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When there is no moon in January the dawn creeps in very slowly like the second hand on a clock that is running slow.
By the River Thames at Marlow in Buckinghamshire, some twenty miles from London, the trees reveal themselves gradually. The water in the river begins to show its patterns and its ripples. The screeches of the owls, strident and imperious, fall away. In the great houses by the water’s edge the housemaids are awake early, cleaning out last night’s fires and preparing new ones. The kitchen staff are beginning work on the servants’ breakfast, always served before the master and his family in the servants’ hall. A couple of early risers could be seen striding towards the railway station to catch the first train to the capital.
Some in the Jesus Hospital on the outskirts of the little town were also awake early on this morning, the twenty-second of the month. It is neither a church nor a chapel, nor are the sick healed within its red brick walls. Jesus Hospital is an almshouse, founded in the early seventeenth century by a rich London merchant called Thomas Gresham whose portrait hangs in state in the dining hall, all black cloak and feathered hat. In shape, the hospital resembles the court of many a Cambridge college, also built around this time, a rectangular structure of two storeys whose walls are now covered in red ivy. Twenty male persons over the age of sixty are resident here, each man with a small apartment of his own, consisting of a living room and primitive kitchen on the ground floor and a bedroom and bathroom above.
There is a simple entrance examination: to gain admission candidates have to be able to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the
Apostles’ Creed from memory. Some of the inmates pay no rent at all for the privilege of living in the Jesus Hospital and receive a weekly allowance; others who are better off make a small contribution. The founder, Mr Gresham, was not only one of the wealthiest men in the City of London, he was also Prime Warden of the Ancient Mistery of Silkworkers,
one of the oldest livery companies in the City, founded in the fourteenth century. The Jesus Hospital was run and administered by the Silkworkers Company. Their officers selected the future inmates and the warden who ran it.
In Number Four, Bill Smith, known to all as Smithy, who had spent his working life on a farm near Marlow, was reading his bible. He began every day in this fashion. This was the third time Bill had gone through the good book.
Rather like the people who painted the Forth Bridge, a task that took so long that the workers had to go back to the beginning once they had reached the end, Smithy had discovered that once he finished the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament, he had totally forgotten the
Book of Genesis. So he went back to the beginning, thinking very occasionally that he might, just might, have read this section before.
In Number Seventeen, Josiah Collins was saying his prayers, kneeling on the threadbare carpet in his room. On his last visit to the doctor – it was one of the rules of the hospital that every man had to go for a check-up every six months – Josiah had been told that he had not very long to live. He might make it to the spring, he might not, the doctor had said in the special voice he used for the very old and the very nearly dead. Every morning now Josiah,
who had found God late in life during a hellfire sermon in
Hackney, said the Lord’s Prayer and the collect for the day and read aloud from the Prayers for the Sick. This usually left him feeling better until the middle of the morning when despair returned. Sometimes Johnny Johnston would take him to the Rose and Crown when it opened just after twelve o’clock to ease his sorrows, sometimes he walked down
Ferry Lane and stared at the passing river. By two thirty in the afternoon Josiah was always sleep.
The repose of those still sleeping in the other numbers between one and twenty in the Jesus Hospital was shattered by a scream. Or rather, by a whole series of screams that sounded as though they would never end. Nellie the kitchen maid was just beginning to lay the tables for breakfast – tea,
porridge, two sausages and toast on this occasion – when she saw the body lying across the table nearest the kitchen in the dining hall. At first she thought the body might have fallen asleep. That would have been unusual but not impossible,
for several of the old gentlemen were known for falling asleep in the most unlikely places. It was only when she saw the blood dripping very slowly from the body’s neck to make red marks on the floor that she realized the man was dead. It was Abel Meredith from Number Twenty. He had been an inmate of the hospital for less than six months.
Meredith was leaving it in the most dramatic possible style,
lying dead across one of the hall tables, his throat cut from ear to ear. The less squeamish among the residents realized that he must have been murdered elsewhere and the body brought here, for there was not very much blood. If the knife had passed across his throat in this room the floor would have been awash with dark red liquid, running down the slight slope of the floorboards.
