Chapter XI. The Prevalent Atmosphere
 

Until that afternoon Collingwood had never been in the village to which he was now bending his steps; on that and his previous visits to the Grange he had only passed the end of its one street. Now, descending into it from the slopes of the park, he found it to be little more than a hamlet--a church, a farmstead or two, a few cottages in their gardens, all clustering about a narrow stream spanned by a high-arched bridge of stone. The Normandale Arms, a roomy, old-fashioned place, stood at one end of the bridge, and from the windows of the room into which Collingwood was presently shown he could look out on the stream itself and on the meadows beyond it. A peaceful, pretty, quiet place--but the gloom which was heavy at the big house or the hill seemed to have spread to everybody that he encountered.

"Bad job, this, sir!" said the landlord, an elderly, serious-faced man, to whom Collingwood had made known his wants, and who had quickly formed the opinion that his guest was of the legal profession. "And a queer one, too! Odd thing, sir, that our old squire, and now the young one, should both have met their deaths in what you might term violent fashion."

"Accident--in both cases," remarked Collingwood.

The landlord nodded his head--and then shook it in a manner which seemed to indicate that while he agreed with this proposition in one respect he entertained some sort of doubt about it in others.

"Ay, well!" he answered. "Of course, a mill chimney falling, without notice, as it were, and a bridge giving way--them's accidents, to be sure. But it's a very strange thing about this foot-bridge, up yonder at the Grange--very strange indeed! There's queer talk about it, already."

"What sort of talk?" asked Collingwood. Ever since the old woodman had come up to him and Pratt, as they stood looking at the foot-bridge, he had been aware of a curious sense of mystery, and the landlord's remark tended to deepen it. "What are people talking about?"

"Nay--it's only one or two," replied the landlord. "There's been two men in here since the affair happened that crossed that bridge Friday afternoon--and both of 'em big, heavy men. According to what one can learn that there bridge wasn't used much by the Grange people--it led to nowhere in particular for them. But there is a right of way across that part of the park, and these two men as I'm speaking of--they made use of it on Friday--getting towards dark. I know 'em well--they'd both of 'em weigh four times as much--together--as young Squire Mallathorpe, and yet it didn't give way under them. And then--only a few hours later, as you might say, down it goes with him!"

"I don't think you can form any opinion from that!" said Collingwood. "These things, these old structures, often give way quite suddenly and unexpectedly."

"Ay, well, they did admit, these men too, that it seemed a bit tottery, like," remarked the landlord. "Talking it over, between themselves, in here, they agreed, to be sure, that it felt to give a bit. All the same, there's them as says that it's a queer thing it should ha' given altogether when young squire walked on it,"

Collingwood clinched matters with a straight question.

"You don't mean to say that people are suggesting that the foot-bridge had been tampered with?" he asked.

"There is them about as wouldn't be slow to say as much," answered the landlord. "Folks will talk! You see, sir--nobody saw what happened. And when country folk doesn't see what takes place, with their own eyes, then they----"

"Make mysteries out of it," interrupted Collingwood, a little impatiently. "I don't think there's any mystery here, landlord--I understood that this foot-bridge was in a very unsafe condition. No! I'm afraid the whole affair was only too simple."

But he was conscious, as he said this, that he was not precisely voicing his own sentiments. He himself was mystified. He was still wondering why Pratt had been so pertinacious in asking the old woodman when, precisely, he had told Mrs. Mallathorpe about the unsafe condition of the bridge--still wondering about a certain expression which had come into Pratt's face when the old man told them what he did--still wondering at the queer look which Pratt had given the information as he went off into the plantation. Was there, then, something--some secret which was being kept back by--somebody?

He was still pondering over these things when he went back to the Grange, later in the evening--but he was resolved not to say anything about them to Nesta. And he saw Nesta only for a few minutes. Her mother, she said, was very ill indeed--the doctor was with her then, and she must go back to them. Since her son's death, Mrs. Mallathorpe had scarcely spoken, and the doctor, knowing that her heart was not strong, was somewhat afraid of a collapse.

"If there is anything that I can do,--or if you should want me, during the night," said Collingwood, earnestly, "promise me that you'll send at once to the inn!"

"Yes," answered Nesta. "I will. But--I don't think there will be any need. We have two nurses here, and the doctor will stop. There is something I should be glad if you would do tomorrow," she went on, looking at him a little wistfully, "You know about--the inquest?"

"Yes," said Collingwood.

"They say we--that is I, because, of course, my mother couldn't--that I need not be present," she continued. "Mr. Robson--our solicitor--says it will be a very short, formal affair. He will be there, of course,--but--would you mind being there, too!--so that you can--afterwards--tell me all about it?"

"Will you tell me something--straight out?" answered Collingwood, looking intently at her. "Have you any doubt of any description about the accepted story of your brother's death? Be plain with me!"

Nesta hesitated for awhile before answering.

