in, and asked Wollin if he could remember exactly what sort of stuff his V.A.D. had read to him during the raids. He couldn’t; except that it was all about gardening, and it made him feel as if he were in Paradise. Yes, Sandy, he used the word “Paradise.” Then Will asked him if he could give us the precise wording of his orders to plant things. He couldn’t do that either. Then Will said, like a barrister: “I put it to you, that the Voices ordered you to plant things by the wayside for such as have no gardens.” And Will went over it slowly twice. “My God!” said Wollin. “That’s the ipsissima verba.” “Good,” said Will. “Now for your dog. I put it to you that the smiling dog was really a secret friend of yours. What was his colour?” “Dunno,” said Wollin. “It was yellow,” says Will. “A big yellow bullterrier.” Wollin thought a bit and agreed. “When he ran after you,” says Will, “did you ever hear anyone trying to call him off, in a very loud voice?” “Sometimes,” said Wollin. “Better still,” says Will. “Now, I put it to you that that yellow bull-terrier came into a library with a Scotch gardener who said it was a great privilege to be able to consult botanical books.” Wollin thought a bit, and said that those were some of the exact words that were mixed up with his Voices, and his trouble about not being able to read. I shan’t forget his face when he said it, either. My word, he sweated.’
Here Sandy McKnight smiled and nodded across to Lemming, who nodded back as mysteriously as a Freemason or a gardener.
‘All this time,’ Keede continued, ‘Will looked more important than ever I’ve seen him outside of his shop; and he said to Wollin: “Now I’ll tell you the story, Mr. Wollin, that your V.A.D. read or told you. Check me where your memory fails, and I’ll refresh it.” That’s what you said, wasn’t it, Will? And Will began to spin him a long nursery-yarn about some children who planted flowers out in a meadow that wasn’t theirs, so that such as had no gardens might enjoy them; and one of the children called himself an Honest Rootgatherer, and one of ’em had something like water on the brain; and there was an old Squire who owned a smiling yellow bull-terrier that was fond of the children, and he kept his walnuts till they were rotten, and then he smashed ’em all. You ought to have heard Will! He can talk–even when there isn’t money in it.’
‘Mary’s Meadow!’ Sandy’s hand banged the table.
‘Hsh!’ said Burges, enthralled. ‘Go on, Robin.’
‘And Wollin checked it all, with the sweat drying on him–remember, Will?–and he put in his own reminiscences–one about a lilac sun- bonnet, I remember.’
‘Not lilac-marigold. One string of it was canary-colour and one was white.’ McKnight corrected as though this were a matter of life and death.
‘Maybe. And there was a nightingale singing to the Man in the Moon, and an old Herbal–not Gerard’s, or I’d have known it–“Paradise” something. Wollin contributed that sort of stuff all the time, with ten years knocked off his shoulders and a voice like the Town Crier’s. Yes, Sandy, the story was called Mary’s Meadow. It all came back to him–via Will.’
‘And that helped?’ I asked.
‘Well, Keede said slowly, ‘a General Practitioner can’t much believe in the remission of sins, can he? But if that’s possible, I know how a redeemed soul looks. The old lady had pretended to get supper, but she stopped when Will began his yarn, and listened all through. Then Wollin put up his hand, as though he were hearing his dam’ Voices. Then he brushed ’em away, and he dropped his head on the table and wept. My God, how he wept! And then she kissed him, and me. Did she kiss you, Will?’
‘She certainly did not,’ said the scandalised Lemming, who has been completely married for a long while.
‘You missed something. She has a seductive old mouth still. And Wollin wouldn’t let us go–hung on to us like a child. So, after supper, we went over the affair in detail, till all hours. The pain and the dope had made that nursery story stick in one corner of his mind till it took charge–it does sometimes–but all mixed up with bombings and nightmares. As soon as he got the explanation it evaporated like ether and didn’t leave a stink. I sent him to bed full of his own beer, and growing a shade dictatorial. He was a not uncommon cross between a brave bully and an old maid; but a man, right enough, when the pressures were off. The old lady let us out–she didn’t kiss me again, worse luck! She was primitive Stone Age–bless her! She looked on us as a couple of magicians who’s broken the spell on him, she said.’
‘Well, you had,’ said Burges. ‘What did he do afterwards?’
”Bought a side-car to his bike, to hold more vegetables–he’ll be had up for poaching or trespassing, some day–and he cuts about the Home Counties planting his stuff as happy as–Oh my soul! What wouldn’t I give to be even one fraction as happy as he is! But, mind you, he’d have committed suicide on the nod if Will and I had had him arrested. We aren’t exactly first-class Sherlocks.’
McKnight was grumbling to himself. ‘Juliaana Horratia Ewing,’ said he. ‘The best, the kindest, the sweetest, the most eenocent tale ever the soul of a woman gied birth to. I may sell tapioca for a living in the suburbs, but I know that. An’ as for those prints o’ mine,’ he turned to me, ‘they were not garrdeners. They were the Four Great British Botanists, an’–an’–I ask your pardon.’
He pulled the draw-chains of all the nine burners round the Altar of the Lesser Lights before we had time to put it to the vote.