The screams alerted all those who were already dressed to head for the hall. The others peered out of their upstairs windows and got themselves ready as fast as they could.
In their blue coats with white buttons down the centre, the official uniform of the silkmen, as they were known, the old gentlemen gathered inside the main door of the hall and stared at their late colleague. Those who had served in the military were the least shocked. A few of them gazed at the corpse and were suddenly transported back to the battlefields where they had fought as young men and seen the bodies of their fallen comrades. For the silkmen whose lives had been more prosaic, spent in field or counting house,
this was the first murdered man they had ever encountered.
The Catholics among the inmates crossed themselves and began saying Hail Marys. There was a low murmur from the watchers as they exchanged views in whispers. One or two of them looked suspiciously at their colleagues as if they knew they had a murderer in their midst.
One of the last to arrive should have been the first. Thomas
Monk, Warden of the Hospital, sprinted across the grass and blew loudly on his whistle to break the stifled screams and the sighs of the newcomers as they peered into the hall. He always found a whistle useful when communicating with the very old and the very deaf among his flock. Thomas had spent most of the previous evening playing cards for money in the snug of his local pub and his winnings had almost been wiped out by the number of rounds of drinks he had to buy for the losers. Monk acted fast when he saw the body and checked that Meredith was dead.
‘Silkmen,’ he began, ‘we should leave this terrible sight at once. Come with me now to the chapel where we may rest in peace and say our prayers while we wait for the authorities to arrive.’
Monk escorted his charges to the chapel on the opposite side of the little court, and then walked as fast as he could to his office on the right-hand side of the entrance. He was of average height with black curly hair and a piratical beard.
He was full of nervous energy, so restless that some of the silkmen complained that they felt tired even looking at him. Of all the inmates of the Jesus Hospital, Thomas Monk had the most to fear. He had lied about his past when he applied for this job three years ago. Had he told the truth he would never have obtained the position. Now, as Thomas
Monk reminded himself of his activities since he arrived,
he shuddered at the thought of policemen crawling all over the hospital, checking everything, asking questions,
digging into people’s pasts. He wondered if, as Warden, he could be above suspicion, but he doubted it. He checked the coast was clear with a guilty smile and locked his door.
He poured himself a very large glass of whisky and downed about a third of it in one gulp. That was better. Monk picked up his telephone and began shouting into it as loudly as he could. The instrument had only recently arrived at the hospital.
Monk had never believed anybody would be able to hear at the other end if he spoke in a normal voice. Regular recipients of his calls used to hold the receiver at arm’s length. He would, they told themselves, get used to the telephone in time. The doctor and the policeman he asked to come at once. He left a message at the Silkworkers Hall in London, saying there was a crisis at the Jesus Hospital and requesting a senior officer of the company to come as soon as possible.
The first to arrive was Dr Theophilus Ragg, medical adviser to the hospital. Dr Ragg, with his white hair and pronounced stoop, looked far older than his fifty-five years.
The cynics among the silkmen said that he should be an inmate rather than their medical adviser. The doctor had originally come to Buckinghamshire as a contrast to his years in the slums of the East End of London where too much of his time was spent healing the wounds of street fighting and domestic violence. Buckinghamshire, he had told himself, would be different. Buckinghamshire was different. Dr Ragg was now as tired of the varicose veins and the neurotic headaches and the depressions and the inability to sleep of his wealthy patients as he had been with the very different characteristics of the poor of Shadwell.
Murder – he resolved not to tell anybody this, not even his wife – murder was a welcome break from his normal fare.
He inspected the dead body and resolved to make a closer examination when the corpse was in the morgue. It was, he reflected sadly, just like being back in the East End. Dr Ragg went to comfort the old men in the chapel while he waited for the officers of the law.