"Not of the actual circumstances," she replied at last,--none at all of what you call the accepted story. The fact is, I'm not a good hand at explaining anything, and perhaps I can't convey to you what I mean. But I've a feeling--an impression--that there is--or was some mystery on Saturday which might have--and might not have--oh, I can't make it clear, even to myself.

"If you would be at the inquest tomorrow, and listen carefully to everything--and then tell me afterwards--do you understand?"

"I understand," answered Collingwood. "Leave it to me."

Whether he expected to hear anything unusual at the inquest, whether he thought any stray word, hint, or suggestion would come up during the proceedings, Collingwood was no more aware than Nesta was certain of her vague ideas. But he was very soon assured that there was going to be nothing beyond brevity and formality. He had never previously been present at an inquest--his legal mind was somewhat astonished at the way in which things were done. It was quickly evident to him that the twelve good men and true of the jury--most of them cottagers and labourers living on the estate--were quite content to abide by the directions of the coroner, a Barford solicitor, whose one idea seemed to be to get through the proceedings as rapidly and smoothly as possible. And Collingwood felt bound to admit that, taking the evidence as it was brought forward, no simpler or more straightforward cause of investigation could be adduced. It was all very simple indeed--as it appeared there and then.

The butler, a solemn-faced, respectable type of the old family serving-man, spoke as to his identification of the dead master's body, and gave his evidence in a few sentences. Mr. Mallathorpe, he said, had gone out of the front door of the Grange at half-past two on Saturday afternoon, carrying a gun, and had turned into the road leading towards the South Shrubbery. At about Three o'clock Mr. Pratt had come running up the drive to the house, and told him and Miss Mallathorpe that he had just found Mr. Mallathorpe lying dead in the sunken cut between the South and North Shrubbery. Nobody had any question to ask the butler. Nor were any questions asked of Pratt--the one really important witness.

Pratt gave his evidence tersely and admirably. On Saturday morning he had seen an advertisement in the Barford newspapers which stated that a steward and agent was wanted for the Normandale Estate, and all applications were to be made to Mrs. Mallathorpe. Desirous of applying for the post, he had written out a formal letter during Saturday morning, had obtained a testimonial from his present employers, Messrs. Eldrick & Pascoe, and, anxious to present his application as soon as possible, had decided to take it to Normandale Grange himself, that afternoon. He had left Barford by the two o'clock train, which arrived at Normandale at two-thirty-five. Knowing the district well, he had taken the path through the plantations. Arrived at the foot-bridge, he had at once noticed that part of it had fallen in. Looking into the cutting, he had seen a man lying in the roadway beneath--motionless. He had scrambled down the side of the cutting, discovered that the man was Mr. Harper Mallathorpe, and that he was dead, and had immediately hurried up the road to the house, where he had informed the last witness and Miss Mallathorpe.

A quite plain story, evidently thought everybody--no questions needed. Nor were there any questions needed in the case of the only other witnesses--the estate carpenter who said that the foot-bridge was very old, but that he had not been aware that it was in quite so bad a condition, and who gave it as his opinion that the recent heavy rains had had something to do with the matter; and the doctor who testified that the victim had suffered injuries which would produce absolutely instantaneous death. A clear case--nothing could be clearer, said the coroner to his obedient jury, who presently returned the only verdict--one of accidental death--which, on the evidence, was possible.

Collingwood heard no comments on the inquest from those who were present. But that evening, as he sat in his parlour at the Normandale Arms, the landlord, coming in on pretence of attending to the fire, approached him with an air of mystery and jerked his thumb in the direction of the regions which he had just quitted.

"You remember what we were talking of this afternoon when you come in, sir?" he whispered. "There's some of 'em--regular nightly customers, village folk, you understand--talking of the same thing now, and of this here inquest. And if you'd like to hear a bit of what you may call local opinion--and especially one man's--I'll put you where you can hear it, without being seen. It's worth hearing, anyway."

Collingwood, curious to know what the village wiseacres had to say, rose, and followed the landlord into a small room at the back of the bar-parlour.

An open hatchment in the wall, covered by a thin curtain, allowed him to hear every word which came from what appeared to be a full company. But it was quickly evident that in that company there was one man who either was, or wished to be dictator and artifex--a man of loud voice and domineering tone, who was laying down the law to the accompaniment of vigorous thumpings of the table at which he sat. "What I say is--and I say it agen---I reckon nowt at all o' crowners' quests!" he was affirming, as Collingwood and his guide drew near the curtained opening. "What is a crowner's quest, anyway? It's nowt but formality--all form and show--it means nowt. All them 'at sits on t' jury does and says just what t' crowner tells 'em to say and do. They nivver ax no questions out o' their own mouths--they're as dumb as sheep--that's what yon jury wor this mornin'--now then!"

"That's James Stringer, the blacksmith," whispered the landlord, coming close to Collingwood's elbow. "He thinks he knows everything!"

