Authors: Ellis Peters
“I thought he was lying very high. There’s a wooden coffin below him.” He tapped on it, and the small resulting sound was light and hollow. “Not very substantial, just a shell to go inside the stone. That should be Treverra. But this one—”
“There appears to be some injury to his head,” said the Vicar, low-voiced. “Do you think—?”
he drowned in the sea, but the doctors will settle that. Shine the light here, Tim.”
Tim illuminated the bony, dark-skinned face. A darker, mottled stain covered the outer part of the socket of the left eye, the lower temple and the cheek-bone, the mark of a large, broken bruise.
“Could he have got that in the sea?” Sam’s big voice was muted.
“I don’t think so. I think it was done before death. And I think,” he said, looking round them all and stepping back from the coffin, “we’re going to have to turn this over at once to the Maymouth police. They’d better have a look at the whole set-up. Because it looks very much as if they’ve got a murder on their hands.”
There was a moment of absolute silence and stillness; then Simon heaved a cautious breath and dusted the powdering of stone from his hands.
“One of us had better take the car and go and telephone,” he said in the most practical of voices. “Will you go, George, or shall I?”
But the most incomprehensible thing of all about the St. Nectan project came later still, past noon, when the photographers and the experts and the police surgeon had all had their way with the Treverra tomb, and the long, lank body of Zebedee Trethuan, verger and jobbing gardener, had been taken out on a covered stretcher and driven away in an ambulance, watched silently and avidly by a gallery of fishermen, children, respectable housewives and solid townspeople from all the dunes around, and no doubt just as eagerly by all the trebles of St. Mary’s choir, fighting over the Vicar’s binoculars on top of the Dragon’s Head.
They were left with the plain, light wooden coffin on which he had lain; and at the first touch the lid of it gave to their hands, and came away, uncovering—surely, this time?—the last resting-place of Jan Treverra. And there they were, the expected bones.
This body had certainly been there longer than its bedfellow. It was almost a skeleton, shreds of perished clothing drifted about the long bones and the dried and mummified flesh that remained to it. But had it, on closer inspection, really been there for two centuries and more? It had a hasty and tumbled appearance, with no composed, hieratic dignity. The fragments of cloth still had enough nature left in them to show a texture and a colour; a colour which had been very dark navy blue, a texture that looked suspiciously like thick, solid modern woollen, meant to withstand all weathers. And here, about the chest, clung bits of disintegrating knitted stuff.
Among Treverra’s eccentricities it had never been recorded that he wished to be buried in a fisherman’s Meltons and a seaman’s jersey.
By the middle of that Friday afternoon it was all over Maymouth that Jan Treverra’s tomb had yielded not one body, but two; and that, positively though quite incomprehensibly, neither of them was Jan Treverra.
DETECTIVE-SERGEANT HEWITT was pure Maymouth from his boots to his sober utilitarian hair-cut, a stocky, square man of middle age with a vaguely sad countenance, who used few words, but in some curious fashion turned other people voluble. In taking his last look round the Treverra vault before they locked it and left it to its ravished quietness, he said nothing at all. Only his solemn eyes lingered thoughtfully along the propped edge of the stone lid, with its specks of pallor where the iron had bitten into the stone; and Tim, following their reproachful survey, said apologetically: “I know, it’s a pity we had to use crowbars and foul up the possible traces. But we couldn’t possibly have
—” The grieved gaze moved lower, to the trampled patterns in the dust of the floor, and five pairs of feet did their best to appear smaller. “I’m afraid we have rather driven the herds over everything,” said Simon ruefully. “It was dead smooth when we came in, though—just a blown layer of sand, as usual.”
“Yes, well—if you gentlemen will go along with Snaith to the police station, right away, we’d like to have statements from all of you. Your individual observations may help us.” He didn’t sound hopeful, but he probably never did. “Mr. Felse, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to have you along with me for a call on the way. We’ll join the others in half an hour or so.”
