Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'
I first met Sidney Wainwright through an old colleague who was about to retire to the south of France. All his clients would require another solicitor in the firm to represent them, and it was on his suggestion that I took Wainwright as my client. I had already been intrigued by Wainwright, of course, from the talk of the senior partners in the firm; all knew of his propensity for investigation, and all had failed to persuade Wainwright to help them exonerate some client of theirs. Somehow my old colleague knew of my interest in the topic of spiritualism, probably from the fact I always had one or two of A.C. Doyle’s works about the subject on my desk and had suggested we may get on well.
I was but a junior solicitor in those days and was still finding my way in the world. Colonel Jerome (the only way I had ever addressed my father) had envisioned me for Sandhurst, like all my older brothers. Unlike the other men in my family, though, I had never wanted an army career. Thus, with no sense of direction in my life, when I first met Sidney Wainwright, I suppose I was looking for something.
My colleague couldn’t have provided Wainwright with much by way of professional services judging by the very slim nature of his Wainwright file. Nevertheless, I had been told that he and my colleague had built up quite a friendship. It still left me surprised at our first meeting that Wainwright invited me for a drink when I finished work. It turned out he needed my services, as he had with my predecessor, in a capacity beyond that of a solicitor of the firm. That is, however, another story. At first, Sidney Wainwright wanted to get to know me.
That evening I found myself in Wainwright’s attic studio. It was at the top of a rather crowded house full of lodgers, and it seemed to be the only room in the place that was his. With not even a bed, it was clear he did not live there, and as I got to know him more I discovered it was only a place he would visit while he was in London. To this day, though, I still don’t know where it was he retired to when out of the city and I have only the vaguest knowledge of his family.
The studio was small, with bookshelves stacked as high as the slanting ceiling would allow, a roaring fire, two cosy armchairs and a writing desk by the window. As I sat there, taking this in, I could sense that, even before he poured me a drink, Sidney Wainwright knew exactly what I wanted to ask him.
“I understand you want to hear of a mystery, Mr Jerome?” he began. I couldn’t even bring myself to nod. “There are many mysterious parts to the curious tale of the unknown soldier that every man wishes to know, yet only one which ever made me wonder.” Sidney smiled at me then, for the first time. It was with a regard that never seemed to come from men of that generation for their juniors. And this sudden warmth made me much more at ease.
“Many years ago, I met a man in the woods,” he continued. “I was travelling south to the sea at the time, on my bicycle, when I had a puncture. As I sat on a boulder, patching up the tyre, the old fellow came up to me. He had a milk churn in one hand and what looked to be a witch’s broom across his shoulder. He was, or so he said, the last of the broomsquires, the people of the woods. And it was he who told me of the place through which I travelled and its gruesome history.
One of the most noticeable features among the woods and heathlands of the road south from London is a peculiar rock formation known as the Devil’s Crown. It breaks out high above the landscape, just like a jagged coronet protruding from the depths of the world, and can be seen from many miles away, even as far as the coast on a clear day. An old gibbet tree remains near the peak, the place of a lonely death for many a highwayman. The spot fascinates many with various accounts of outlaws and a gruesome murder, but it is the question rarely asked that was the only truth I ever wanted to find.” Wainwright trailed off, then thoughtfully tended to the fire on which he placed another lump of coal.
“What was that?” I asked after a long moment.
Wainwright turned to me, his eye’s glinting in the firelight. “Who the poor victim was, of course!”
A storm was brewing and the hour was late. Old Doctor Peachy had melted into an armchair by the fire at the Lamb Inn. The little man was weary that evening, but the conversation at the bar had woken him from his stupor. He was the audience to a grim comedy of secrets occurring before him. Each man standing there that night, raising his tankard merrily with his fellows, had something to hide. Peachy knew it all. There is a great deal of confidence kept by doctors you see. Foremost, to Doctor Peachy’s horror, came the sudden thought that murder could well be among those secrets.
Chief drinker this evening was Mr Fisher, a local landowner. He was a wealthy, rotund man who charged his tenant’s exorbitant rents. He was seldom to be seen drinking at the Inn, with what he termed to be “the rabble and the swine”, but tonight was different, and he’d arrived already drunk.
