Read an Excerpt
A C. D. Sloan Mystery
By Catherine Aird
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
Hurt not thy foot against a stone
"There's no barbed wire," said Wendy Lamport, looking along the hedgerow.
"That's something, I suppose," said her companion, Gordon Briggs, grudgingly. He was verging on late middle age and difficult about almost everything.
"And," she said, looking over into the field, "not a bull in sight."
"I should hope not," responded Gordon Briggs roundly. "There's a bylaw about bulls in fields in Calleshire. It's illegal to have a bull more than twelve months old in any field in the county containing a public footpath."
"No warning notices, either, that I can see," carried on the girl, completing her survey of the terrain before them.
"Warning notices," pronounced Briggs pedantically, "have no significance whatsoever in relation to public footpaths and rights of way. You should know that by now, Wendy."
"Yes, Gordon." Wendy Lamport nodded. She had heard him say it time and time again. "It doesn't stop them trying it on, though, does it?" she added.
"Landowners can put what they like on notice-boards," declared Briggs, adding militantly, "but they can't keep us out."
"Let them try, that's all," said Wendy Lamport loyally. "Just let them try."
"That's the spirit," said Gordon Briggs.
It might have been the spirit behind the Berebury Country Footpaths Society but their actual rallying cry was more ambiguous. "Every walk a challenge" was the motto printed under the masthead on their writing paper. The challenge, though, was not usually to the walker. The gauntlet was thrown down in front of the luckless owners of the land over which they proposed to walk. If, that is, those owners of the land happened to have an official public footpath or right of way running over it.
"The stile is all right," observed Wendy a little later. "It's just where it says it should be on the map." She was young enough for this fact still to come as a small surprise to her. "Beyond the first turning after the public house."
The Definitive Map, properly marked up, was the society's Bible.
"North-north-west off the Sleden–to–Great Rooden road," said Briggs, who had done his homework.
Barbed wire, untethered bulls and missing stiles were just a few of the obstacles that farmers and other landowners could put in their way.
"See over there," she said, pointing. "There's even a sign saying it's a public footpath."
It was the society's ambition to have all the footpaths in the county of Calleshire signposted.
"It doesn't look," he remarked, "as if we're going to have too many difficulties with the walk proper."
Gordon Briggs did not know it at the time but he had seldom spoken less prophetically.
He and Wendy Lamport constituted a reconnaissance party for the society's next walk, scheduled for the following day. Bitter experience had taught members of the Berebury society that a preliminary survey of the countryside before a group walk saved a lot of frustration. Armed with bill-hook and secateurs the pioneers could make sure that the route was open. Nature's obstructions, though, were as nothing compared with those of man.
"Who's the farmer here?" Briggs asked as they walked forward.
"Name of Mellot," said Wendy Lamport. Feminism might have made some progress but the clerical work of the society was still done by the women. So were the teas. The men, Greek style, sat on the committee and pontificated. She glanced down at her notebook. "George Mellot."
"Mellot's Furnishings, of course." Mellot's Furnishings were a nation-wide chain of upholsterers with distinctive purple delivery vans to be seen not only in Calleshire but everywhere in Great Britain.
"I don't know," said Wendy.
"Could be the same, I suppose."
Gorden Briggs looked round and sniffed. "No sign of the millionaire touch about this place, although you never can tell with farmers."
"Poor relation, perhaps," suggested Wendy. She had a rich cousin herself and knew what it felt like to be on the less well off side of the family.
He snorted gently. "Farmers aren't anyone's poor relations these days."
"That's true." They had both seen too many farms in their walks for her to dispute this. Agrarian depressions there might have been in the past—she knew that the turn of the century had been a bad time in Calleshire—but the country certainly wasn't in the grip of one at the moment and this farm looked properly provided with well-kept buildings and good fences.
Gordon Briggs took another look at the map. "And we've just come on to Pencombe Farm now, haven't we?"
"When we turned right off the Great Rooden road," replied Wendy. "That's when Mr. Mellot's land began. The wood we've just come through—"
"It's called Dresham," nodded Briggs, squinting at the Ordnance Survey symbols on the map. "The other side of the road."
"That belongs to someone else," said Wendy. She hadn't enjoyed walking through the wood. In her experience there were woods and woods, and Dresham Wood had had an unfriendly feel to it. There had been a clearly marked footpath all the way through the wood but there had been branches of undergrowth growing across it, and muddy, slippery patches underfoot—to say nothing of the roots of trees laid across the way acting as snares for the unwary.
And a blackbird giving its alarm call.
She consulted her notebook. "Dresham Wood is on Lower-combe Farm. That belongs to a Mr. Sam Bailey." At one moment while they were in the wood she had had the distinct feeling that they were being watched.