Thomas Monk had long prided himself on the oldfashioned nature of his neckwear. Not for him the prosaic necktie now worn by clerks and officials all over Britain.
Monk sported a wide variety of cravats in the manner of
Lord Byron. Blue cravats, red cravats, green cravats, multicoloured cravats were all part of his flamboyant collection.
This morning he switched to a black one, tied in sober fashion, and stood outside the hospital to wait for the police to arrive from Maidenhead, Marlow being too small and too law-abiding to merit a full station of its own. Attack, he reasoned, might prove to be the best form of defence.
It was not long before the local police inspector arrived on his bicycle. Inspector Albert Fletcher, resident of
Buckinghamshire for all the thirty-five years of his life, was widely tipped as a coming man, though his critics pointed out that there was little sign so far of Albert actually arriving anywhere. He had hoped for a transfer to a London station formany years but so far all his efforts had been in vain.
The inspector had one characteristic which was in itself commendable but led in certain quarters to doubts about his competence. From the days when he first talked, Albert
Fletcher had always paused briefly before he spoke. There were usually slight gaps in the flow of conversation. Albert would have told his critics that he was weighing up his options, making sure that he did not commit himself or his force to the wrong response or the wrong course of action.
But to those who did not know him, or those impatient to press on with the business in hand, it seemed as though he was slow or stupid or both.
‘Good morning, Inspector,’ said Monk, drawing him inside the gates of the Jesus Hospital as fast as he could.
‘This is a terrible business. I presume you will want to see the body first. The residents are at their prayers in the chapel.
Heaven knows, we all need prayers at a time like this.’
Here came that tiny pause, just long enough to leave the other person wondering if the inspector had heard properly,
or was going deaf.
‘Yes,’ Inspector Fletcher said, ‘yes. I would like to see the body, if I may.’ There was another slight gap in the conversation.
‘Has the doctor come yet?’
‘He’s in the chapel with the rest of them.’
Inspector Fletcher peered at the corpse. He thought the man had died from a knife to his throat but he didn’t want to commit himself just yet. Better to let the doctor examine
Abel Meredith and pronounce the official verdict.
‘Dreadful business,’ he said at last. ‘Quite dreadful. Some more of my officers are on their way with a wagon. They can take him off to the morgue for a full examination. I’d better start questioning the silkmen.’
For the next few hours a slow round of interviews began in Monk’s little office. Monk made himself available as helper and general adviser to the old men, thus keeping himself abreast of the police knowledge. Monk was not to know it but the veteran, the man with the deep knowledge of strange and sudden deaths, was the doctor. For the inspector, although he did not say so, Abel Meredith was the only corpse he had seen on duty. This was his first murder investigation.
And it was the doctor who made the strange discovery about the death of Abel Meredith. As he examined the body in the Maidenhead Hospital he knew from long experience that rigor usually became apparent two to four hours after death and he therefore concluded that the murder must have been carried out earlier that morning. But it was not the time of day that struck him there in the morgue with the trolleys and the antiseptic smell and the green overalls and the blood on the floor. There was no doubt about what had caused the death: a knife or other sharp instrument drawn across the victim’s neck with great force. But he noticed a strange mark just above the dead man’s heart. It looked as if somebody had pressed a thistle hard into Abel Meredith’s flesh and the imprint of the spikes was there for all to see.
But the thistle, the doctor thought, must have been made of wood or some other hard substance – an ordinary thistle picked up in a field would be incapable of leaving the deep imprint on the dead man’s skin.
Sergeant Donaldson arrived shortly after eleven o’clock as reinforcement for the inspector. Fletcher asked Monk to show him the dead man’s quarters.
Once they were up the stairs and into the upper floor, it was clear where Abel Meredith had been killed. His bedroom was a charnel house. Thick seams of blood had run down from the pillow which had turned a dull, dark red,
the colour of dried blood. There was little sign of a struggle.
‘My God, Inspector,’ said Thomas Monk, ‘do you think he was still asleep when he was killed?’