Fisher had something to celebrate. He was about to be married to a very well off young woman, a Fitzalan-Howard no less. Soon he would be able to afford to gamble and drink in the best of the London gentlemen’s clubs, for the rest of his life, if his heart so desired. If only everyone knew the contents of Mr Fisher’s well-guarded closet, thought Doctor Peachy. The truth would ruin the man.
“Clear out the lot of them, I say!” boozed Fisher with his tankard high in the air. The men standing at the bar had been conversing about the broomsquires who frequented the woods in those parts and their pagan ways. Doctor Peachy gave an understanding nod. But then he spoke up, to his own surprise.
“Get to know them, sir, they are fair folk really, just different.” Heads turned towards him from the bar. “I myself have treated several of the wood folk. I assure you they are good, harmless people.”
“You see much gratitude, or payment for your services then doctor?” said Fisher. His flat red face broadened with a smile. Peachy didn’t retort. Fisher was his patient, but none at the bar, indeed few in these parts, were interested in the opinion of an educated man. They all kept themselves to themselves as much as they could and detested anything foreign or different polluting their lives.
With Fisher were two soldiers, Miller and Dobson. They had come in together, in bright and lively spirits, and had at once interrupted the conversation between the doctor and Mr Fisher when they stood at the fire to warm themselves. Fisher was much more interested in talking with ‘real men’.
“I see we have some gentlemen of calibre among us at last!” he had said when the men had arrived.
“Good evening to you sir,” Dobson had replied warmly. He shook Fisher firmly by the hand but it was not only the fat gentleman’s attention that Dobson caught. For anyone surveying the newcomer in the firelight, it had been plain that he was well built, tall and with a face chiselled such as to attract the notice of several of the women near the bar. Miller was far less noticeable, but at Dobson’s side, and with his brilliant uniform, he too was the source of many an intrigued muttering.
Clearly bored with talk of the broomsquires, Fisher changed the topic and turned away from Doctor Peachy.
“Where, may I ask, are you off to lads?”
“India, sir! A long and dangerous exploit,” said Miller.
“Barman! Drinks for my new friends,” called Fisher. None of the company at the Inn had ever known the miser to be so generous, but then again none of them was his quality of companion. A lively conversation began in earnest and it was sometime before Doctor Peachy had bothered to look over again.
A pocket watch was on the bar now, and there was talk of a sale. Doctor Peachy liked watches, and one as uncommon as that, with a fine gold and silver front, had him noticing. The trouble was, that watch confirmed the doctor’s suspicion. He somehow knew what was going to happen next, and he had just the perfect spot from which to see it.
Galloping hooves could be heard from outside. The front door was flung open. The rain was heavy beyond the threshold, and a grim-looking man, who was drenched to the bone, stumbled inside. A rush of cold air followed in his wake. The fellow, however, had neither shelter nor warmth on his mind. It took a moment for the people at the bar to notice, but he was in a drenched navy-blue uniform. He was one of the local police sergeants.
“I need the doctor! There’s been a murder on the road,” the sergeant wheezed with a shiver.
The crowded bar gasped, and Doctor Peachy had the perfect view of each and every reaction to the revelation. He had seen guilt amongst those faces, he knew it. It was like the tell of a very poor gambler. But this was not the moment to reveal the truth. All eyes turned to him and Doctor Peachy at once alerted the sergeant to his presence.
A few minutes later, after retreating into a back room to consult with the sergeant, and borrowing an ill-fitting raincoat from the landlord, Doctor Peachy prepared to venture out into the rain. It seemed an unknown traveller had been beaten and robbed while journeying towards the coast. He had fled up to the Devil’s Crown, but he had been stabbed and his body was cast from the peak to be broken by the fall. It was back near the road, where his body had fallen, that he had been discovered.
When he came back to the bar Peachy overheard Fisher talking loudly again. Despite the air of unease, he was entertained by the thrilling notion of a killer on the loose, and a bit of excitement in the area. The other patrons followed his sentiment. The doctor could barely believe it, for most agreed with the fat old fellow. When they spoke of the goings on in the area there was always an air of concern and yet now, it was all intrigue and delight. Easy to see it in such terms from in here, thought Doctor Peachy.
“Who d’ y’ suppose ‘e was sergeant?” asked the landlord from behind the bar. But Fisher spoke over the top before the policeman could answer.
