In my Introduction to When the Door is Shut, I discussed the possible identity of 'B'. Certainly it is generally thought at Magdalene that he was A.C. Benson, whose association with that College began in 1904 when he was elected a Fellow. He became Master in 1915. There are some textual similarities between the tales of 'B' and those of A.C. Benson ("The Slype House", "Basil Netherby", "The Uttermost Farthing", etc.), but just as many differences, and the case remains unproven. However, that 'B' was (like Benson) a member of MRJ's close circle of friends seems certain, not only because the galley-proof of "The Stone Coffin" was amongst MRJ's papers, but also because a character called "Swain" appears in "Quia Nominor". He was surely named for E.G. Swain, MRJ's good friend and the author of The Stoneground Ghost Tales (1912).
The Rev. Francis Leadbetter, M.A., was Bursar of Magdalene in 1786, a tall, lean, shrunken man, who walked lamely, with a long pointed nose that always looked frozen in the hottest weather; a man of incredible feebleness of digestion, which caused him to prefer a basin of hot bread and milk in his rooms to the pleasant combination-room suppers of toasted cheese, washed down with a tankard of spiced ale; but for all that, and perhaps because of that, a serious and God-fearing man, a staunch friend and a civil companion, much respected and indeed not a little loved by those who knew him, in spite of his stiff and precise talk. Those who met Mr Leadbetter for the first time were apt to think him a kill-joy, with a taste for canting talk; he was apt to speak much of mercies and favours vouchsafed to him by Providence; his ill-health was a mercy, his shuffling gait was another mercy, because, as he was careful to explain, the first kept him from riotous company - "the tents of Kedar" - to which he had a strong inclination in his youth; while the second kept him from a youthful passion for field sports, and especially shooting, "in which soul-destroying pursuit," said Mr Leadbetter, "I might easily have wasted many precious hours, which have accordingly been spent in reviewing, and indeed in improving, the somewhat declining revenue of the College." But even so, there was an ironical twinkle in Mr Leadbetter's sunken eye, as he spoke thus, which inclined one to recognise a merrier spirit within; and those who came to know him had a way of using his friendship, valuing his good opinion, and consulting him about their private affairs, on which he was ready to spend much care and trouble.
Mr Leadbetter was sitting one forenoon with an old friend of his, Mr Burton, Steward of St John's College, who had rooms over the front gateway of the College. The chamber in which they sate had windows east and west, and four little doors in the corners communicating with the four turrets of the gateway. The room was entered by one of these, by a little staircase; another led up to Mr Burton's bedroom. They were talking business together, and Mr Burton, having occasion to refer to a ledger, went into another of the little doors and disappeared from view for a moment. He was presently followed by Mr Leadbetter, who was a highly inquisitive man. "What do you in there, Mr Burton?" he said. "It is in here that I keep my ledgers," said the muffled voice of Mr Burton within. "Is it permitted to a curious soul to enter?" said Mr Leadbetter. "I have a most singular desire, doubtless an unregenerate one, to see the other side of all doorways." "By all means, dear Sir," said Mr Burton. Mr Leadbetter accordingly stepped in under the low-browed door and found himself in a very curious scene. There were some plain shelves in the lower part of the place, which was lighted by a little peephole, above which ran up to the top of the turret a tube of rough brickwork, with the dried plaster oozing from the joints.
"A singular place, upon my word!" said Mr Leadbetter, "it seems a sad waste of useful space: a strange formality to build a costly turret, and leave it to ledgers and spiders; now a man might do worse than keep doves here; or if one needed long rods for any purpose, they might be securely stacked away - fishing-rods, for instance, or busby-brooms."
Mr Burton laughed, and said he had no use for rods, and as for doves, he did not desire to have them hallooing in the wall when he wanted to sleep.
"You are right," said Mr Leadbetter, "they would be ill company; but I love to design a use for all useless things; and it would be a mercy for me to have so kindly a place in my rooms at Magdalene; boxes might be drawn up with a pulley therein and finely bestowed."