“Glad to, if I can be any help,” said George.
“And I’ll take the key, Mr. Towne.” Simon surrendered it, and watched it turned in the great lock, with a soundless efficiency which did not fail to register with the Detective-Sergeant. “I see you’ve been preparing for to-day. This is the key from the Place?”
“Yes, the only one, as far as I know. I’ve had it three days now. Miss Rachel gave it to me when I wanted to bring down some of the gear”
“Yes, I gathered from what you said just now that you’d been in the vault before to-day. How often?”
“Twice. On Wednesday morning—the Vicar was with me that time—we came down to clear the steps and clean and oil the lock, and tried the key to be sure how it worked. But we didn’t go farther then than just inside the doorway.” And that, thought George, was probably when Simon spotted the illicit stores there, hence his discreet withdrawal, and the public declaration of his programme that evening. Nor had he actually said that they had in fact cleaned and oiled the lock, merely that they had come here with that intention. This job at least had proved unnecessary. “Then I came in again yesterday afternoon, and dumped those sheets of felt.” To make sure that the hint had been taken?
“Notice anything at all different then? Or when you came in to-day?”
Simon considered. “Not that I recollect.”
“You didn’t sweep the floor clean of sand?”
“No. Never occurred to me, even if I’d had a broom. I was surprised how dry and clean it was in here, only a blown layer of sand. Just like now—except for our hoof-marks, of course,” said Simon ruefully.
“Ah, well, you’ll have time to think it over. Mr. Felse and I will be with you shortly.”
They climbed the narrow steps on which the sand whisked softly like blown spray, and closed the latchless gate upon the solitude so bewilderingly void of Treverra, and so over-populated with others who had no business there. The Land-Rover and the Porsche set off for the police station in Maymouth, Detective-Constable Snaith, son of a long line of fishermen, ensconced in George’s place beside Simon. Only when the little convoy was well away did Hewitt climb ponderously into his Morris.
“We shan’t be going far out of our way. Just along the quay to where his girl lives. I thought a detached witness might come in handy, if you don’t mind being used. I’ve known Rose since she was first at school. Being this close to a place has its drawbacks, as well as its advantages.”
“I know,” said George, thinking of his own home village of Comerford, where every face was known to him. “Trethuan’s daughter?”
“Yes, only relative, as far as I know. She’s been married a year to a decent young fellow, Jim Pollard. Fisherman, of course, they all are. Lives about three minutes’ walk from where Trethuan lived.”
“Alone, I take it? Now that the girl’s married?”
“Yes, alone. Did for himself most of the time, and Rose did the real cleaning for him. Thought I’d better see her and tell her myself.”
It should have been a daunting prospect, but though he maintained his aspect of professional and permanent discouragement, Hewitt did not, in fact, appear at all daunted. And wasn’t there, perhaps, something in that gaunt, powerful, unprepossessing corpse in Treverra’s tomb that ruled out any harrowing possibilities of family lamentation? There are people it’s almost impossible to love, however the blood may struggle to do its duty.
They drove over the neck of the Dragon, the coastal road rising to its highest point near to the hotel. A fair portion of the juvenile population of Maymouth was still deployed along the cliff paths looking towards Pentarno; no doubt armed with fruit and sandwiches, and with an organised errand-service for ice-cream. Then the road dipped again, and the slate-grey cottages of the upper town closed in upon it, backgrounds for their small, crowded flower-gardens, that blazed with every possible colour. From the steep High Street they could see the harbour below them, locked between the huge bulk of the Dragon’s Head and the crook of the mole, all the invisible streets doddering down towards it, seen only as thread-like channels between the slate roofs. Uniformly grey from this aerial view, the houses flowered into apple-blossom pinks and forget-me-not blues as the car descended, every shade of peach and primrose and pale green, foaming with window-boxes full of geraniums.
