THE CASEBOOK OF RUPERT SWANN : NUMBER EIGHT
The Elmwood Manor Mystery
It was a gloomy November day, but that did nothing to dampen Rupert Swann’s spirits. He had relished his post-breakfast walk even more than usual because he was looking forward to something out of the ordinary after lunch. Early that morning he had received a letter from Lord Wetherley of Elmwood Manor, which was close to the village of Shadwell, about six miles from Leeds city centre. The letter, delivered by a messenger boy, expressed the hope that Swann might be available to receive the writer at three that afternoon, and asked that a verbal reply be given to the boy.
Swann had finished his last case over three weeks earlier and did not want to miss the chance of another. He could think of no reason why Lord Wetherley would have any need to call on him, except to enlist his professional services, so he was happy to send the lad on his way with the requested confirmation.
Shortly after the boy left, Swann had his breakfast, followed as usual by his first pipe of the day. While smoking, feet up on the low fireside table, he gave some thought to what he knew of Lord Wetherley. His conclusion was that, like so many people, he knew precious little about the peer, who was very wealthy, reputedly eccentric and certainly reclusive, taking little part in society. It was said that he was immersed in physics. One newspaper reporter had suggested that Lord Wetherley was broadly comparable to Henry Cavendish, his predecessor by a century or so and a man of high birth, extremely sy socially and highly distinguished by virtue of his scientific endeavours.
With his smoke finished, Swann dressed and went for a walk, opting to wander around the inner suburb of Headingley for a while, then return to the city centre for lunch. He had been out for only twenty minutes when he stopped to watch a scene he had witnessed at least a dozen times but always enjoyed. A number of people had gathered around a dray carrying barrels of beer from the main local brewery to various public houses. The driver, in company livery, including top hat, had stopped to give his horses, a pair of mighty dapple-grey Shires, a brief rest. As Swann and his fellow spectators admired the huge beasts, each close to a ton of magnificent muscle, the drayman left his seat, placed a lump of sugar between his teeth and offered it to the kerbside horse. Using its own teeth, the animal plucked the morsel from the driver, as gently as could be. The little ritual was repeated with the other horse, then the driver bowed to his viewers, man and horses took a round of applause, the wagon went about its business and the little group of onlookers dispersed.*
A further hour of walking brought Swann to Briggate, the busy central thoroughfare off which a narrow side-alley led him to his favourite lunchtime spot, Whitelock’s Tavern, the oldest public house in Leeds. He did justice to two beef sandwiches and a pint of excellent bitter. On leaving the tavern he had started to head back to his Park Square lodgings when it occurred to him that his stock of tobacco was low, so he turned back and went to a shop in Vicar Lane for a fresh supply.
The decision to make that slight detour caused Swann to continue his entertainment for day in a most unexpected manner. Having made his purchase, he had walked only a few steps when he reached the entrance to a hostelry of doubtful repute, from which two middle-aged men emerged at speed, cursing loudly. They squared up to each other on the pavement, nearly five feet apart, but in diagonal opposition with respect to the buildings and kerb, therefore impeding the progress of other pedestrians. Both men were weaving and tottering, obviously inebriated. It seemed unlikely that any blows they might have landed would have done much harm.
“Excuse me,” said Swann, addressing the pair. “I would like to get past before the fight starts.” In return he received a volley of abuse from each man, to the effect that if did not clear off at once he would get a thrashing. At that instant a middle-aged, well-dressed woman came along, wishing to continue on her way. “Oh, dear,” she said. “What is happening here? Must I go into the road?”
The lady was speaking to Swann. He raised a hand to detain her. “Certainly not, madam,” he answered. “Allow me a moment to deal with this.” No stranger to the art of pugilism, he stepped between the prospective combatants, made two bony firsts and shot out both arms sideways. He held his pose for a moment, looking somewhat like a well-clad scarecrow. His blows had the desired effect. The man on his right, nose bleeding, fell into the gutter, while the other, struck on his chin, flopped back into the doorway he had just left.