Gordon Briggs put his foot down purposefully. "We're still on Footpath Seventy-nine, though, aren't we?"
Walking Footpath Seventy-nine in the Calleshire County Council Schedule was the object of their exercise—in both senses—today. If they found it barred to them by any of the time-honoured obstructions they would follow their society's set procedure. First, a letter would be sent to the landowner, then a polite visit would be made to him, followed by a further attempt to walk the footpath, and then—if all else failed—a letter of complaint would be written to the Calleshire County Council.
"It seems all right," said Wendy Lamport cautiously.
"We're still near the road," Briggs reminded her.
Long experience had taught members of the society that if a footpath was going to be obstructed then the obstruction wouldn't be within sight of the road.
"That's true," said Wendy, adding hopefully, "perhaps it will be open all the way."
She was a nice girl who didn't relish confrontations with angry farmers. To be honest she didn't think that Gordon Briggs did either but he was a passionate believer in keeping footpaths open and if that included confrontation—and it frequently did—then he would endure that too.
"And it doesn't cross a ploughed field here," said Briggs significantly.
Wendy Lamport nodded and started to pick her way along the hedgerow, counting her paces as she did so. Footpaths that crossed ploughed fields—usually diagonally—were an especial bone of contention. The farmer found it irritating—and expensive—to leave the footpath unploughed and offered the edge of the field as an alternative. Sticklers for accuracy like Gordon Briggs saw this as the thin end of the wedge....
"Six hundred years," said Wendy suddenly.
"This hedge," said Wendy. "There are five different species of tree growing in thirty yards of it."
"What about it?"
"That means it's six hundred years old, doesn't it?"
"Dendrochronology or something, it's called," said Wendy inaccurately. She was vague on the figures, too. "They say you can tell the age of a hedge by the number of varieties of species growing in it. A hundred and ten years for each species plus thirty—that's the equation."
"Very likely," muttered Briggs. Unlike a lot of the members of the Berebury Country Footpaths Society, he was neither a naturalist nor an historian.
Wendy was still looking at the hedge. "Isn't it romantic to think that that's been there growing like that ever since the Plantagenets were on the throne?"
"Quarrelsome lot," said Briggs, briefly summarising the Wars of the Roses and more than a hundred years of English history. He had no imagination. He waved an arm. "The house looks old enough to match."
"Where?" asked Wendy. She liked looking at old houses. "Oh, yes, I see."
"That'll be Pencombe Farm, I suppose," said Briggs.
"Isn't it nice?" she said warmly as a substantial brick building came more fully into view. "And how well it nestles into the landscape."
"Pity about the barn," said Briggs.
The girl turned her gaze towards the farm buildings behind the farmhouse. A modern two-ridged barn in precast concrete rose behind the farmhouse, standing out like a sore thumb. Soaring above the farmyard were a handful of crows. "It is a bit—well, utilitarian, isn't it?" she said uncertainly.
Briggs shrugged. "Farmers have got to move with the times like everybody else." Briggs himself was a schoolmaster and hadn't changed his teaching methods in twenty years. "I expect the old barn fell down." He turned his attention back to the footpath. "No problems in this field, anyway. Where does the path go after this?"
"Towards the farmhouse," said Wendy.
Gordon Briggs nodded. Many of the footpaths they walked over were relics of those ways used simply by farm labourers to get to work in times past. If it was illogical that this should result in the world and his wife now being able to tramp over a farmer's field for all time Briggs did not let the thought trouble him too much. To him a footpath—within the meaning of the act—was a footpath and as such it was there to be walked and thus to be kept open for posterity. Its origins—be they ancient ridgeway or a Victorian farm servant's short cut to work—were of no interest to him, any more than were the flora and fauna of the countryside through which the footpaths led him. He was a single-minded man and the only thing which interested him about a footpath was whether or not it was open to the public.
"They'll see us if we follow it to the farmhouse," said Wendy.
"A good thing too," said Briggs robustly. He grinned suddenly. "It'll be good practice for seeing forty of us tomorrow, won't it?"
"Yes, of course," agreed Wendy quickly. All the same she knew that very few farmers relished the sudden sight of the entire Footpaths Society picking its way over their fields. Almost none of them could resist the temptation to come out and make sure that the walkers didn't stray from the footpath. As it happened that was one of the things that the farmer didn't need to worry about. Members of the society were meticulous about keeping to the authorised footpath. It was one of their canons. Moreover it was in the Country Code.
The two walkers advanced towards the farm. Besides the new barn there was an agglomeration of older farm buildings all set round a traditional steading, four-square against the wind and the weather. Well over on their left was the drive to the farm from the highway and the village of Great Rooden.
"This is the older way," said Wendy, pointing to their path.
"How do you know?" asked Briggs.
