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Title: When the Moon Set
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1601291.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: Nov 2016
Date most recently updated: Dec 2016

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: When the Moon Set
Author: Fred M White


WHEN THE MOON SET.


By


FRED M. WHITE


Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 13
December 1924.



The red curtains were closely drawn across the mullioned windows of
the dining-room of Mulgrave Manor House, and a great log fire splashed
like a great crimson smudge on the Christmas hearth, with Arnold
Brentwood seated in front of it and his wife opposite. If it were
going to freeze, let it freeze, he growled, but this alternate thaw
and frost, this night lowering of the thermometer followed by a rise
of temperature with the going down of the young crescent moon was
maddening to a household where sport was a solemn ritual.

"Pity we hadn't gone to St. Moritz as we originally intended,"
Brentwood muttered. "We should have had some sport there, whereas here
we are getting neither hunting nor skating."

"Oh, it isn't so sad as all that," Cecilia Brentwood smiled. "We shall
manage to amuse our Christmas party somehow."

With that, she faded from the room and went up to her own cosy nest in
cream and amber, leaving her spouse to his post-prandial cigar, and his
own easy reflections. He nodded over the red blaze, his eyes closed,
then out of space the old family butler, Thomas Shinwell, announced a
visitor to see the master of the Manor.

"It's Andrew Marston, sir," he said. "Says he must see to-night, though
I told him----"

On the instant Brentwood was very much awake. His jaw set tight, and
there was a grim fighting light in his blue eyes.

"Oh, indeed, Shinwell," he muttered, "oh, indeed! Ask the scoun--I
mean, ask the gentleman in here. No, you need not trouble to bring in
any clean glasses. Bring the fellow here."

Shinwell departed mildly wondering. He had been a member of that
exclusive household ever since he could remember, and there was little
in the history of the family he did not know--certainly during the last
fifty years. Also, he had a mental scenario of the shady past of the
man called Andrew Marston who came from the city of Canterley, some two
miles away. And Marston's dead mother, a boldly-handsome, gipsy-bred
woman. And there had been whispers in Canterley thirty years ago about
her and old Squire Brentwood, the present owner of Mulgrave Manor's
uncle, when the latter had had a small chance of succession. Things
that happen from time to time in all exclusive families; but nothing
definite--Shinwell was quite sure of that.

Followed a few moments later a tall, shambling figure of a man, with
a shifty eye and an uneasy swagger. His thin boots were broken, and,
despite the bitter cold of the night, there was no overcoat over his
summer suit of flimsy blue serge. He nodded with insolent familiarity
to Brentwood, and dropped with easy impudence into a chair.

"You didn't expect me?" he growled.

"I did not," Brentwood said coldly. "In fact, I warned you more than
once that I was only to be approached by letter. And after I helped you
to get to Canada, it was understood----"

"Oh, was it," the other man sneered. "The unwritten code of honor
between two gentlemen! The word of a Brentwood----"

"I have nothing to do with the past, neither have I, personally,
anything to be ashamed of," Brentwood said quietly.

"No, but your uncle, Hallam Brentwood, had," the intruder went on. "If
I had my rights and your old scamp of an uncle had married my mother I
should be where you are at the present moment."

It was the heat of the fire, perhaps, but Brentwood's face took on
a deeper red. He had heard this disgraceful episode, seated by the
bedside of his dying predecessor. And by subsequent enquiry from the
aged family solicitor, he had ascertained that it was not all old
Hallam Brentwood's fault. He had been both weak and slightly dissolute,
he had been angled for by the dead and gone Lydia Marston, and her
cunning father, and the result of that sorry intrigue stood before
Arnold Brentwood at that moment, with the suggestion of blackmail in
those weak, shifty eyes of his.

"And your game," the latter said, "is to threaten me with an exposure
of the whole business in Canterley unless I am ready to help you again.
Isn't that the case?"

"And why not?" Marston blustered. "I've got a claim."