Presently they came out and sate down to their work again, till Mr Leadbetter rose to go. "I am expecting a visitor to-day or to-morrow," he said. "You will remember Mr Peach, once a Fellow of my College and now Vicar of Steeple Ashton? He is riding to Cambridge to stay a few days with me. I look forward to much improving talk with him; he is, alas, of a convivial turn, but he is a serious man at bottom; his heart is right; and when he has fulfilled his desire for secular talk, we sit together and enquire into the state of our souls in a very blessed manner! Oh, the holiness of his discourse, even when he is full of meat! His friendship is indeed a favour!" Mr Burton laughed, not very pleasantly. "Oh, I know the man," he said, "and I do not respect him; we had, indeed, a private feud of some standing; he called me by hard names; I was the guardian of a young man, cousin to Mr Peach, who died; and a part of his fortune went to Mr Peach himself. Whether he was disaffected at not receiving more, or whether out of mere overbearingness, I do not know - but he must needs accuse me of mismanaging and neglecting the affair, when I had not only spent much time over it, but, indeed, had it not been for me, the estate would have been utterly wrecked through a dishonest lawyer. Mr Peach was most ungentlemanly; and when I explained to him the business with such patience as I could muster, he said that I might, indeed, prove on paper that I was not exactly a rogue; but that I was morally, if just not criminally, responsible for the wastage!"
"Tut, tut!" said Mr Leadbetter, "that was rough usage; but poor Peach is a sharp-tempered man, and not circumspect in his speech. I doubt that he meant no harm, and would make amends, if he knew how! I knew there had been passages between you, and I would make you at peace with him, if I could."
"No, no!" said Mr Burton, in much wrath. "He meant what he said. We parted in anger, and I told him that if I had evidence that he spoke ill of me to others, I would have the whole matter out in open court and expose him for a bully and a slanderer; we parted in enmity; and I have no tenderness for him; he is a bad-hearted man, sir; and it is you who are too fond and simple!"
"Oh, fie, Mr Burton, to speak so!" said Mr Leadbetter. "A Christian must be ready to forgive, else he is not forgiven; it ill beseems us to speak ill of another, when we are all poor sinners together."
"Eh?" said Mr Burton. "I can have no objection to your saying so, if you wish; though some sinners are poorer than others, it seems to me! but if your judgment is true, as well may be, let us take it for granted, and leave Mr Peach alone."
"I cannot quit it at that!" said Mr Leadbetter. "I would have you to forgive him."
"But I will not!" said Mr Burton. "Hark ye, dear sir; I have no quarrel with you; but I will not meet Peach in friendship; and if there is any risk of meeting him in the street, I will not go abroad while he is in Cambridge."
"This is very wrong!" said Mr Leadbetter, "and I shall hope you may come to a better mind. Mr Peach will be with me this afternoon - he is riding from Hitchin - I had hoped you would have consented to meet him, and let bygones be!"
"God in heaven!" said Mr Burton, "I will not be thus baited. I will not meet Peach. The man stinks in my nostrils; he is a low rascal, with a vile tongue; if I met him, it would go hard with me not to take a stick to him."
Mr Leadbetter said nothing, and presently sighed; and with a shake of the head, made his adieu.
Mr Leadbetter went back to his rooms, and spent the afternoon in reading a good book, and in thinking sadly over Mr Burton's words. Indeed, one of the reasons why he had invited Mr Peach to Cambridge was to try to reconcile his old friends. He did not go to dinner, but ate a little mess of fish; at about six o'clock his servant arrived with some hot dishes, which he disposed before the fire. This was to be Mr Peach's supper. To these were added a magnum of claret and a bottle of sound port.. Mr Leadbetter was very solicitous that all should be good and plentiful, and walked with the servant to an adjoining set of rooms, where Mr Peach was to be lodged, to see that the fire was burning well. He then dismissed the servant, asking him to come in again later and to see that Mr Peach's luggage was unpacked. "I am expecting him," he said, "at any moment; he will be ready for his supper at once, and he will retire early to rest, for he will be tired with his long journey."