"It's shorter," she said. "And it cuts off quite a corner. The road came later, you can tell."
"Distance doesn't matter with cars," said Briggs with all the contempt of a determined walker. He could be quite rude to any motorist who was so misguided as to offer him a lift in his car. "Just wait until the world runs out of fossil fuel, that's all...."
It was a prospect that he regarded with selfish equanimity.
"The road's higher than the field, too," said Wendy. "You can see where they had to build it up a bit."
"Shouldn't wonder if they didn't get a bit of flooding down here in the wintertime," remarked Briggs, looking at the lay of the land. "These flat meadows look as if they might have had water in them."
"They're certainly very lush just now," said the girl. "Mind you, it is high summer."
It was in fact late June and the Calleshire countryside had an almost idyllic look about it.
"They've got their hay in," she said.
"I should hope so by now." Suddenly Gordon Briggs stiffened and changed his tone. "But soft, we are observed."
Wendy looked round. "I can't see anybody.... Oh, yes, I see what you mean."
Standing outside the barn watching their approach was a tall, sturdily built man with a dog. It was a well-trained dog and it sat obediently at its master's heel.
"Good afternoon," said Briggs politely.
"Afternoon," responded the man in neutral tones.
"Mr. Mellot?" said the schoolmaster enquiringly. Once upon a time you could tell what a man was by what he wore, but not any longer. This man had on well-worn trousers and an open-necked shirt. His shirt-sleeves were rolled well up and he had obviously been working in the barn. He had about him though an unmistakable air of ownership. "Mr. George Mellot?"
"We're an advance party from the Berebury Country Footpaths Society," said Gordon Briggs.
"Yes?" The farmer was neither friendly nor unfriendly. He just stood by the barn door and waited.
"We're walking a footpath in preparation for our society's meeting tomorrow," announced Gordon Briggs.
The other man stirred. "You mean you're meeting here? At Pencombe?"
"That's right," said Briggs. "We're going to walk Footpath Seventy-nine on the County Survey. You needn't worry," he added quickly. "We shan't do any damage."
"We always keep to the Country Code," chimed in Wendy eagerly. Mention of the Country Code was meant to reassure farmers. Usually all it succeeded in doing was to puzzle them.
This farmer looked as mystified as all the others did.
"We fasten all gates," said Wendy. "And we don't light fires."
"We keep to the path," said Briggs, "and don't damage fences."
"I'm glad to hear it," said the farmer drily.
"And keep dogs under proper control," said Wendy.
George Mellot glanced down at his own perfectly behaved dog and said, "I'm glad to hear that too."
"There won't be any litter either," went on Wendy anxiously, "and we don't damage wildlife or anything like that."
"I'll hardly know you've been, is that it?" said Mr. Mellot ironically.
"That's right," said Wendy with relief.
"We leave nothing behind but our thanks," said Briggs sententiously.
"I see." He looked at them both. "I take it that you already know the route of Footpath Seventy-nine?"
"It's on the Ordnance Survey Map," said Briggs. There were some farmers who pretended not to know the route of the footpaths over their land.
"It passes the farmhouse," George Mellot informed him, "and picks up the stream and then goes straight across the valley and out onto the Little Rooden road."
"Footpaths always take the easiest way," said Briggs knowledgeably. "No point in making the going harder than it need be."
"I think," said Mellot quietly, "that you'll find it easy going all right. There's nothing to stop you." He glanced at the tools they were carrying. "You won't need your bill-hook either."
"That's a relief," said Wendy. "I'm no good at cutting my way through undergrowth."
"We keep all the paths clear at Pencombe," said the farmer, adding astringently, "for our sakes as well as yours."
"Quite so," said Briggs fussily. "It's good farming practice."
"It makes it easier for the boys to come in and steal my apples too," said the farmer. "Had you thought about that?"
"That's something quite different," said Briggs firmly. "That's a police matter. Don't worry, Mr. Mellot," he added, "none of our people will take anything."
"Except photographs," said Wendy Lamport brightly.
"Very well." The farmer nodded and abruptly turned back into the barn, his dog still at his heel.
"That's all right then, isn't it?" said Wendy, turning to her companion. "We should have a good walk tomorrow."
"We should," agreed Gordon Briggs. "This way, I think."
They passed the farmhouse in its comfortable setting at the bottom of the combe and picked their way along the footpath which followed a stream. The farmer had been quite right. The way was clear; indeed it looked as if it had been attended to fairly recently. Walking along it was quite pleasant and their pace unconsciously quickened. That was when they began to realise that the day was already warm and getting warmer.
Presently Briggs looked at the map again. "Surely this stream is part of the river Westerbrook that finishes up the Calle somewhere?"
Wendy nodded. "Woe waters."
Excerpted from Harm's Way by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 1984 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.