In the square, four-sided about an ugly Victorian fountain and embattled with solid shop-fronts, they saw the Porsche and the Land-Rover parked. But Hewitt drove on imperturbably, down towards the harbour, and the clusters of colour-washed houses that clung like barnacles to the rocks along the sea-front.
A row of leaning cottages, six in all, propped their backs against the outlying rocks of the Dragon, and stared out to sea over beached boats and a flurry of gulls. Each was painted its own individual shade, two different pinks, a daffodil yellow, one blue, one green, and one dazzlingly white. Hewitt parked the car on the cobbled shoulder of the quay, and led the way to the second pink house. A little horse-shoe knocker rapped on the jet-black door. The whole row looked like toys in a child’s box.
Rose Pollard opened the door. At first glance Rose looked like a round, soft, primrose-haired doll to go with the toy house, but this illusion lasted only for the fraction of a second it took her large, inquiring eyes to recognise Hewitt. The round face, as delicately- coloured as a nursery-rhyme dairy-maid’s, nevertheless had some form and character when it sharpened into awareness; and there was nothing doll-like about the small, bright flares of fear that sprang up in her eyes. Hewitt was known to everyone, as surely as he knew everyone. But why should she be frightened at the very sight of him? Or, wondered George ruefully, was it occupational naivety on his part even to ask such a question?
She mastered her face, and rather nervously invited them in. The front door gave directly into the tiny living-room, which was as neat and frilly as the exterior of the house suggested it would be. The mind behind that pretty, plaintive face was probably itself furnished in the same innocent fashion; not much style, and no sophistication, but shining with cleanness and prettied up with pouffes, scatter cushions and net curtains. Not a very clever girl, but meant to be gay and bright; and certainly not meant to habit with things or people or thoughts that could frighten her.
“Sorry to butt in on you at dinner, Jim,” said Hewitt placidly, looking over her shoulder at the young man who rose from the table as they entered. “Just a few things I ought to ask you and Rose, if you’ve got a minute or two to give me.”
“That’s all right,” said Jim Pollard, uncoiling his tall young person awkwardly. “We’re finished, Mr. Hewitt. I was late coming in, or we’d have been all cleared away. Is there something the matter?”
He was a brown, freckled boy in a loose sweater and faded dungarees, with a face that must normally have been pleasant, good-natured and candid, but at this moment was clouded with the slight blankness and uncertainty consequent upon being visited by the police. It happens to the most law-abiding, it need mean nothing; but the barrier is instantly there, and the trouble is that there’s never any telling what’s behind it.
“Well, there’s just this matter of Mr. Trethuan’s movements,” said Hewitt with nicely calculated vagueness. “Have you seen him to-day?”
Rose said: “No!” She moved nearer to her husband, and the small, wary lights in her eyes burned paler and taller. The boy said: “No,” too, but in a mystified, patient tone, ready to wait for enlightenment. His steady frown never changed.
“Or yesterday? Well, when did you last see him, Mrs. Pollard?”
“Wednesday morning,” she said, “when I went in to clean. I usually go in Wednesdays and Saturdays and give the house a going-over. He was finishing his breakfast when I went. I only saw him for a few minutes, then he went off to work.”
“And you haven’t seen him since? You don’t know whether he came home that night?”
“Why should she?” said Jim Pollard evenly. “He’s capable, he can look after himself. Often we don’t see him for days on end.”
“Even though he only lives just round the corner in Fore Street?”
“Maybe he does, but it is round the corner, we don’t run into one another going in and out of the back doors. Thank God!” said Jim with deliberation, eyeing Hewitt darkly from under his corrugated brow.
“Now, Jim!” said Rose in a faint murmur of protest.
“Never mind: Now, Jim! Mr. Hewitt knows as well as you do there’s no love lost between your old man and me. Less I see of him, the better. I might as well say so.”
“So you might, lad,” agreed Hewitt placatingly. “Then I take it you don’t know anything about him since your missus saw him Wednesday morning?”
