Red Planet, The

With the lightest heart I drove to Wellings Park. Marigold, straight as a ramrod, sitting in front by the chauffeur. As soon as Pardoe, the butler, had brought out my chair and Marigold had settled me in it, Sir Anthony, very red and flustered, appeared and, shaking me nervously by the hand, said without preliminary greeting:

"Come into the library."

He, I think, had come from the morning room on the right of the hall. The library was on the left. He flung open the door. I steered myself into the room; and there, standing on the white bearskin hearthrug, his back to the fire, his hands in his pockets, his six inches of stiff white beard stuck aggressively outward, I saw Daniel Gedge.

While I gaped in astonishment, Sir Anthony shut the door behind him, drew a straight-backed chair from the wall, planted it roughly some distance away from the fire, and, pointing to it, bade Gedge sit down. Gedge obeyed. Sir Anthony took the hearthrug position, his hands behind his back, his legs apart.

"This man," said he, "has come to me with a ridiculous, beastly story. At first I was undecided whether I should listen to him or kick him out. I thought it wiser to listen to him in the presence of a reputable witness. That's why I've sent for you, Duncan. Now you just begin all over again, my man," said he, turning to Gedge, "and remember that anything you say here will be used against you at your trial."

Gedge laughed—I must admit, with some justification.

"You forget, Sir Anthony, I'm not a criminal and you're not a policeman."

"I'm the Mayor to this town, sir," cried Sir Anthony. "I'm also a Justice of the Peace."

"And I'm a law-abiding citizen," retorted Gedge.

"You're an infernal socialistic pro-German," exclaimed Sir Anthony.

"Prove it. I only ask you to prove it. No matter what my private opinions may be, you just try to bring me up under the Defence of the Realm Act, and you'll find you can't touch me."

I held out a hand. "Forgive me for interrupting," said I, "but what is all this discussion about?"

Gedge crossed one leg over the other and drew his beard through his fingers. Sir Anthony was about to burst into speech, but I checked him with a gesture and turned to Gedge.

"It has nothing to do with political opinions," said he. "It has to do with the death, nearly two years ago, of Miss Althea Fenimore, Sir Anthony's only daughter."

Sir Anthony, his face congested, glared at him malevolently. I started, with a gasp of surprise, and stared at the man who, caressing his beard, looked from one to the other of us with an air of satisfaction.

"Get on," said Sir Anthony.

"You are going to give a civic reception to-day to Colonel Boyce, V.C., aren't you?"

"Yes, I am," snapped Sir Anthony.

"Do you think you ought to do it when I tell you that Colonel Boyce, V.C., murdered Miss Althea Fenimore on the night of the 25th June, two years ago?"

"Yes," said Sir Anthony. "And do you know why? Because I know you to be a liar and a scoundrel."

I can never describe the awful horror that numbed me to the heart. For a few moments my body seemed as lifeless as my legs. The charge, astounding almost to grotesqueness in the eyes of Sir Anthony, and rousing him to mere wrath, deprived me of the power of speech. For I knew, in that dreadful instant, that the man's words contained some elements of truth.

All the pieces of the puzzle that had worried me at odd times for months fitted themselves together in a vivid flash. Boyce and Althea! I had never dreamed of associating their names. That association was the key of the puzzle. Out of the darkness disturbing things shone clear. Boyce's abrupt retirement from Wellingsford before the war; his cancellation by default of his engagement; his morbid desire, a year ago, to keep secret his presence in his own house; Gedge's veiled threat to me in the street to use a way "that'll knock all you great people of Wellingsford off your high horses;" his extraordinary interview with Boyce; his generally expressed hatred of Boyce. Was this too the secret which he let out in his cups to Randall Holmes and which drove the young man from his society? And Betty? Boyce was a devil. She wished he were dead. And her words: "You have behaved worse to others. I don't wonder at your shrinking from showing your face here." How much did Betty know? There was the lost week—in Carlisle?—in poor Althea's life. And then there were Boyce's half confessions, the glimpses he had afforded me into the tormented soul. To me he had condemned himself out of his own mouth.

I repeat that, sitting there paralysed by the sudden shock of it, I knew—not that the man was speaking the literal truth—God forbid!—but that Boyce was, in some degree, responsible for Althea's death.

"Calling me names won't alter the facts, Sir Anthony," said Gedge, with a touch of insolence. "I was there at the time. I saw it."

"If that's true," Sir Anthony retorted, "you're an accessory after the fact, and in greater danger of being hanged than ever." He turned to me in his abrupt way. "Now that we've heard this blackguard, shall we hand him over to the police?"

Being directly addressed, I recovered my nerve.