Swann doffed his cap to the woman. “I think you may proceed now,” he said.
Showing a level of composure that matched her appearance and deportment, the woman gave her rescuer a broad smile. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “How fortuitous that you were here at the right moment. I shall remember your gallantry.” With that she walked off. Swann followed her, though only for a few yards until she crossed the Headrow and he turned into it.
As he ambled back towards his rooms, Swann reflected, as he often did, on the old debate about determinism and free will. He came to the same conclusion as he always had done, that the former was what befell people and the latter was how they reacted to it. He reasoned that in the instance he had just experienced, the determinism was whatever impelled him to buy tobacco at the moment he did so, thereby coming upon the two drunks, while the free will was his choice of response to the encounter.
Before reaching Park Square, Swann called at the public library to see what he could add to his knowledge of Lord Wetherley. The information was scant, revealing little more than that the man was sixty-three years of age and a childless widower. As for his home, Swann had no first-hand knowledge of Elmwood Manor. The only reference to it he had ever heard had come from a member of his club, who had once been driven past the place in a coach. He described it as a gloomy, mouldering pile with more wings than a skein of geese, and all verging on collapse. However, Swann was aware that his informant was a raconteur with a colourful vocabulary and an inclination to overstatement.
Back in his rooms, Swann had time for a leisurely pipe before his visitor appeared. Lord Wetherley’s heavy tread was audible as he walked along the hall. He knocked and Swann went to the door to welcome him. His Lordship was of average height and corpulent. He was breathless, apparently from climbing the single flight of stairs, as he had arrived in a carriage. His black overcoat was open, revealing a suit of the same colour. He was wearing highly polished black boots, a black bowler hat and a navy blue tie. In fact the only thing that was not very dark about his attire was a white shirt.
Swann waved his visitor to a fireside chair and established that a glass of sherry would not come amiss. With generous measures poured, he sat facing the peer. “Now, please tell me what brings you here in a state of such agitation,” he said.
Lord Wetherley’s eyes widened in surprise. “You are right about my condition,” he replied, “but how did you deduce it on such short acquaintance?”
“It is no great feat on my part to conclude that a man with trembling hands, a shaking voice and a twitch around his left eye is somewhat overwrought.”
“Ah, I was given to understand that you are perceptive, Mr Swann, and I see that is true. Well sir, my nerves are indeed ragged, and upon my soul, I have good reason.”
His Lordship passed a hand across his brow. “Well, among other things, I am beginning to have serious doubts about my sanity.”
That brought a thin smile from Swann. “At least you start with good news,” he said.
“What? You think it glad tidings that I may be mad?”
“No. I see it as positive that you express doubts. My experience of such matters is limited, but it has persuaded me that those who are rational enough to do that have little ground for fear. I think if you were really of unsound mind, you would assert the opposite. However, perhaps you will kindly give me some details.”
“That is easy to do. There have been strange happenings at my home recently, always during nights and at intervals of two or three days. First, a painting was removed from the dining room wall and placed face-down on the table. Shortly after that, two flower vases were overturned in the hall and the contents, including the water, were found on the carpet. Next, about twenty books were taken from the library shelves and strewn around the floor. Shortly after that, the Bible my wife used to read was placed on a table in the hall, opened at Matthew 5:38. The words ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ had been circled with a red pencil. Finally, this morning, my attention was drawn to some capital letters printed in white chalk on the inside of the front door. If that is a message it means nothing to me, but I made a copy and here it is.”
A brief glance at the paper was all Swann needed. “Vergeltung,” he said. It is German and means retaliation, or any synonym of that word.”
Lord Wetherley shook his head. “I cannot think of any reason why anyone should wish to wreak vengeance on me for anything,” he replied. Frankly, apart from the doubts I expressed about my mental state, I am wondering whether I have become a somnambulist.”
“Have you any reason for thinking that you might be?”
