Scarhaven Keep by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XI. Beneath the Brambles
By the time Copplestone and the pseudo-curate had reached the plateau of open ground surrounding the ruins it seemed as if half the population of Scarhaven had gathered there. Men, women and children were swarming about the door in the curtain wall, all manifesting an eager desire to pass through. But the door was strictly guarded. Chatfield, armed with a new oak cudgel stood there, masterful and lowering; behind him were several estate labourers, all keeping the people back. And within the door stood Marston Greyle, evidently considerably restless and perturbed, and every now and then looking out on the mob which the fast-spreading rumour had called together. In one of these inspections he caught sight of Copplestone, and spoke to Chatfield, who immediately sent one of his body-guard through the throng.
"Mr. Greyle says will you go forward, sir?" said the man. "Your friend can go in too, if he likes."
"That's your clerical garb," whispered Copplestone as he and Gilling made their way to the door. "But why this sudden politeness?"
"Oh, that's easy to reckon up," answered Gilling. "I see through it. They want creditable and respectable witnesses to something or other. This big, heavy-jowled man is Chatfield, of course?"
"That's Chatfield," responded Copplestone. "What's he after?"
For the agent, as the two young men approached, ostentiously turned away from them, moving a few steps from the door. He muttered a word or two to the men who guarded it and they stood aside and allowed Copplestone and the curate to enter. Marston Greyle came forward, eyeing Gilling with a sharp glance of inspection. He turned from him to Copplestone.
"Will you come in?" he asked, not impolitely and with a certain anxiety of manner. "I want you to--to be present, in fact. This gentleman is a friend of yours?"
"An acquaintance of an hour," interposed Gilling, with ready wit. "I have just come to stay at the inn--for my health's sake."
"Perhaps you'll be kind enough to accompany us?" said Greyle. "The fact is, Mr. Copplestone, we've found Mr. Bassett Oliver's body."
"I thought so," remarked Copplestone.
"And as soon as the police come up," continued Greyle, "I want you all to see exactly where it is. No one's touched it--no one's been near it. Of course, he's dead!"
He lifted his hand with a nervous gesture, and the two others, who were watching him closely, saw that he was trembling a good deal, and that his face was very pale.
"Dead!--of course," he went on. "He--he must have been killed instantaneously. And you'll see in a minute or two why the body wasn't found before--when we made that first search. It's quite explainable. The fact is--"
A sudden bustle at the door in the wall heralded the entrance of two policemen. The Squire went forward to meet them. The prospect of immediate action seemed to pull him together and his manner changed to one of assertive superintendence of things.
"Now, Mr. Chatfield!" he called out. "Keep all these people away! Close the door and let no one enter on any excuse. Stay there yourself and see that we are not interrupted. Come this way now," he went on, addressing the policemen and the two favoured spectators.
"You've found him, then, sir?" asked the police-sergeant in a thick whisper, as Greyle led his party across the grass to the foot of the Keep. "I suppose it's all up with the poor gentleman; of course? The doctor, he wasn't in, but they'll send him up as soon--"
"Mr. Bassett Oliver is dead," interrupted Greyle, almost harshly. "No doctors can do any good. Now, look here," he continued, pulling them to a sudden halt, "I want all of you to take particular notice of this old tower--the Keep. I believe you have not been in here before, Mr. Copplestone--just pay particular attention to this place. Here you see is the Keep, standing in the middle of what I suppose was the courtyard of the old castle. It's a square tower, with a stair-turret at one angle. The stair in that turret is in a very good state of preservation--in fact, it is quite easy to climb to the top, and from the top there's a fine view of land and sea: the Keep itself is nearly a hundred feet in height. Now the inside of the Keep is completely gutted, as you'll presently see--there isn't a floor left of the five or six which were once there. And I'm sorry to say there's very little protection when one's at the top--merely a narrow ledge with a very low parapet, which in places is badly broken. Consequently, any one who climbs to the top must be very careful, or there's the danger of slipping off that ledge and falling to the bottom. Now in my opinion that's precisely what happened on Sunday afternoon. Oliver evidently got in here, climbed the stairs in the turret to enjoy the view and fell from the parapet. And why his body hasn't been found before I'll now show you."