"Before doing that," said I, "perhaps it would be best for us to hear what kind of a story he has to tell us. We should also like to know his motives in not denouncing the supposed murderer at once, and in keeping his knowledge hidden all this time."

"With regard to the last part of your remarks, I dare say you would," said Gedge. "Only I don't know whether I'll go so far as to oblige you. Anyhow you may have discovered that I don't particularly care about your class. I've been preaching against your idleness and vanity and vices, and the strangling grip you have on the throats of the people, ever since I was a young man. If one of your lot chose to do in another of your lot—a common story of seduction and crime—"

At this slur in his daughter's honour Sir Anthony broke out fiercely, and, for a moment, I feared lest he would throw himself on Gedge and wring his neck. I managed to check his outburst and bring him to reason. He resumed his attitude on the hearthrug.

"As I was saying," Gedge continued, rather frightened, "from my sociological point of view I considered the affair no business of mine. I speak of it now, because ever since war broke out your class and the parasitical bourgeoisie have done your best to reduce me to starvation. I thought it would be pleasant to get a bit of my own back. Just a little bit," he added, rubbing his hands.

"If you think you've done it, you'll find yourself mistaken."

Gedge shrugged his shoulders and pulled his beard. I hated the light in his little crafty eyes. I feel sure he had been looking forward for months to this moment of pure happiness.

"Having given us an insight into your motives, which seem consistent with what we know of your character," said I, judicially, "will you now make your statement of facts?"

"What's the good of listening further to his lies?" interrupted Sir Anthony. "I'm a magistrate. I can give the police at once a warrant for his arrest."

Again I pacified him. "Let us hear what the man has to say."

Gedge began. He spoke by the book, like one who repeats a statement carefully prepared.

"It was past ten o'clock on the night of the 25th June, 1914. I had just finished supper when I was rung up by the landlord of The Three Feathers on the Farfield road—it's the inn about a quarter of a mile from the lock gates. He said that the District Secretary of the Red Democratic Federation was staying there—his brother-in-law, if you want to know—and he hadn't received my report. I must explain that I am the local secretary, and as there was to be an important conference of the Federation at Derby the next day, the District Secretary ought to have been in possession of my report on local affairs. I had drawn up the report. My daughter Phyllis had typed it, and she ought to have posted it. On questioning her, I found she had neglected to do so. I explained this over the wires and said I would bring the report at once to The Three Feathers. I only tell you all this, in which you can't be interested, so that you can't say: 'What were you doing on a lonely road at that time of night?' My daughter and the landlord of The Three Feathers can corroborate this part of my story. I set out on my bicycle. It was bright moonlight. You know that for about two hundred yards before the lock gate, and for about twenty after, the towing-path is raised above the level of the main road which runs parallel with it a few yards away. There are strips of market garden between. When I got to this open bit I saw two persons up on the towing-path. One was a girl with a loose kind of cloak and a hat. The other was a man wearing a soft felt hat and a light overcoat. The overcoat was open and I saw that he was wearing it over evening dress. That caught my attention. What was this swell in evening dress doing there with a girl? I slowed down and dismounted. They didn't see me. I got into the shadow of a whitethorn. They turned their faces so that the moon beat full on them. I saw them as plain as I see you. They were Colonel Boyce, V.C.,—Major then—and your daughter, Mr. Mayor, Miss Althea Fenimore."

He paused as though to point the dramatic effect, and twisted round, sticking out his horrible beard at Sir Anthony. Sir Anthony, his hands thrust deep in his trouser-pockets and his bullet head bent forward, glared at him balefully out of his old blue eyes. But he said never a word. Gedge continued.

"They didn't speak very loud, so I could only hear a scrap or two of their conversation. They seemed to be quarrelling—she wanted him to do something which he wouldn't do. I heard the words 'marriage' and 'disgrace.' They stood still for a moment. Then they turned back. I had overtaken them, you know. I remounted my bicycle and rode to The Three Feathers. I was there about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. Then I rode back for home. When I came in sight of the lock, there I saw a man standing alone, sharp in the moonlight. As I came nearer I recognised the same man, Major Boyce. There were no lights in the lock-keeper's cottage. He and his wife had gone to bed long before. I was so interested that I forgot what I was doing and ran into the hedge so that I nearly came down. There was the noise of the scrape and drag of the machine which must have sounded very loud in the stillness. It startled him, for he looked all round, but he didn't see me, for I was under the hedge. Then suddenly he started running. He ran as if the devil was after him. I saw him squash down his Trilby hat so that it was shapeless. Then he disappeared along the path. I thought this a queer proceeding. Why should he have taken to his heels? I thought I should like to see him again. If he kept to the towing-path, his shortest way home, he was bound to go along the Chestnut Avenue, where, as you know, the road and the path again come together. On a bicycle it was easy to get there before him. I sat down on a bench and waited. Presently he comes, walking fast, his hat still squashed in all over his ears. I walked my bicycle slap in front of him.