“Yes. The morning after one of these incidents, my maid approached me in a most diffident manner, asking to speak with me about something that was troubling her. When I told her to proceed, she said that a noise had disturbed her at about two in the morning. She rose and on coming out into the landing, saw me leave the library in my nightshirt and, walking in what she described as a strange, mechanical way, go up the stairs to my bedroom. She was very upset. I calmed her down to some extent with the first words that came to me and adjured her to keep the matter to herself. I am at a loss to understand all this, Mr Swann. Am I being visited by ghosts?”
“I think not. As to whether ghosts do or don’t exist, I offer no opinion, but if they do, I very much doubt that they circle words in books or print on doors. It seems to me that we must seek a more mundane explanation, and the only way to do so is for me to call at your residence and somehow stay there at night. However, we must arrange it so you are the only one in the household who knows that. Do you have other domestic staff?”
“Yes. I have a gardener. He lives in the gatehouse, over a hundred yards from the main property, which he enters only at my request. Then there is the butler, who is about my age and has been with the family for many years. I also have a cook who has served me for quite a long time. The maid came to me more recently. All three live on the premises.”
Swann rubbed his jaw. “I think I can see how we may do what I have in mind,” he said. “I must visit you on some pretext, for example posing as a man advising you on some business matter. We shall need to make sure that all the members of your staff are aware of my arrival and what is far more important, that they know when I depart. Then I must be able to get back indoors without their knowledge. Do you think we can organise that?”
“I believe so. The maid, Alice, usually admits visitors, so it would be normal for her let you in when you arrive. I’ll let it be known that you are to be with me for an hour or so, and will ask her to be on hand to see you out. I could also ensure that the butler, Baines, sees or hears you go. It might be a good idea for you to come to dinner, so the cook will know of your presence, and the other two are sure to tell her of your departure.”
“Excellent. Now, as to my getting back into the place later, how can I best do that surreptitiously?”
His Lordship thought for a moment. “I will give you a spare key to the back door when you arrive,” he said, “and before you go I will show you where that door is. As for getting to it, there is a side gate in the wall, quite a distance from the main entrance. It is not locked, so you will be able to use it to avoid alerting the gardener.”
“Good. When do your indoor staff people retire for the night?”
“The cook goes to bed shortly after ten o’clock, the maid perhaps half an hour later and the butler at about eleven.”
“Good,” said Swann. “I think we have covered what matters for the moment and I see no reason why we should not proceed at once. Can we do so this evening?”
His Lordship did not hesitate. “We can. The sooner we settle this matter, the better. If I am really losing my mind, I need to know that without delay. Could you call on me at, say, seven-thirty for dinner at eight?”
“Yes. As for your mentality, I have not seen any reason to think that you are unbalanced. I am sure that we shall bring this affair to a speedy conclusion. You have already told me that these strange incidents have occurred two or three days apart, so we should not have long to wait. If we don’t settle it tonight, then presumably we shall do so tomorrow or the day after. Oh, there is just one more thing. Does Shadwell village have an inn where I could reserve a room for a night or two?”
“Yes. I am told it is held in quite high regard for both food and accommodation.”
“Excellent. I think that is all.”
Lord Wetherley rose. “I feel better for speaking with you, Mr Swann. I must leave you now, as I wish to deal with a few other things while I am in town. Whatever else happens, I can assure of a good dinner. My cook’s efforts are above reproach.”
At seven-fifteen that evening, Swann arrived in Shadwell, where he paused at the inn to book a room, explaining that he might or might not need it, as his plans were subject to change. The landlord said that he normally locked up for the night at eleven-thirty, but the production of a gold coin enabled Swann to get a spare key, which gave him freedom to enter during the night, should he so wish.
Swann proceeded to Elmwood Manor. As he had expected, his friend’s comment that the place had a great number of wings was a wild exaggeration, though the building was certainly very large. Darkness precluded any assessment of its condition. The maid admitted Swann and led him to the study, where Lord Wetherley offered him a choice of drinks, recommending an outstanding fino sherry, which Swann was pleased to accept.