He led the way to the extreme foot of the Keep, and to a very low-arched door, at which stood a couple of the estate labourers, one of whom carried a lighted lantern. To this man the Squire made a sign.
"Show the way," he said, in a low voice.
The man turned and descended several steps of worn and moss-covered stone which led through the archway into a dark, cellar-like place smelling strongly of damp and age. Greyle drew the attention of his companions to a heap of earth and rubbish at the entrance.
"We had to clear all that out before we could get in here," he said. "This archway hadn't been opened for ages. This, of course, is the very lowest story of the Keep, and half beneath the level of the ground outside. Its roof has gone, like all the rest, but as you see, something else has supplied its place. Hold up your lantern, Marris!"
The other men looked up and saw what the Squire meant. Across the tower, at a height of some fifteen or twenty feet from the floor, Nature, left unchecked, had thrown a ceiling of green stuff. Bramble, ivy, and other spreading and climbing plants had, in the course of years, made a complete network from wall to wall. In places it was so thick that no light could be seen through it from beneath; in other places it was thin and glimpses of the sky could be seen from above the grey, tunnel-like walls. And in one of those places, close to the walls, there was a distinct gap, jagged and irregular, as if some heavy mass had recently plunged through the screen of leaf and branch from the heights above, and beneath this the startled searchers saw the body, lying beside a heap of stones and earth in the unmistakable stillness of death.
"You see how it must have happened," whispered Greyle, as they all bent round the dead man. "He must have fallen from the very top of the Keep--from the parapet, in fact--and plunged through this mass of green stuff above us. If he had hit that where it's so thick--there!--it might have broken his fall, but, you see, he struck it at the very thinnest part, and being a big and heavyish man, of course, he'd crash right through it. Now of course, when we examined the Keep on Monday morning, it never struck us that there might be something down here--if you go up the turret stairs to the top and look down on this mass of green stuff from the very top, you'll see that it looks undisturbed; there's scarcely anything to show that he fell through it, from up there. But--he did!"
"Whose notion was it that he might be found here?" asked Copplestone.
"Chatfield's," replied the Squire. "Chatfield's. He and I were up at the top there, and he suddenly suggested that Oliver might have fallen from the parapet and be lying embedded in that mass of green stuff beneath. We didn't know then--even Chatfield didn't know--that there was this empty space beneath the green stuff. But when we came to go into it, we found there was, so we had that archway cleared of all the stone and rubbish and of course we found him."
"The body'll have to be removed, sir," whispered the police-sergeant. "It'll have to be taken down to the inn, to wait the inquest."
Marston Greyle started.
"Inquest!" he said. "Oh!--will that have to be held? I suppose so--yes. But we'd better wait until the doctor comes, hadn't we? I want him--"
The doctor came into the gloomy vault at that moment, escorted by Chatfield, who, however, immediately retired. He was an elderly, old-fashioned somewhat fussy-mannered person, who evidently attached much more importance to the living Squire than to the dead man, and he listened to all Marston Greyle's explanations and theories with great deference and accepted each without demur. "Ah yes, to be sure!" he said, after a perfunctory examination of the body. "The affair is easily understood. It is precisely as you suggest, Squire. The unfortunate man evidently climbed to the top of the tower, missed his footing, and fell headlong. That slight mass of branch and leaf would make little difference--he was, you see, a heavy man--some fourteen or fifteen stone, I should think. Oh, instantaneous death, without a doubt! Well, well, these constables must see to the removal of the body, and we must let my friend the coroner know--he will hold the inquest tomorrow, no doubt. Quite a mere formality, my dear sir!--the whole thing is as plain as a pikestaff. It will be a relief to know that the mystery is now satisfactorily solved."
Outside in the welcome freshness, Copplestone turned to the doctor.