"'Good-night, Major,' I said.

"He stared at me as if he didn't know me. Then he seemed to pull himself together and said: 'Good-night, Gedge. What are you doing out at this time of night?'

"'If it comes to that, sir,' said I, 'what are you?'

"Then he says, very haughty, as if I was the dirt under his feet—I suppose, Sir Anthony Fenimore and Major Meredyth, you think that me and my class are by divine prescription the dirt beneath your feet, but you're damn well mistaken—then he says: 'What the devil do you mean?' and catches hold of the front wheel of the bicycle and swings it and me out of his way so that I had a nasty fall, with the machine on top of me, and he marches off. I picked myself up furious with anger. I am an elderly man and not accustomed to that sort of treatment. I yelled out: 'What have you been doing with the Squire's daughter on the towing-path?' It pulled him up short. He made a step or two towards me, and again he asked me what I meant. And this time I told him. He called me a liar, swore he had never been on any tow-path or had seen any squire's daughter, and threatened to murder me. As soon as I could mount my bicycle I left him and made for home. The next afternoon, if you remember, the unfortunate young lady's body was found at the bottom of three fathoms of water by the lock gates."

He had spoken so clearly, so unfalteringly, that Sir Anthony had been surprised into listening without interruption. The bull-dog expression on his face never changed. When Gedge had come to the end, he said:

"Will you again tell me your object in coming to me with this disgusting story?"

Gedge lifted his bushy eyebrows. "Don't you believe it even now?"

"Not a word of it," replied Sir Anthony.

"I ought to remind you of another point." said Gedge. "Was Major Boyce ever seen in Wellingsford after that night? No. He went off by the first train the next morning. Went abroad and stayed there till the outbreak of war."

"I happen to know he had made arrangements to start for Norway that morning," said Sir Anthony. "He had called here a day or two before to say good-bye."

"Did he write you any letter of condolence?" Gedge asked sneeringly.

I saw a sudden spasm pass over Sir Anthony's features. But he said in the same tone as before:

"I am not going to answer insolent questions."

Gedge turned to me with the air of a man giving up argument with a child.

"What do you think of it, Major Meredyth?"

What could I say? I had kept a grim iron face all through the proceedings. I could only reply:

"I agree entirely with Sir Anthony."

Gedge rose and thrust his hand into his jacket pocket. "You gentlemen are hard to convince. If you want proof positive, just read that." And he held a letter out to Sir Anthony.

Sir Anthony glared at him and abruptly plucked the letter out of his hand; for the fraction of a second he stood irresolute; then he threw it behind him into the blazing fire.

"Do you think I'm going to soil my mind with your dirty forgeries?"

Gedge laughed. "You think you've queered my pitch, I suppose. You haven't. I've heaps more incriminating letters. That was only a sample."

"Publish one of them at your peril," said I.

"Pray, Mister Major Meredyth," said he, "what is to prevent me?"

"Penal servitude for malicious slander."

"I should win my case."

"In that event they would get you, on your own showing, for being an accessory after the fact of murder, and for blackmail."

"Suppose I risk it?"

"You won't," said I.

Sir Anthony turned to the bell-push by the side of the mantelpiece.

"What's the good of talking to this double-dyed scoundrel?" He pointed to the door. "You infamous liar, get out. And if I ever catch you prowling round this house, I'll set the dogs on you."

Gedge marched to the door and turned on the threshold and shook his fist.

"You'll repent your folly till your dying day!"

"To Hell with you," cried Sir Anthony.

The door slammed. We were left alone. An avalanche of silence overwhelmed us. Heaven knows how long we remained speechless and motionless—I in my wheel-chair, he standing on the hearthrug staring awfully in front of him. At last he drew a deep breath and threw up his arms and flung himself down on a leather-covered couch, where he sat, elbows on knees and his head in his hands. After a while he lifted a drawn face.

"It's true, Duncan," said he, "and you know it."

"I don't know it," I replied stoutly, "any more than you do."

He rose in his nervous way and came swiftly to me and clapped both his hands on my frail shoulders and bent over me—he was a little man, as I have told you—and put his face so close to mine that I could feel his breath on my cheek.

"Upon your soul as a Christian you know that man wasn't lying."

I looked into his eyes—about six inches from mine.

"Boyce never murdered Althea," I said.

"But he is the man—the man I've been looking for."

I pushed him away with both hands, using all my strength. It was too horrible.

"Suppose he is. What then?"

He fell back a pace or two. "Once I remember saying: 'If ever I get hold of that man—God help him!'"