“People die every day!” he exclaimed, the last to care. “He wasn’t from these parts, the sergeant would have known him. The funny folk around here wouldn’t dare attack one of us, it would be too much of a risk.” Hearing these words, Doctor Peachy had suggested to the sergeant that they leave.
“We’d best get there before we lose too much evidence due to the rain,” he’d said, and the two men left the intrigued throng to their morbid fascination.
As he rode through the wet night on the way to the fateful spot, Doctor Peachy recalled the curious encounter he had earlier that evening.
At twilight on that very same dark road from London to the sea, there had been three companions. As they travelled through the woods, with the very shadow of the Devil’s Crown looming above them, they saw several elusive figures in the trees. At first, they seemed to be figments of the imagination, only visible as flitters across the ripples of light from the rising moon. But the rustle of branches and the snapping of twigs made the travellers realise they were not alone. Someone, or something was lurking in the woods. Their leader had wondered to himself as to the wisdom of the advice of his new companions to stay on the road this late. Had they been careless to still be travelling on after dark?
A throaty call from some distance behind them made the three men jump, waking them from their anxious thoughts.
“Hello! Hello! Good evening gentlemen, one and all!” Along the road, with a swinging lantern marking his approach had come Doctor Peachy. “What brings three strangers to these parts so late?” he’d asked.
Doctor Peachy was a jolly sort of chap, but cowered in his manner and submissive in his gentle handshakes with the three men. He was so bent over in his stance that he had the silhouette of a shepherd’s staff, his neck curved right over at the top. His head was bowed so that he presented the top of his head to you before you saw his face.
The trio’s leader bade Doctor Peachy welcome, yet the other two fellows held back behind.
“Good evening, sir,” said the leader, walking along with the doctor. “We are hoping to find beds for the night soon! But we have just seen some strange looking fellows! They were in the woods, over there.”
“Ah yes, I expect you did! They are out most evenings,” said Doctor Peachy. The doctor’s apparent lack of concern for their imminent future allayed the fears of the two who had fallen behind. But the leader’s eyes scanned the woods intently.
“Pray, there they are again!” exclaimed the leader. And indeed, some shadows did flitter once more between the trees. There was barely a sound as unseen men melted into the undergrowth. “They aren’t thieves or highwaymen are they?”
“Oh no, my boy, they are but the broomsquires. They frequent the woods as much as badgers in these parts.” The doctor went on to familiarise his new acquaintances with the odd community that led a notorious and quaint way of life in the district. With their traditions of living off the land and making brooms from the forest, most thought they still kept to the pagan habits. As with anyone who did not fit into conventional society, their way of life inspired stories and rumours. In the broomsquires case these murmurings were about sorcery, witchcraft and magical secrets within the woods, many of which seemed a little too fantastic to be believed.
“Are they not the godless folk we are always warned about avoiding?” the leader asked.
“Judge not, lest ye be judged, my boy!” said Doctor Peachy. “For they are fair folk, as honest as the day is long, whether they follow our God or not.”
The leader considered this. Despite the weird tales attributed to the broomsquires, he felt he trusted the old man.
“And what are you to them, that you know them so well?” one of the company enquired.
“I am their doctor, my friend, for someone has to be.”
“If they are friends with you, we ought to have nothing to fear, aye lads!” The leader was in better spirits now with the friendly old doctor for company. His companions had been in an odd and jumpy mood since they had set out that afternoon.
“Why not come with me to the Inn down in the valley, and rest a while?”
As the leader checked his pocket watch in the gloom, a fine time piece with a gold and silver front, the leader gave his answer. “We should like to very—”
“We don’t need your help, old man!” One of his companions cut in. Doctor Peachy had later learned that this was Dobson.
“I should only like to see you gentlemen safe and warm,” said the doctor, taken aback at such rudeness.
“Be on your way! We do not need you here!” snarled Miller.
And so away Doctor Peachy had carried on to the Inn, shocked by how a fine fellow as the leader had wound up with two miscreants such as those.
