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Authors: Michael Innes

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Judith ignored this appeal, but still sought information.

‘Does anybody use parts of the canal any longer? There seems to be a certain amount of water in this section still. And the last lock we passed seemed almost in working order.'

‘Anybody use it? Good Lord, no! You could get a punt or dinghy along stretches of it, I suppose. But who'd want to do that? Dreary thing a canal, I'd say. Of course the tunnel is different.' Channing-Kennedy appeared to recollect this suddenly. ‘Historical interest, and all that – as I was saying. Tourists sure to come along when the publicity boys do their stuff.'

‘Are you going to take them for trips in the tunnel? Can one go through?'

‘Through
the tunnel?' The landlord of the Jolly Leggers was horrified. ‘Lord, no! Damned dangerous place. Falling masonry. Foul air. Death trap, absolutely.'

‘But I see it's not shut off in any way. Are the local children never tempted to explore it?'

Channing-Kennedy chuckled unpleasantly.

‘I'd take the hide off their bottoms if they tried. The place is my Company's property now, you see. But, in fact, the brats don't go near it. Got a bad name. Haunted, the locals think. Some legend or old wives' tale about it, I believe. Ignorant crowd, the yokels round about here. But uppish, too. Think they know a thing or two about beer.'

‘And do they?' Appleby asked.

‘As a matter of fact, old boy, I'd rather suppose they do.' Channing-Kennedy, as he used this abominable form of address, seemed to have a moment of simple candour. ‘And I know damn-all about it myself. Scotch and gin see me through the day – with a drop of brandy at shut-eye, when this hole looks like getting me down. The Channing-Kennedys have been short drinkers for a good many generations, I'd say.' Mr David Channing-Kennedy advanced this proud claim with all the casual seriousness of a man intimating a long family connection with the Quorn or the Brigade of Guards. ‘Going on your way, are you? Well, chin-chin!'

‘What a dreadful man,' Judith said as they walked off. ‘And I suppose his kind are pushing out the decent old pub keepers all over the place.'

‘I rather doubt that. I don't suppose there are all that number of Channing-Kennedys around. Or, on the other hand, all that number of Seth Crabtrees. All in all, this seems to me to be rather an odd part of the world.'

Judith laughed.

‘You get ideas in your head, John. It's a trick of the old sage. You'd like to stumble on a mystery, busman's holiday or no busman's holiday. I suppose that the van driver was odd too?'

‘Oh, most decidedly.' They were now back on the towpath, and Appleby set off along it without hesitation. ‘I think this will be our shortest way.'

‘Our shortest way?' Judith was puzzled. ‘Back to Pryde Park?'

‘Certainly not. On to Scroop House.'

‘Scroop House!' Judith was so astonished that she stopped in her tracks.

‘Isn't that where you want to go? Have you forgotten your glass of Madeira with Mr Bertram Coulson? Open and affable, he will see at a glance that the Ravens have been short drinkers even longer than the Channing-Kennedys. So there you'll be, my lady. And I shall be accommodated with a mug of ale in the butler's pantry by Mr Hollywood.'

Judith found it unnecessary to respond to this pleasantry. For some minutes she walked on in silence. John, she told herself, being aware that she was determined to take him to Scroop House, was rather childishly proposing to take the wind out of her sails by asserting that
he
was determined to take
her
. But, no – she knew quite well that this wasn't it. John's curiosity about places and people was quite different from hers. And something had brought it into play. On a country walk, for instance, he would stride beside her for most of the time in an abstraction. Perhaps he was brooding on London's traffic problems or on the latest statistics of juvenile crime. She wouldn't know. And then from time to time he would emerge and talk about anything that came into his head. But it was she who noticed the lie of the land and read the map. That was how it commonly was. But at this moment, she saw, John was very aware of his surroundings. He had now stopped to take a better look at them. Something had put it into his head to get hold of what he would have called the terrain.

The towpath – as they had discovered on their outward walk – was muddy, crumbling and overgrown. But Judith found a log, sat on it, and watched John fish out the map. She herself got out a cigarette. She had hardly lit it before John had put on a turn with his watch and the sun, oriented the map by means of some Boy Scout's ensuing calculation, and was holding forth (she thought with ironic affection) like a brigadier impressing his staff on manoeuvres.