He clenched his fists and started to pace up and down the library, passing and repassing my chair. At last my nerves could stand it no longer and I called on him to halt.

"Gedge's story is curiously incomplete," said I. "We ought to have crossexamined him more closely. Is it likely that Boyce should have gone off leaving behind him a witness of his crime whom he had threatened to murder, and who he must have known would have given information as soon as the death was discovered? And don't you think Gedge's reason for holding his tongue very unconvincing? His fool hatred of our class, instead of keeping him cynically indifferent, would have made him lodge information at once and gloat over our discomfiture."

I could not choose but come to the defence of the unhappy man whom I had learned to call my friend, although, for all my trying, I could conjure up no doubt as to his intimate relation with the tragedy. As Sir Anthony did not speak, I went on.

"You can't judge a man with Leonard Boyce's record on the EX PARTE statement of a malevolent beast like Gedge. Look back. If there had been any affair between Althea and Boyce, the merest foolish flirtation, even, do you think it would have passed unnoticed? You, Edith, Betty—I myself—would have cast an uneasy eye. When we were looking about, some months ago, at the time of your sister-in-law's visit, for a possible man, the thought of Leonard Boyce never entered our heads. The only man you could rush at was young Randall Holmes, and I laughed you out of the idea. Just throw your mind back, Anthony, and try to recall any suspicious incident. You can't."

I paused rhetorically, expecting a reply. None came. He just sat looking at me in a dead way. I continued my special pleading; and the more I said, the more was I baffled by his dead stare and the more unconvincing platitudes did I find myself uttering. Some people may be able to speak vividly to a deaf and dumb creature. On this occasion I tried hard to do so, and failed. After a while my words dribbled out with difficulty and eventually ceased. At last he spoke, in the dull, toneless way of a dead man—presuming that the dead could speak:

"You may talk till you're black in the face, but you know as well as I do that the man told the truth—or practically the truth. What he said he saw, he saw. What motives have been at the back of his miserable mind, I don't know. You say I can't recall suspicious incidents. I can. I'll tell you one. I came across them once—about a month before the thing happened—among the greenhouses. I think we were having one of our tennis parties. I heard her using angry words, and when I appeared her face was flushed and there were tears in her eyes. She was taken aback for a second and then she rushed up to me. 'I think he's perfectly horrid. He says that Jingo—' pointing to the dog; you remember Jingo the Sealingham—she was devoted to him—he died last year—'He says that Jingo is a mongrel—a throw back.' Boyce said he was only teasing her and made pretty apologies. I left it at that. Hit a dog or a horse belonging to Althea, and you hit Althea. That was her way. The incident went out of my mind till this morning. Other incidents, too. One thinks pretty quick at times. Again, this scoundrel hit me on the raw. Boyce never wrote to us. Sent us through his mother a conventional word of condolence. Edith and I were hurt. That was one of the things that made me speak so angrily of him when he wouldn't come and dine with us."

Once more I pleaded. "Your Sealingham incident doesn't impress me. Why not take it at its face value? As for the letter of condolence, that may have twenty explanations."

He passed his hand over his cropped iron-grey head. "What are you driving at, Duncan? You know as well as I do—you know more than I do. I saw it in your face ever since that man opened his mouth."

"If you're so sure of everything," said I foolishly, relaxing grip on my self-control, "why did you hound him out of the place for a liar?"

He leaped to his feet and spread himself into a fighting attitude, for all the world like a half-dead bantam cock springing into a new lease of combative life.

"Do you think I'd let a dunghill beast like that crow over me? Do you think I'd let him imagine for a minute that anything he said could influence me in my public duty? By God, sir, what kind of a worm do you think I am?"

His sudden fury disconcerted me. All this time I had been wondering what kind of catastrophe was going to happen during the next few hours. I am afraid I haven't made clear to you the ghastly racket in my brain. There was the town all beflagged, everyone making holiday, all the pomp and circumstance at our disposal awaiting the signal to be displayed. There was the blind conquering hero almost on his way to local apotheosis. And here were Sir Anthony and I with the revelation of the man Gedge. It was a fantastic, baffling situation. I had been haunted by the dread of discussing it. So in reply to his outburst I simply said:

"What are you going to do?"

He drew himself up, with his obstinate chin in the air, and looked at me straight.

"If God gives me strength, I am going to do what lies before me."

At this moment Lady Fenimore came in.

"Mr. Winterbotham would like to speak to you a minute, Anthony. It's something about the school children."

"All right, my dear. I'll go to him at once," said Sir Anthony. "You'll stay and lunch with us, Duncan?"

I declined on the plea that I should have to nurse myself for a strenuous day. Sir Anthony might play the Roman father, but it was beyond my power to play the Roman father's guest.

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