‘He might have been,’ said the inspector finally, after an extra long pause. ‘The doctor should be able to tell us.’
Inspector Fletcher carried out a long and slow examination of the room but he found little to help him. There was a cupboard with Meredith’s clothes, and his best and only civilian suit was hanging on a hook at the back of the door.
There was a reproduction of a painting of Queen Victoria on the wall, staring out at some bleak Scottish landscape with
Balmoral in the background and a couple of distant stags.
There was nothing luxurious about the little apartments inside the hospital.
‘We’ll take this stuff away later,’ Fletcher remarked, waving at the tiny desk and the few books on the shelf.
‘I know it looks bad,’ said the warden. ‘I mean, the men seem to have so few possessions. We insist on them bringing as little as possible when they come to us. It’s part of the arrangement.’
‘Quite so, quite so,’ said Fletcher absent-mindedly. ‘Tell me, if you would, Warden, what are the arrangements and the timings of the gates in the hospital? The murderer must have been in here by the early hours of the morning.’
‘The doors are closed at eleven fifteen every evening and opened at six thirty the following morning. Some of the old men wake up early and like to take a short walk.’
‘And who is responsible for the opening and closing?’
‘Usually it is the porter. Last night he was off duty so I did it at the usual times.’
‘And you saw nothing unusual on either occasion?’
‘No, I did not.’
‘Could the killer have come in yesterday evening,’ said
Inspector Fletcher, ‘and spent the night in the hall or the chapel?’
‘Well, he could, but I don’t think we’d find any trace of him. The hall is locked overnight, the chapel left open in case religion overcomes the old men in the night. The chapel was cleaned early this morning at seven o’clock before the body was discovered. And the old men have been tramping all over both hall and chapel since then.’
Inspector Fletcher paused. Another line of inquiry seemed to have been blocked off. Before he had a chance to say any more, there was a shout from a constable on the grass outside.
‘Inspector, sir! You’re to come at once, sir! We’ve got a visitor!’
Fletcher groaned. Visitors on occasions like this at the very start of an investigation usually meant trouble. Sometimes they were superior officers, keen to carp and criticize. On this occasion, as he told his wife that evening, it was much worse than that.
The third visitor to the Jesus Hospital that morning arrived just before twelve o’clock. Those residents comforting themselves from the shock of murder in the morning and, what was worse in their book, murder before breakfast,
looked out of their windows and saw an enormous motor car arrive and a tall portly gentleman with white hair and a black walking stick climb out and knock imperiously on
Thomas Monk’s door. This was Sir Peregrine Fishborne,
Prime Warden of the Silkworkers, come to inspect the crisis in his kingdom. He was well known in the City of London,
Sir Peregrine, for his speed in the despatch of business and his position as head of one of the foremost insurance companies in the country.
‘Monk,’ he said to the Warden when he had regained his office, ‘what the hell is going on here? What’s this crisis you mentioned on the phone? Damn inconvenient having to trundle out into the back of beyond for some mess in this bloody hospital!’
‘There’s been a murder, sir,’ said Monk, standing to attention as he always did when talking to the Prime Warden.
‘Murder? Here? In Buckinghamshire? In the Jesus
Hospital? Don’t be ridiculous.’ He turned to stare at the policeman. ‘And who the hell are you?’ he said, eyeing
Inspector Fletcher as if he had just delivered the week’s coal.
‘Ah, hm, ah, I am the policeman assigned to the case.’
He paused as if he might have temporarily forgotten his name. ‘Albert Fletcher, hm, Inspector Albert Fletcher, at your service, sir.’
Sir Peregrine threw him another of his turn-a-man-tostone-
at-fifty-paces looks. ‘And what can you tell us about the dead man?’
There was another pause while the inspector searched in his pockets for the vital notebook.
‘Well,’ he began, inspecting his handwriting carefully, ‘the dead man was called Meredith, Abel Meredith. Ah, hm, he died of a knife wound to the area between the pharynx and the larynx.’
‘Somebody cut his throat, you mean,’ snarled Sir Peregrine.