"I have done with you," Brentwood answered. "I told you so when I set
you up in Canada. Be off, you scoundrel."

As he banged the door on his discomfited foe, he turned to see
Shinwell, the butler, standing there, with no trace of astonishment
on his stolid, impassive face. As the man who had seen nothing, his
impersonation was to the life. Not so the tall, slim, black and white
starched parlor-maid, who at the same moment was coming down the broad
stairs. She was taking in everything with widely interested eyes. But
she spoke quietly and respectfully enough.

"I was to tell you, sir, that madame has gone to bed, with a slight
headache," she said demurely. "I think she is asleep, sir."

As he lay in bed later on, Brentwood thought it all out. Let the story
come out. At any rate, his wife knew. Better than being bled white by
instalments. And with that he fell asleep.

He came back to his senses again with the consciousness that somebody
was shaking him by the shoulder. Shinwell, hanging over the bed, with a
white face and shaky countenance.

"What is it, Shinwell?" he asked lazily.

"It's that man who was here last night, sir," Shinwell said through
chattering teeth. "Found in the drive just now by one of the under
gardeners. Lying on his face, dead--murdered."

The body lay just where it had fallen. Evidently the man had been dead
for many hours, for he was stiff and deadly cold, though the frost of
the early night had given again with the sitting of the moon, and the
trees and shrubs were all dripping in the thin powder of dirty grey
snow. Brentwood bent over the body.

Marston had pitched forward and lay on his face with his hands flung
above his head, as if the fatal blow had dropped him in a flash, and
evidently he had never moved again. He lay with his head and shoulders
just under the cover of a sort of portcullis, roofed with heather
thatch and ivy, which spanned the drive. The Manor House had been built
originally inside the ruins of an ancient castle, and this portcullis,
with its great iron gates at the far width of it was all that remained
of the old mediaeval greatness and formed a fitting way into the
demesne of the Brentwoods. Just now it looked like the entrance into
the domain of Father Christmas; for, from the roof, hung long, bearded
icicles in a sort of stiff fringe, and on the ground beneath, another
cheveau de frize of transparent ice had been formed by the steady
drippings from the roof in the house when the thaw had set in with the
passing of the young moon. There was almost a suggestion of sanctuary
about it.

Brentwood bent down and turned the body over. In the thin blue serge
coat over the left breast was a triangular tear that might have been
made by a sort of blunt bayonet penetrating through the flimsy cloth,
and the ragged shirt--the dead man had no waistcoat--right into the
heart. The blow must have been a savage one, and death instantaneous.
Brentwood could see the ragged wound in the chest, and on the ground
a red wet patch, which had not frozen since the passing warmth of the
corpse and the protection of the clothing had prevented that. Inside
the shirt and all down the body it was as if in falling the unfortunate
man had contrived to get a patch of snow inside the clothing, for
the shirt was sopping wet and the blood there was as if it had been
diluted. Brentwood was still noting these things in a vague, unreal
way, when there came a car that stopped at the high gates, and a man in
uniform got out.

"Inspector Weston," he explained sketchily. "Sent here by the chief at
Canterley to investigate. Mr. Brentwood, I think?"

Shinwell ventured a remark. He had taken the liberty of telephoning to
Dr. Coffin when he had got the police, and the gentleman in question
was on his way.

"He will do quite as well as the police surgeon," the Inspector said
casually. "Newcomer in these parts, isn't he, Mr Brentwood?"

A motor cycle roared up to the gate, and a short, thick-set figure with
restless eyes behind thick, heavy lenses, stood in the ancient gateway.
He merely nodded to Brentwood, and then bent over the body.

"Been disturbed," he yapped. "Why? Silly thing to do."

Brentwood proceeded to excuse himself. He hoped that what he had done
would not interfere with the course of justice.