“No, I don’t, Mr. Hewitt. I haven’t set eyes on him since last Sunday in church. What’s he done to interest you?”
Rose shrank under her husband’s hand, and turned her head to shoot him a look of panic entreaty, but all his attention was on Hewitt, and whatever his own disquiet, he seemed to feel nothing of the urgency of hers.
“It isn’t what he’s
,” said Hewitt heavily. “I’m afraid this is going to be a bit of a shock to you, Rose, my girl. Your father was found this morning by Mr. Towne and the others, when they went to open the Treverra vault—”
Her soft, round face lost its colour in one gasp, blanched to a dull, livid pallor. Her eyes stared, enormous and sick. Her lips moved soundlessly, saying: “In the vault—?” Then her mouth shook, and she crammed half her right fist into it, like a child, and swallowed a muted cry.
“Yes, in the vault. He’s dead, Rose. I’m sorry!”
Her knees gave way under her, and Jim caught her in his arms and held her, turning her to him gently. “Now, love, don’t! Come on, now, Rose, hold up!”
She clung to him and wept, but they were not tears of any particularly poignant grief, only of excitement, and nervous tension, and—was it possible?—relief. She cried easily, freely, with no convulsive physical struggle. Even fear was submerged, or so it seemed, until Hewitt added rather woodenly: “It looks like foul play. We shall have a lot of work to do on the case before we have full information. We’ll be in close touch with you. And if you can think of anything that may help to fill in his movements in the last days, we shall be glad to have it.”
“Are you trying to tell us,” demanded Jim Pollard, scowling over his wife’s blonde head, “that old Zeb’s been
“Yes,” said Hewitt mildly, “that’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you.”
Then they were both absolutely still; and perceptibly, even while they stood motionless, they withdrew into themselves, and very carefully and gently closed the doors to shut the world and Hewitt out. Jim tightened his hold on his wife, and that was the only reaction there was to be seen in him. Rose—and how much more significant that was!—Rose drew a long, slow, infinitely cautious breath, and stopped crying on the instant. She needed her powers now for more urgent purposes.
“Well,” said Hewitt, turning the car uphill again at the corner of Fore Street, “what do you make of them?”
“Rose is frightened,” said George. “Very frightened. Her husband, as far as I can see, is merely normally cagey. When the police come around asking about one of the family, nobody’s at his most expansive. But what’s more interesting is that she was frightened before you even asked a question. And most frightened of all when you mentioned the Treverra vault, before—I think—she realised you meant he was dead.”
“Ah!” said Hewitt cryptically, but with every appearance of satisfaction with his own thoughts. “You do notice things, don’t you? I just wanted to know. Then you can’t very well have missed the broom-marks.”
“Broom-marks?” said George carefully.
“On the steps of the vault. And the floor, too. Mr. Towne didn’t have a broom down there, but somebody did. Very delicately done, but still it showed. Take another look at the corners, where none of you stepped to-day. Somebody had moved around that room, and then carefully swept it, and dusted a layer of sand over it again to wipe out the prints. Almost impossible to do it as smoothly as time and the wind do it.”
He slanted a knowing look along his shoulder at George’s wooden face.
“Ah, come off it! I’m not in the excise. It’s a murderer I’m after. I’m not interested in what a whole bunch of people were doing in there just ahead of the researchers. Murder is a solitary crime, Mr. Felse. No easy-going muddle of local brandy-runners put Trethuan in Jan Treverra’s coffin, that I’ll bet my life on. But what I am interested in—”
“Yes?” said George with respect.
“Is the key they let themselves in with. And who else may have had access to it.”
“Oh, no,” said the Vicar, emerging from deep thought, “I don’t think he had any actual
. Only people who’re positive enough to have friends have enemies. When you’re as glum and morose as he was, people just give up and go away.” He glanced round the circle of attentive faces in Hewitt’s office, and ruffled his untidy hair. “I don’t think he wanted or needed liking, you know. Not everyone does.”