‘We’re in a bloody almshouse here, not a medical school, for
Christ’s sake. What age was this unfortunate Meredith?’
‘Hm, ah,’ said the inspector, ‘over sixty at least or he wouldn’t be here. Do you know how old he was, Warden?’
The Warden intervened immediately in case there was another salvo from Sir Peregrine.
‘Sixty-four, sir, that’s how old he was. Last birthday six weeks ago. He paid for a very fine drinking session in the back room of the Rose and Crown, Abel Meredith, I’ll give him that. One of the very few occasions he was known to pay for a round.’
‘I see,’ said Sir Peregrine in his most glacial voice. ‘Tell us if you would, Inspector, if you have identified any of the dead man’s enemies, maybe even arrested them. He’s been dead for some time, after all.’
Inspector Fletcher looked at Sir Peregrine more in sorrow than in anger. There was another of those pauses. ‘The old men aren’t making much sense at the moment, Sir
Peregrine,’ he said at last. ‘It’s impossible to say at this stage if he had any enemies or who they might be.’
‘Course the man had enemies, you fool, he’s dead, isn’t he? One of his enemies must have killed him. I’d have thought even one of the swans on the bloody river could have worked that out by now. Christ Almighty!’
Inspector Fletcher was saved further thrusts from Sir
Peregrine by the reappearance of Dr Ragg. Even before he was introduced, the doctor took a violent dislike to Sir
Peregrine. There were many of his sort living in and around
Marlow, often in sub-Palladian villas by the Thames. The doctor thought them arrogant, self-satisfied and smug, with little regard for their fellow men. He had even changed his golf club to escape their pomposity and their braying self-regard.
‘I’ll give you my report, gentlemen,’ Dr Ragg began, ‘and then I must be off on my rounds. In my judgement Abel
Meredith was killed by a sharp knife being forced across his throat sometime between four and six o’clock this morning.
The knife may have had an irregular and uneven blade like the kris knife often brought home by travellers and military men from Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula. Death will have been instantaneous. I fear he was probably awake at the time of the incident. That is all.’
‘Surely you must know something more than that,
Doctor?’ Sir Peregrine felt he, too, would be in need of medical attention soon if the natives continued to infuriate him.
‘You’ve been poking about in the corpse’s innards for some time now, haven’t you? You must have found something out.’
‘Are you experienced in the examination of dead bodies,
Sir Peregrine? I rather doubt it. We doctors are not obliged to reveal the secrets of our patients’ medical history, even the dead ones. So why don’t you write the insurance policies and I’ll write the medical reports.’
With that Dr Ragg closed his bag and headed off towards the nervous headaches and the insomnia of his morning rounds. He had not told the people in the Jesus Hospital anything about the strange mark on the dead man’s chest.
It was such an unusual piece of information that gossip would start circulating along the river and through the City of London. Soon Abel Meredith would have been found dead with the imprint of fifty pineapples all over his body.
He would tell Inspector Fletcher, of course, but only in the privacy of the police station. Dr Ragg had no idea what had caused the strange mark and even less idea what it might mean.
Sir Peregrine, meanwhile, was metaphorically pawing the ground as one of his potential victims fled the field.
He made mental notes on the key players he had met this morning who were involved in the bizarre death of Abel
Meredith. The doctor? Barely competent, in his view, but he had tangled too often with the medical profession in the past and failed to get his way. Better to leave Theophilus
Ragg in peace. Thomas Monk, the Warden? Another incompetent,
in Sir Peregrine’s opinion. Why was it so difficult to get hold of sensible men once you were out of London? It was as if there was a whole world of inefficiency clogging up the nation beyond the City walls, a world stretching west to Bristol and north to the people Sir Peregrine had always referred to as the Caledonians in the wilder parts of Scotland. His fiercest wrath, however, was reserved for
Inspector Albert Fletcher. That officer of the law had marked
Sir Peregrine down from the beginning as a man to beware of, a man who could damage your career through his contacts in high places, and who would take pleasure in doing so. As a result the pauses were slightly longer than usual,
the mental reservations sounded like incompetence, the gaps before speech the mark of an idiot. Something would have to be done. Sir Peregrine looked at his watch. Already he had spent far too much time down here among this human dross.