"In this case I don't think so," Dr. Coffin said with a smile that
lighted up his whole face. "Let me see. Um. Death caused by some
sharp-edged weapon with a broadening point such as a Spanish poniard
which penetrated to the heart. Any barn or empty house where I can get
to work?"

There being no difficulty about that, the body was removed by two of
the gardeners and the somewhat eccentric Coffin moved off with them,
whilst Brentwood and the Inspector retired to the house.

"I don't want to put you to more trouble than necessary," the latter
said, "but I must ask your servants a few questions. Marston may have
come here to see one of them, sir, in which case----"

"Oh, then you know the fellow's name?" Brentwood exclaimed.

"I know all the hard cases in Canterley," Weston said. "And now, if you
don't mind, sir, I'd like to have your staff all together in some room."

"Of course," Brentwood agreed. "I'll send them all into the library. My
wife will be wondering what all this trouble is about so I'll just run
upstairs and break it to her gently."

It was an hour later before Brentwood came down, after sharing a
breakfast in his wife's room. And there he found Weston waiting for
him, very grave and troubled.

"I am going to ask you some personal questions, sir," he said. "That
parlor-maid of yours. Bit of a talker. They gabble and never know what
they are saying till it is too late."

"Perhaps I had better explain now we have a few quiet moments
together," Brentwood said. "Marston came to see me last night, and
nobody else. He wanted money, and I threw him out. By chance the
servant you speak of saw the affray. I never set eyes on the fellow
again till Shinwell dragged me out of bed to look at the body. Of
course, I know that my story sounds a bit thin, but I assure you that I
am telling you things exactly as they happened. Look here, Inspector,
I would not have had this happen in Christmas week for anything.
Christmas of all times of the year!"

Inspector Weston heard all this with becoming gravity.

"I'm sorry to hear this, sir," he said. "You had a violent quarrel, and
a few hours later the man Marston is found dead in your own grounds.
Moreover, clearly murdered. Did he come back again after the servants
had gone to bed, or had you any occasion to go out into the grounds?
I'm bound to ask you these questions, sir."

Brentwood was beginning to appreciate the sinister aspect of the
situation. He had no particular apprehensions as to his share in the
tragedy, but it would be necessary to explain fully why Marston had
come to the Manor House or have the facts of the family scandal more or
less dragged to light at the inquest. It meant publicity all over the
country. Brentwood groaned as he thought of it.

"Perhaps I had better tell you," he said, "it was I who sent the
man Marston to Canada and set him up there. And when he had drunk
everything away, he came back here, asking for more."

"But what claim had he got on you, sir?" Weston asked.

Brentwood proceeded to tell him at some length.

"And that's the story," he concluded. "But always I have had my doubts
as to Marston's account of his parentage."

"And so should I, sir," Weston agreed. "I've been in the Canterley
Police Force since I was nineteen, and I know all about the shady
characters there. A rare bad set those Marstons, and the woman was the
worst of the lot. Handsome as paint in her day, but as evil as she was
lovely. Still, in the circumstances----"

"Must this come out at the inquest?" Brentwood asked.

"I'm very much afraid so, sir. If we could prove that the man died
through accident, or that he was in contact with somebody else after
you threw him out of the house, then the family story would not have
much significance. We might suppress it altogether. But so long as we
admit the fact that the man was murdered----"

Indeed, is was impossible to point to any other conclusion. The man
had been murdered, and so far circumstances pointed to Brentwood as
the only one who was directly interested in getting the blackmailer
out of the way. Looking at matters in the most optimistic light, it
was impossible to keep the family scandal out of the papers all over
the country, unless the real murderer was brought to justice, and that
without delay.

"Can't you hold off the inquest for a few days?" Brentwood asked with
some diffidence. "I am ready to swear that I never saw the man after I
kicked him out of the house. If all that scandal is dragged out and it
turns out afterwards that the real criminal----"

Weston nodded--he quite saw the point. A capital crime had been
committed and somebody was responsible, but he was not inclined to
believe that Brentwood had had anything to do with it.