Dinner was served promptly at eight, and Swann had to agree with his host’s opinion of the cook’s ability. The meal was excellent. By unspoken consent, the subject of Swann’s visit was avoided, and conversation between the two men flowed freely, covering a variety of subjects. Among other things, Swann learned that his host was deeply interested in a range of scientific matters and had hopes of making a name for himself in one field or another.
It was approaching ten o’clock when Swann was shown out by the maid. He saw no point in walking to the village, only to return almost at once, so he wandered around and smoked a pipe until well after eleven, giving time for the staff to retire for the night. He had arranged to conceal himself in an empty bedroom adjacent to that of Lord Wetherley. All the domestic retainers slept on the floor above, so Swann would be able to watch for any movement, while the nocturnal silence would allow him to hear any noise made by a possible intruder.
The plan was for Swann to stay initially for a maximum of three days, if necessary. Should no strange incidents occur in that period, he and his client would review the position. Entering by the side gate and back door, he went to his allocated room, leaving the door open wide enough for him to monitor anything that might happen. In the event, all remained quiet the whole night. Lord Wetherley had said that the cook was always up before anyone else, normally rising at seven. Swann left in darkness at six-forty, returning to the village inn, where he was provided with an early breakfast, after which he tried to make up for lost sleep.
With no further duties to his client until late evening, Swann lunched on sandwiches and beer before taking a long walk during the afternoon, then settling down with one of his books on mathematics. He enjoyed a good dinner at the inn, followed by a nap. By shortly after eleven, he was back at Elmwood Manor, where he again took up his post in the spare bedroom.
The great house remained silent for three hours, then Swann heard footsteps in the corridor. Someone had come down from the servants’ quarters. He closed his door quietly, allowed time for the roamer to pass, then peeped out and saw the maid descending to the ground floor.
Swann was experienced in the art of covert surveillance and had no difficulty in keeping track of the Alice’s stealthy movements. She crossed the hall and entered the dining room leaving the door open wide enough for Swann to see what she was doing. She took from the sideboard eight bottles of various makes of brandy, whisky and sherry, laid them flat on the table, wedged them between two vases and removed the caps, allowing the liquids to start flowing out.
As Alice turned to leave the scene of her odd behaviour, Swann stepped into the room and confronted her. “Oh dear,” he said. “That is very wasteful. Let us get those bottles upright.”
Without a word in reply, Alice dropped to floor in a faint. By the time Swann had adjusted the bottles and lit a lamp, the young woman was recovering her senses. Swann was solicitous as he helped her to her feet. “I’m sorry to have shocked you,” he murmured, “but you were very naughty, and not for the first time. Now I think it would be as well for us to take two of these chairs and have a talk. Just get us a couple of glasses from the sideboard and we’ll have a drop of brandy.” The astounded maid did Swann’s bidding and, not being in a position to deny anything, told him an extraordinary story.
Lord Wetherley had asked Swann to wake him at any time of night, should there be anything to report, so he was not greatly surprised to find himself being roused at three-forty. “What news, Mr Swann?” he asked. “Have you settled the matter?”
Swann nodded. “Yes. I think we might discuss this better in your study. The fire there was set ready for the day, so I have been presumptuous enough light it. Shall we go?”
“By all means. Just give me a moment to get my dressing gown.” The two men were soon seated in the study and His Lordship did not wish to lose any time in establishing what was afoot. “I assume you have news, Mr Swann,” he said.
“I have indeed. Let me first allay any fears you have concerning your mental state. I have no reason to believe that you have been sleepwalking or that your behaviour has been irrational in any way. The answer lies with your choice of staff.”
“Really? I sincerely hope you are not about to tell me that this is one of those country house mysteries that the novelists love so much and which usually end with the discovery that the butler did it.”
Swann grinned. “Well, in a way, you are not very far wide of the mark.”
“What? Are you saying that good old Baines has had a hand in this?”
Lord Wetherley was about to continue but Swann stopped him by raising a hand. “No. I was about to say that a butler was involved in a way, but in the first place he was not your butler, in the second place he was unaware of his connection with these events, and in the third place he has been dead for some time.”
“I am agog. Please explain before I expire from eagerness to know what has been going on under my roof.”