‘Telephone!’ he barked.
‘That’s a telephone over there on the table,’ said the
Warden, pointing helpfully to the instrument.
‘I know what a telephone looks like, you fool. There are hundreds of them in my offices in London. Now get out while I use it.’
Sir Peregrine could not raise the person he sought, which added fuel to his fury. Listening at the keyhole, Thomas
Monk smiled. Anything that irritated the Prime Warden of the Silkworkers Company was music to his ears. Sir
Peregrine was leaving a message for his personal assistant,
a young man called Arthur Onslow, with a distinguished career at Eton, a first-class honours degree in Classics from
King’s College, Cambridge, and three years in the Blues and Royals, now in his second year as guard dog to Sir
Peregrine, as he described it to his friends. It was a pity that he was a younger son for his father was widely believed to own half of Leicestershire.
‘Onslow. See me in my office. One hour from now. Don’t be late,’ barked Sir Peregrine, leaving Monk’s cramped quarters and heading back to his enormous motor car. It was the Inspector’s pauses, his hesitations, that raised Sir
Peregrine’s heart rate to what Dr Ragg would have regarded as dangerous levels.
‘Damn Fletcher, damn him to hell!’ Sir Peregrine muttered as his vast car rumbled back into the suburbs of London. ‘I’ll break that man if it’s the last thing I do. Inspector Fletcher indeed!’ All through his career in finance Sir Peregrine had preached the benefits of private enterprise, of individuals looking after themselves rather than expecting the state to do it for them. Old age pensions, public money for the unemployed, schools funded by the taxpayer, all of these, in his view, were unnecessary intrusions by government into areas where people should look after themselves. Private enterprise, his private enterprise, was looking after those old men in the Jesus Hospital. Maybe even the police could be done away with, Sir Peregrine reflected as his limousine passed St Paul’s Cathedral, and replaced by a force of citizen constabulary. Inspector Fletcher and all the other Inspector
Fletchers, thousands of them, in the Prime Warden’s view,
could be thrown out like old pairs of sheets. The money saved could be given to the wealth-creators of the nation,
the deserving rich as he had called them to great applause at a City dinner the week before. At any event, he resolved to find himself an investigator of his own, the finest man in
London to look into the death of Abel Meredith. That was the commission he had in mind for young Onslow at his desk in the temple of finance back in Bishopsgate. A detective of his own. The finest available in the capital.
Inspector Fletcher sighed as he returned to his interviews with the old men. He found to his horror that the first person he had talked to, Albert Jardine, the oldest resident of the
Jesus Hospital, aged eighty-four years, born a decade before
Victoria came to the throne, had forgotten that he had ever spoken to the inspector. This Albert was generally known as
Number One, as he lived in almshouse Number One. Abel
Meredith was Number Twenty. For some reason the old men found it easier to remember numbers than names. Number
One had no memory at all of a conversation that had taken place only two or three hours before. The inspector made a note in his book. This was one resident who would never make it to the courtroom if the case came to trial. Jack Miller,
Number Three, and Gareth Williams, Number Eight, had both arrived too late in the hall to see anything useful to his inquiries. Freddie Butcher, Number Two, who had spent most of his life working on the railways, had been one of the first on the scene but his eyesight had virtually gone and he had no testimony to give except that it was a crying shame and wouldn’t have happened under the administration of the previous Warden. Number Eleven, Archie Dunne,
had slept through the whole affair and complained bitterly about the lack of breakfast. Wondering if he would ever collect any useful evidence at all and fearful of another visit from Sir Peregrine, Inspector Fletcher made his way across the courtyard to Number Six, temporary home of one Colin
Baker who had a wooden leg from his time in the army.