"As to that, sir," he said, "it's more a matter for the doctor than
anyone else at the moment. He may take a long time in making his
autopsy or he may have made some discovery that we prefer not to have
discussed in public just yet. If he made an application like that the
coroner would not hesitate to adjourn the inquest at once, especially
if we backed up the application."

So it rested more or less with the doctor, Brentwood thought uneasily.
Could he manage to induce the man of medicine to . . . and so save a
flaming scandal? Again, there must be a clue somewhere to this amazing
crime, if the police would only look for it elsewhere.

Perhaps Dr. Coffin might help him. The latter had only been in the
neighborhood for a few months, and was hardly to be compared with the
usual country practitioner, being a highly-trained specialist who had
been forced out of London owing to the condition of his health. He had
dined at the Manor House once of twice and had proved to be a brilliant
conversationalist and an impressive mental force, but beyond that
Brentwood knew nothing about him.

Coffin was deep in his gruesome task when Brentwood and Weston sought
him out in the building where he was at work. He had had the best part
of two hours to himself and was now in the act of putting away his
sinister instruments. As Weston and Brentwood entered he was in the act
of placing what looked like a piece of rough black string in between
the leaves of a pocket-book.

"Have you nearly finished, doctor?" Weston asked.

"More or less," came the reply. "At any rate, I shall be ready for the
inquest which, I presume, will be to-morrow?"

"Unless you want a little further time," Weston suggested, with a
significant note in his voice. "Perhaps, on the whole, such a policy
would suit the authorities, too."

The shrewd little doctor grinned appreciatingly.

"Sets the wind in that quarter, eh?" he asked. "All right. I can make
a longer job of it if you like, though I see nothing to be gained by
doing so. Perhaps Mr. Brentwood----"

"Who was the last man to see the deceased man alive! Bar the actual
criminal, of course. Fact is, Marston called at the Manor House last
night, and there was some sort of a dispute, and Marston was pitched
out. If the story is to be told in public it must, but probably if I
have a little more time I may----"

"Lay your hand on the real culprit," Doctor Coffin chuckled. "I am
ready to make a little bet about that. You will never lay hands on
the criminal who killed the man who lies there. Am I correct in my
deduction that Mr. Brentwood is anxious to hush up some scandal? Not
that I am vulgarly curious--we medical men are too accustomed to such
things in our practice."

"That's what it comes to," Brentwood muttered.

"Then I think you can make your mind easy on that score," the doctor
went on. "It is a mighty curious case, and I never came on the like of
it before, though I believe something of the sort once happened out
in the Klondyke. At the inquest Mr. Brentwood can give his evidence
that the deceased came to him--was it in search of money?--thank you
and the request was refused. No occasion to say a word more, my dear
sir, I assure you. And when I have spoken my little piece the Coroner
will address the jury, and there will be an end of what in other
circumstances the reporting fraternity would have called 'The Great
Manor House Mystery.' Meanwhile, Inspector, you want a clue as to the
culprit. Suppose I give you one?"

"It will be a great service," Weston muttered.

The doctor bent over his pocket-book that was lying on the bare deal
table which he had been using, and took from it the rough piece of
blackened string which he had had in his hand when the others came into
the building. He passed it over to Weston.

"Do you happen to know what that is?" he asked.

"No, I'll be hanged if I do!" the Inspector said. "Looks like a
perished fragment of tarred rope."

"Not quite," the doctor smiled. "I will explain presently, and then you
will see where this tiny clue comes in. Where did I get it from? It
came out of the dead man's breast. It was buried deep in the wound--so
deep that it had entered the heart. Now how do you suppose this man was
killed, Inspector?"

"By a blow with some sharp instrument."

"Right! What sort of a lethal weapon, eh?"

"A sort of pointed tool, getting blunter as it sloped from the apex. A
bayonet perhaps, or a Spanish poinard."