“You shall know in a matter of minutes, but I ask you to let me tell this in an orderly way. First, are you acquainted with Sir Edgar Blunt?”
His Lordship’s face expressed distaste. “Yes, he owns Heath Lodge, five miles or so northeast of here. I met him once, and that was enough.”
“Ah, you formed a low opinion of him, did you?”
“I did. It is seldom that I attend social events, but I was at a little gathering about two years ago and though I wasn’t in direct contact with Blunt, I could hardly avoid hearing him speak, for his voice was loud, his language florid and profane and his whole manner overbearing. I heard that he has something of a reputation as a hard man, particularly with respect to those closely around him.”
Swann nodded. “That accords precisely with what I heard less than an hour ago from your maid, Alice. You said that you engaged her quite recently. What I suppose you did not know is that she is the daughter of Thomas Hobman, who served until earlier this year as Sir Edgar Blunt’s butler. According to Alice, Blunt led the poor fellow a dog’s life, constantly abusing and humiliating him.”
His Lordship looked puzzled. “Why did this Hobman not seek other employment?”
“He tried, but in order to get another position, he required a reference from Blunt, who repeatedly either refused to give him one, or gave him negative ones. Hobman was barely better placed than a bonded servant. Blunt’s treatment drove the man to distraction and the last time he spoke with his daughter, he said that he could not stand any more and that he would be better off dead. Two days later he committed suicide. That event caused Alice’s mind to go awry.”
Lord Wetherley shook his head. “That is tragic,” he said, “but what does it have to do with me?”
“The connection is indirect. In her disturbed state, Alice decided that what she saw as the upper classes were collectively responsible for her father’s death, so she decided to wreak vengeance. In a sense, one could say that there was a kind of method in her madness. She registered with two employment agencies in Leeds, saying that she was seeking work in service. She rejected three offers which did not suit her purpose, and one of the agencies threatened to remove her from their books because of her selective attitude. However, you lost your maid some months ago, did you not?”
“That is correct. She left me in order to look after her ailing mother.”
Swann nodded.”Her departure gave Alice the opportunity she had hoped for. She came to you, behaved satisfactorily for a while, so that you would not associate her arrival here with what was to come. Her mind was still as disordered as it had been from the time of her father’s demise, but like many mentally disturbed people, she did not lack cunning. When she felt that she had gained your confidence, she started doing those odd things that led to your consulting me. Her idea was to drive you to lunacy, thereby squaring accounts with the higher strata of society. You will remember that one of her antics was to circle that Matthew 5:38 line in your Bible, and another was to chalk the German word for retaliation on your door. She got that second idea from a dictionary that had belonged to her father. She said he studied languages in his limited free time.”
His Lordship nodded. “Yes, I see. Her idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was that if she did the same to my mind as Edgar Blunt had done to her father’s, she would have had her revenge.”
“Exactly. I think my discovery of her scheme and my long talk with her might have started to reverse the damage done to her mentality. She cried copiously before we had finished, and finally went to her room just before I woke you. I believe she now grasps the foolishness of her conduct, and that she is terrified about what she imagines your reaction will be.”
Lord Wetherley rose. “Thank you, Mr Swann,” he said. “You have performed a most important service for me and I am very grateful. There is no doubt about what should be done with regard to Alice. The poor girl is deranged. It is not punishment she needs, but help, and I intend to see that she gets it. I will ask her to stay here with me, and assuming she accepts the offer, I shall try to show her that not all the privileged people in our society are tyrants.”
That brought a broad smile from Swann. “I know it is not my business to express an opinion in the matter, but I must say that your response is exactly the one I had hoped to hear.”
“Thank you. I am not a martinet, sir. I look after my staff, as did my parents and earlier forebears. Now, please tell me what I owe you and I will settle in cash at once.”
Swann obliged and was soon on his way back to the Shadwell village inn, where he slept for a while, had breakfast and arranged for a cab to take him back to the city.
* * *
*Some readers may like to know that this scene was still being played out in Leeds up to the 1980s.