"You say the inquest will be held tomorrow?" he asked. The doctor looked his questioner up and down with an inquiry which signified doubt as to Copplestone's right to demand information.
"In the usual course," he replied stiffly.
"Then his brother, Sir Cresswell Oliver, and his solicitor, Mr. Petherton, must be wired for from London," observed Copplestone, turning to Greyle. "I'll communicate with them at once. I suppose we may go up the tower?" he continued as Greyle nodded his assent. "I'd like to see the stairs and the parapet."
Greyle looked a little doubtful and uneasy.
"Well, I had meant that no one should go up until all this was gone into," he answered. "I don't want any more accidents. You'll be careful?"
"We're both young and agile," responded Copplestone.
"There's no need for alarm. Do you care to go up, Mr. Gilling?"
The pseudo-curate accepted the invitation readily, and he and Copplestone entered the turret. They had climbed half its height before Copplestone spoke.
"Well?" he whispered. "What do you think?"
"It may be accident," muttered Gilling. "It--mayn't."
"You think he might have been--what?--thrown down?"
"Might have been caught unawares, and pushed over. Let's see what there is up above, anyway."
The stair in the turret, much worn, but comparatively safe, and lighted by loopholes and arrow-slits, terminated in a low arched doorway, through which egress was afforded to a parapet which ran completely round the inner wall of the Keep. It was in no place more than a yard wide; the balustrading which fenced it in was in some places completely gone, a mere glance was sufficient to show that only a very cool-headed and extremely sure-footed person ought to traverse it. Copplestone contented himself with an inspection from the archway; he looked down and saw at once that a fall from that height must mean sure and swift death: he saw, too, that Greyle had been quite right in saying that the sudden plunge of Oliver's body through the leafy screen far beneath had made little difference to the appearance of that screen as seen from above. And now that he saw everything it seemed to him that the real truth might well lie in one word--accident.
"Coming round this parapet?" asked Gilling, who was looking narrowly about him.
"No!" replied Copplestone. "I can't stand looking down from great heights. It makes my head swim. Are you?"
"Sure!" answered Gilling. He took off his heavy overcoat and handed it to his companion. "Mind holding it?" he asked. "I want to have a good look at the exact spot from which Oliver must have fallen. There's the gap--such as it is, and it doesn't look much from here, does it?--in the green stuff, down below, so he must have been here on the parapet exactly above it. Gad! it's very narrow, and a bit risky, this, when all's said and done!"
Copplestone watched his companion make his way round to the place from which it was only too evident Oliver must have fallen. Gilling went slowly, carefully inspecting every yard of the moss and lichen-covered stones. Once he paused some time and seemed to be examining a part of the parapet with unusual attention. When he reached the precise spot at which he had aimed, he instantly called across to Copplestone.
"There's no doubt about his having fallen from here!" he said. "Some of the masonry on the very edge of this parapet is loose. I could dislodge it with a touch."
"Then be careful," answered Copplestone. "Don't cross that bit!"
But Gilling quietly continued his progress and returned to his companion by the opposite side from which he had set out, having thus accomplished the entire round. He quietly reassumed his overcoat.
"No doubt about the fall," he said as they turned down the stair. "The next thing is--was it accidental?"
"And--as regards that--what's to be done next?" asked Copplestone.
"That's easy. We must go at once and wire for Sir Cresswell and old Petherton," replied Gilling. "It's now four-thirty. If they catch an evening express at King's Cross they'll get here early in the morning. If they like to motor from Norcaster they can get here in the small hours. But--they must be here for that inquest."
Greyle was talking to Chatfield at the foot of the Keep when they got down. The agent turned surlily away, but the Squire looked at both with an unmistakable eagerness.
"There's no doubt whatever that Oliver fell from the parapet," said Copplestone. "The marks of a fall are there--quite unmistakably."
Greyle nodded, but made no remark, and the two made their way through the still eager crowd and went down to the village post-office. Both were wondering, as they went, about the same thing--the evident anxiety and mental uneasiness of Marston Greyle.