"All of which is absolutely correct," the man of science went on in
the same tone. "The heart was badly torn by the weapon that penetrated
it deeply, and was evidently driven with great force. But how did this
funny wisp of black stuff find its way actually into a vital organ?
Answer me that, Inspector Weston."

Weston shook his head. But he was wise enough to see that he was up
against a greater mental force, than his own.

"The sharp instrument and the thickening blade is admitted," Coffin
resumed. "But one can't visualise a piece of rough black string
clinging to the point of a steel weapon and being thrust into the body
of the dead man; therefore, the incident needs investigation. Marston
undoubtedly died from the thrust of a sharp instrument, so will we
admit so much. Bearing this in mind, let us go on to the consideration
of a few further points. When the body was laid on the table and I
began my examination, I noticed that the front of the serge jacket was
damp, and that the shirt under it--there is no waistcoat--was still
more damp, in fact, sopping wet. But not altogether with blood. A
mixture of blood and water. Now, how in the name of fortune did the
water get there? Blood still oozing from the wound and shading away in
color till it becomes a thin claret in hue.

"Now, I must confess this puzzled me until I found that piece of ragged
string, as the Inspector calls it. And when I got hold of that I began
to ask myself some searching questions. Then, when I had answered those
question from a severe scientific point of view, I knew how the man
called Marston came by his death."

"How he was murdered, you mean?" Weston suggested.

"Well, if you like to put it that way--yes," Coffin smiled. "But
perhaps I had better show you the solution. If you both will come this
way we can touch bottom in a very short time."

Coffin turned out into the open, followed by the others. Down the
drive he went until he came to the spot under the shadow of the ruined
thatched portcullis where Marston's body had been found. The whole
world was dripping now with the thaw that had come with the dawn, and
from the thatch overhead came something like a steady rain from the
thatch of the portcullis. The long icicles on it were shedding tears,
and on the drive just below where other spikes of transparent ice had
lifted their heads after each thaw, a sort of brittle rampart uprose
not unlike grim rows of lions' teeth. Here and there patches of snow
lay on the drive like huge grey slugs partly melted in the thaw, and
where they had frozen up ere the dawn were slippery patches or ice
trodden into the ground.

"When did it begin to freeze last night?" Coffin asked.

"About seven o'clock," Brentwood responded. "And went on till the moon
went down, as it has done for the last five nights."

"So I thought," Coffin murmured. "Now look at this, bearing in mind
that the earth must have been frozen hard again at the time Marston
came here. He walked back along the drive just where we are standing
and slipped on a fragment of ice as he reached the shadow of the
portcullis. You can see where the scrape of his boot-toes caught the
hard powder of the snow as he pitched forward and died."

"Yes--after he was stabbed," Weston declared.

"No," Coffin thundered. "When he slipped up and came headlong to the
ground he was as much alive as we are at the present moment. Now, take
this thread of black string. What is it really? You don't know? It is
a fragment of heather thatch off the portcullis and was washed down
by the thaw. As the sprig fell it lodged by the side of an icicle and
became embedded in it somewhere near this point. What price this for a
weapon?"

As Coffin spoke he stooped and snapped off one of the long, keen-edged
icicles and held it in his hand.

"There!" he exclaimed. "That is what killed Marston. He pitched
headlong on to one of those bayonet-like icicles and it penetrated his
coat and his shirt and entered the heart. If the frost had not come
back last night somewhere about the time that Marston was on his way
here--but it is no use speculating about that, and I don't think we
shall have to trouble Mr. Brentwood very much when we appear before the
coroner."

* * * *

"It's all very dreadful, of course, Arnold," Cecilia shuddered. "But I
suppose it might have been a great deal worse."

"A great deal worse for me," Brentwood said grimly.

"Darling, as if ever you would have been really suspected! And we shall
be able to keep Christmas up in the good old-fashioned way, as we
always have done."

"Yes," Brentwood muttered. "But it has been a precious near thing."



THE END.


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