An hour or so later, when Dobson and Miller had entered the Lamb Inn together, Doctor Peachy had felt concerned. Where was their leader? The shorter man, Miller, had blood on his shirt cuff and had hastily rolled it under the sleeve of his scarlet tunic. “You changed your minds,” the doctor had thought to say to them when they’d arrived. But when he realised they hadn’t recognised him in the light, he thought better of it. In any case, Fisher’s welcome had overtaken any questions Doctor Peachy had been formulating.
After some careless drinks, the watch was placed on the bar for sale by Miller. That was when Doctor Peachy had felt certain. He knew watches, and he would recognise a piece as fine and unique as that anywhere. It had only been shortly after, though, that the sergeant had arrived, and the doctor had seen guilt written all over the faces of the two soldiers.
By the time the doctor and sergeant had found the other policemen pottering about the scene where the body had been discovered there was little to be gained from even a thorough examination. The ground had become soup by now, and with the rain growing heavier there were no footprints or blood stains that may have yielded information. The unknown soldier’s scarlet tunic was by now so stained, with both dried blood and spattered mud, that it was no more than a ruinous tattered rag. There was little else the doctor could do until the body was taken to the morgue.
In any case, it did not matter. The doctor and the sergeant had put provisions into place as soon as they were out of earshot at the Lamb Inn. Miller and Dobson, although they did not yet know it, wouldn’t leave the Inn as free men. They were two confidence men, who had been impersonating soldiers, and had been wanted for some time it seemed, although the sergeant was adamant this was the first he knew of the outlaws escalating from theft to violent, brutal murder.
There was but one detail which the doctor had noticed but the police had not. They never could have, but it was causing Doctor Peachy to shake more violently than ever in the cold. Fortunately, with all attention on the victim his shock went unnoticed.
As several constables prepared to move the body from its ignominious position by the roadside, a large carriage approached out of the rain. Doctor Peachy heard its occupant tap on the roof and order the driver to slow down, and then halt. Pulling up right beside the doctor was a beaming Mr Fisher. He was cosy and dry in his warm compartment, with his disinterested fiancée Miss Fitzalan-Howard by his side. Such had been the man’s intrigue that he could not resist coming out of his way to find the little cabal of police.
“What-ho!” exclaimed Fisher. “Any more excitement?” A knot formed in Doctor Peachy’s stomach.
“There’s little we can tell in this weather,” replied the doctor.
“No need for alarm though sir, we have the situation well in hand,” the sergeant had added.
“Oh really, you’ve cracked it then what?” Fisher laughed excitedly.
“Yes, the guilty parties are at the Inn; the place is surrounded. They’ll not set foot under the stars again as free men. Now if you wouldn’t mind moving along sir, we have to finish here.” Fisher was about to open his mouth in reply when two of the constables lifted up the stretcher, and in doing so gave the man his first look at the body.
For the second time that night Doctor Peachy had an accurate premonition. Fisher’s face went from one of delight to a greenish disgust and then a deathly pale in one slow but completely fluid drain of colour.
None of the police, nor any locals from the area would ever identify the body on that stretcher. Even after Dobson and Miller were hanged for the crime, the identity of their victim would remain a mystery. The unknown soldier he would be forever, except in the minds of the two men.
The good doctor had recognised the young man’s face, even in death. Many years ago, in his youth, Mr Fisher had a child, an illegitimate son with a girl from the village. The doctor knew the whole shameful story. He had covered it up himself, much to his regret. The poor mother had been sent away, and the boy for his entire childhood was completely cut off from his family to keep the secret. In recent years, however, he had very occasionally visited Mr Fisher, and Doctor Peachy’s guess was that he had wanted to see his real father one last time before being sent away with the army.
Fisher almost choked out his next words, and his eyes darted anywhere and every way to escape the lifeless face of his son; except to meet the gaze of the doctor. He was only lucky, thought Doctor Peachy, that his betrothed was seated on the far side, and so couldn’t see his reaction.
“At the Inn you say…”
“Yes sir,” said the sergeant, now more concerned with how carelessly his men were moving the body than with the wealthy fellow in his carriage.
The doctor knew at that moment, from the suppression of grief that flashed in Fisher’s eyes, that the foolish man would never say anything about this, to the doctor, to his bride to be, or anyone else. But when the coach continued on into the night, Fisher looked back for his son, one last time, before passing around the bend into his future. He was never to see a happy day again.