"And pray, what would you ha' done, Mestur Stringer, if you'd been on yon jury?" inquired a milder voice. "I suppose ye'd ha' wanted to know a bit more, what?" "Mestur Stringer 'ud ha' wanted to know a deal more," observed another voice. "He would do!"

"There's a many things I want to know," continued the blacksmith, with a stout thump of the table. "They all tak' it for granted 'at young squire walked on to yon bridge, an' 'at it theer and then fell to pieces. Who see'd it fall to pieces? Who was theer to see what did happen?"

"What else did happen or could happen nor what were testified to?" asked a new voice. "Theer wor what they call circumstantial evidence to show how all t' affair happened!"

"Circumstantial evidence be blowed!" sneered the blacksmith heartily. "I reckon nowt o' circumstantial evidence! Look ye here! How do you know--how does anybody know 'at t' young squire worn't thrown off that bridge, and 'at t' bridge collapsed when he wor thrown? He might ha' met somebody on t' bridge, and quarrelled wi' 'em, and whoivver it wor might ha' been t' strongest man, and flung him into t' road beneath!"

"Aye, but i' that case t' other feller--t' assailant--'ud ha' fallen wi' him," objected somebody.

"Nowt o' t' sort!" retorted the blacksmith. "He'd be safe on t' sound part o' t' bridge--it's only a piece on 't that gave way. I say that theer idea wants in-quirin' into. An' theer's another thing--what wor that lawyer-clerk chap fro' Barford--Pratt--doin' about theer? What reight had he to be prowlin' round t' neighbourhood o' that bridge, and at that time? Come, now!--theer's a tickler for somebody."

"He telled that," exclaimed several voices. "He had business i' t' place. He had some papers to 'liver."

"Then why didn't he go t' nearest way to t' house t' 'liver 'em?" demanded Stringer. "T' shortest way to t' house fro' t' railway station is straight up t' carriage drive--not through them plantations. I ax agen--what wor that feller doin' theer? It's important."

"Why, ye don't suspect him of owt, do yer, Mestur Stringer?" asked somebody. "A respectable young feller like that theer--come!"

"I'm sayin' nowt about suspectin' nobody!" vociferated the blacksmith. "I'm doin' nowt but puttin' a case, as t' lawyers 'ud term it. I say 'at theer's a lot o' things 'at owt to ha' corned out. I'll tell ye one on 'em--how is it 'at nowt--not a single word--wor said at yon inquest about Mrs. Mallathorpe and t' affair? Not one word!"

A sudden silence fell on the company, and the landlord tapped Collingwood's arm and took the liberty of winking at him.

"Why," inquired somebody, at last, "what about Mrs. Mallathorpe and t' affair? What had she to do wi' t' affair?"

The blacksmith's voice became judicial in its solemnity.

"Ye listen to me!" he said with emphasis. "I know what I'm talking about. Ye know what came out at t' inquest. When this here Pratt ran to tell t' news at t' house he returned to what they term t' fatal spot i' company wi' t' butler, and a couple of footmen, and Dan Scholes, one o' t' grooms. Now theer worn't a word said at t' inquest about what that lot--five on em, mind yer--found when they reached t' dead corpse--not one word! But I know--Dan Scholes tell'd me!"

"What did they find, then, Mestur Stringer?" asked an eager member of the assemblage. "What wor it?"

The blacksmith's voice sank to a mysterious whisper.

"I'll tell yer!" he replied. "They found Mrs. Mallathorpe, lyin' i' a dead faint--close by! And they say 'at she's nivver done nowt but go out o' one faint into another, ivver since. So, of course, she's nivver been able to tell if she saw owt or knew owt! And what I say is," he concluded, with a heavy thump of the table, "that theer crowner's quest owt to ha' been what they term adjourned, until Mrs. Mallathorpe could tell if she did see owt, or if she knew owt, or heer'd owt! She mun ha' been close by--or else they wo'dn't ha' found her lyin' theer aside o' t' corpse. What did she see? What did she hear? Does she know owt? I tell ye 'at theer's questions 'at wants answerin'--and theer's trouble ahead for somebody if they aren't answered--now then!"

Collingwood went away from his retreat, beckoning the landlord to follow. In the parlour he turned to him.

"Have you heard anything of what Stringer said just now?" he asked. "I mean--about Mrs. Mallathorpe?"

"Heard just the same--and from the same chap, Scholes, the groom, sir," replied the landlord. "Oh, yes! Of course, people will wonder why they didn't get some evidence from Mrs. Mallathorpe--just as Stringer says."

Collingwood sat a long time that night, thinking over the things he had heard. He came to the conclusion that the domineering blacksmith was right in one of his dogmatic assertions--there was trouble ahead. And next morning, before going up to the Grange, he went to the nearest telegraph office, and sent Sir John Standridge a lengthy message in which he resigned the appointment that would have taken him to India.