‘The village near the inn' – Appleby said – ‘is no more than a hamlet, it's called Nether Scroop. But a secondary motor road goes through it, sweeps towards the canal on a gentle curve, comes nearest to it when level with the lock you did that foolish little walk on, and then sweeps away to the south again. Eventually it becomes our own familiar road past Pryde Park.'

‘Yes, John,' Judith said.

‘As soon as we get to the lock, we have the park of Scroop House on our left, across the canal. The house itself stands a quarter of a mile back from the canal, and is on the eastern fringe of the park proper. On the east, that is to say, one quickly comes to solid beech woods, which run from the canal to the high road north of the house.'

‘Yes, John. As a matter of fact, I can see them from here.'

‘From the house to the canal there's some sort of track indicated on the map. It ends at what may be an old wharf. That's interesting. If you ask me, canal and house came into being more or less together – and the canal was the real artery to the grand house, just as much as to the humble inn farther west. It wasn't an uncommon set-up. The gentry – Ravens and the like – drove up by road in post-chaises and barouches and what-have-you. But the coal and the provender – to say nothing of the building materials in the first place – arrived by the wonderful new canal. It's true that the house now looks as if it had been built rather close to a whacking great high road. But, in fact, there can have been little more than a lane. The big road to the north of the house, that's to say, which runs roughly parallel to the canal, belongs to an altogether later age. And it's had the effect of squashing the village of Upper Scroop between itself and Scroop House. To the north, the house almost turns into village. No doubt the village nestles in an appropriately humble and protected and overlorded way beneath the house. But the effect of spaciousness and privacy is all on the side of the park – here, that's to say, to the south.'

‘It's private enough. As we were saying, this countryside seems absolutely deserted. Not a sign of habitation, population, a trace of the modern world.'

‘You're wrong there, Judith. Look south.'

Judith looked south – which was towards what Appleby had called the secondary motor road. All she saw was a momentary glint of light.

‘I think,' she said, ‘that I saw the sun reflected from the windscreen of a passing car. Right?'

‘Right as far as you go. What you saw was a silver-grey Rolls-Royce Phantom V.'

‘My dear John, it's terribly vulgar to
name
cars – particularly astoundingly expensive ones. It's only done by cheap novelists. You must say: “a very large car”.'

Appleby received this with hilarity.

‘It isn't' – he said – ‘for that matter so
very
large. There are American cars you could pretty well tuck it into the boot or trunk of. But I agree that it's in the upper income bracket. Somebody rather comfortably off is frequenting these rural near-solitudes.'

‘Perhaps it's Mr Bertram Coulson. Perhaps he's put into a really terrific car the money that should be hiring phalanxes of footmen to relieve Hollywood of the invidious task of answering the front-door bell at improper hours. But what's the point of getting interested in a passing car, anyway?'

Appleby shook his head.

‘I don't know,' he said. ‘I just don't know, at all. Let's walk on.' He glanced again at the map. ‘We'll cross the canal by the lock. That's not very far from what I said might be a wharf on the Scroop House side. There's probably a track to it along the canal. And then we can take the old road up through the park to the house.'

‘Again we're not in utter solitude, after all,' Judith said. ‘But this time it's not a Rolls. It's a wayfarer. And actually coming towards us, along the towpath.'

‘Somebody for you to pass the time of day with. Perhaps he can tell us–' Appleby broke off. ‘Well, I'm blessed!'

‘Whatever is it now?'

‘Didn't you see the fellow stop?'

‘Of course I saw him stop. What of it? Whoever he is, he's coming on again now.'

‘Only because he realizes that we've seen him.
He
saw
us
– and came to a momentary dead halt. Isn't that odd?'

‘Not in the least.' Judith said this not wholly confidently. ‘He's one of those pathologically shy people who would walk round the block rather than encounter their oldest friend. They often take to rambling and birdwatching and so forth. It seems to me, incidentally, that you're going a shade pathological yourself. Paranoia. Suspecting things.'

Appleby ignored this.

‘He doesn't look like a birdwatcher,' he said. ‘I'd guess that he was the local doctor.'

‘Very well. He's the local doctor, going his rounds.'

‘But he hasn't got one of those little bags. And where are the patients? Nothing but cows round about here.'

‘Then perhaps he's the local vet. Let's ask him.'

‘I wouldn't put it beyond you. But I don't think he's going to give us much opportunity for chat. Just a civil but unpausing good day.'

This forecast proved to be correct. The stranger – who, although in country tweeds, did give the impression of being a professional man not far from his job – brushed past the Applebys on the narrow path with only a curt greeting.

‘There you are,' Appleby said, when they were out of hearing. ‘He wouldn't – would he? – recognize us again if he saw us. The look he gave us was just that sort of look. Projecting upon
us
, you know, what he'd like to think held of himself. A simple and very common psychological mechanism.'

‘John, for pity's sake! Don't be such a
bore
.' Judith didn't, in fact, look at all bored. She was amused. ‘You mean he'd like to think we might see him again tomorrow and not know him from Adam?'

‘Just that.'

‘This mystery-mongering is beyond me. Thank heavens it comes on you only in spasms.'

‘Very well. And now for Mr and Mrs Bertram Coulson.'

‘Seth Crabtree didn't mention Bertram Coulson's having a wife.'

‘No – but then, for Seth Crabtree, there has been only one woman in the world. Barring, that is, the girl who wasn't interested in the barge he carved for her. Only
the
Mrs Coulson, the Grand Collector, counts with him. Incidentally, we didn't gather if
she
had a husband in Seth's time. But, as I say, now for Mr and Mrs Bertram Coulson and the children.'

‘Children?'

‘I see no reason why Scroop House shouldn't be normally accommodated in that way. Instead of seed cake and Madeira, a jolly family tea. And here's the lock. Just be careful getting across the gate. It's slippery. And, as I said before, if you go in, it won't be easy to get you out. Or to get help, for that matter. It's an uncommonly lonely spot.'

‘Why are men so fond of telling women to be careful?' As she spoke, Judith was examining the lock gates. ‘You know, they haven't the look of being kept in any sort of repair. And yet I think they could be made to open. And the ones at the other end, too.'

‘That's so.' Putting a hand lightly on an insecure and rotting breast rail, Appleby peered down into the lock, as he had done on their outward walk. ‘Hullo! Something seems to have come to the surface.' He stiffened. ‘Judith – are you across?'

Judith laughed. ‘Yes, John. Safe on the bank, thank you.'

‘Then I can tell you something rather shocking. I'm afraid it's a body.' He paused. ‘It's Seth Crabtree,' he said quietly.

 

 

4

Judith came back at once and stood beside Appleby on the gate. She was pale, but she looked down steadily at the inert form in the lock. It lay prone, so that the face was invisible. But the clothes were certainly Crabtree's. And Crabtree's battered old hat floated nearby.

‘John – do you think he's dead?'

‘It looks like that, I'm afraid. But I must get down and see. Perhaps we can revive him.'

As he spoke, Appleby got to his knees on the gate, lowered himself over its edge, dropped to the full stretch of his arms, and then let himself fall. It wasn't a particularly hazardous operation, but it was a messy one. He expected a good deal of mud beneath the few feet of water, and there was in fact enough of it to suck in an ugly way at his legs as he strove to retain his balance after the drop. Laboriously, he waded the few feet that separated him from the body.

‘Face submerged,' he called up to Judith. ‘He's suspended somehow – or sprawled on a snag of some sort. No – it's his coat that has caught on the hinge of the gate. That's prevented him from going right under. There may be some hope. I think I can turn him over.' He bent over the body, and Judith heard a stifled exclamation.

‘What is it, John?'

‘He's caught himself a very queer crack. I don't like it. And I can't do much down here. So we're faced with what we were talking about: the problem of getting out. Go to the other gate – will you? – and see if, by any chance, the sluice or valve or whatever it's called is working. If we can get the level down and the gates open, then I can lug him into the canal at that end, and we can manage some sort of scramble up the bank.'

BOOK: A Connoisseur's Case
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