The servant went away; and Mr Leadbetter sate long by the fire, turning the dishes and wine, so that they should be well warmed. At eight Mr Peach had not come, and Mr Leadbetter went to the gate and looked up and down the street; it had turned very foggy after sunset, and the road was so full of mist that he could hardly see the houses opposite; the passers-by came suddenly upon him out of the white vapour; the porter had seen no one; the servant arrived, and Mr Leadbetter sent him away again, asking him to return at nine; but at nine, Mr Peach had not arrived. "He will have cast a shoe, perhaps," said Mr Leadbetter, "and as the fog is so close, he may decide to spend the night on the road. I would not suppose that anything untoward has occurred. You need not return; I will await him until midnight, and we will make shift for ourselves. It will be a pleasure for me to unpack a valise!" and Mr Leadbetter thought to himself that he would like to see what another man carried in his luggage.
But at about ten o'clock Mr Leadbetter became strangely uneasy. His hair prickled, and he started once or twice, believing that some one had entered the room; once he thought he heard himself called, and he went out and stood in the court. "I am strangely nervous!" he said to himself, "it must be the slice of hung beef I ate at breakfast. I mistrusted its effect at the time, and I am justly punished for my greediness; oh, my poor malicious heart! the wages of sin are indeed paid in ready money!"
At midnight Mr Leadbetter went out to the gate and gave directions that the porter should remain up for a little. But he had given up Mr Peach for the night; he went back to his room, made up the fire, and once more disposed the dishes and the wine. Then he ate a crust of bread, made a long prayer for all who travel by land or by water, and so to bed.
In the night Mr Leadbetter had a very dreadful dream. He thought that he looked into a dark place, with a faint and glimmering light; and then he saw that he was inside of a tower of brick, very like the turret in Mr Burton's rooms; but at the bottom of it was a curious dimness like a transparent mist. A little light, like that of a lantern, moved about high above him, in the cap of the turret, and something dark shifted to and fro. But when he got more used to the darkness, he saw something that shocked him woefully, and made his mouth seem suddenly dry from fear; this was the figure of a man who seemed to be naked and struggling; he had blood on his face and shoulders; he waved his hands to and fro as if dizzy, and then in a hollow and choked voice he called once upon the name of God, and twice he cried in an agonised tone: "Help, for God's sake, help!" Then something seemed to fall heavily and strike him, so that he sank down and settled upon himself, and moved no more.
Mr Leadbetter woke with a start and a cry, and found himself sick and faint, and in a deadly anguish, with the sweat running down upon him. He did not know who or what he had seen. The only thing he was sure of was the place, and that was Mr Burton's turret. Little by little his disorder abated, and he perceived that it was only a nightmare fancy, caused perhaps by diet, and by his talk with Mr Burton, which had displeased him, and his long waiting for Mr Peach. And he saw that his distempered fancy had but woven into his dream the unusual sight of the day, the little bare brick turret. He could not, however, sleep, and read long in his Bible; then at last he rose in the dawn, and betook himself to the Chapel service, where he got a little comfort. But all that day, Mr Peach did not come.
The next day Mr Leadbetter became very much concerned about Mr Peach. He sent off an express to Hitchin, to the inn where he knew that Mr Peach would have lain. Then he himself took a little carriage, and rode out along the road, enquiring at the villages; and here he got his first news. He found that a man who answered in all respects to his friend had ridden through Harston in the late afternoon, with a little valise on his saddle. At Trumpington he heard of him again, and at Grantchester he met a man who had seen the same traveller ride slowly through in the fog. The traveller must have been confused by the mist, for he had hallooed, and asked if he was near to Cambridge. And he could hear no more of him after that.
The next day the matter went from bad to worse; the express from Hitchin brought clear news of Mr Peach, who had lain the night there and ridden away in the morning. Then Mr Leadbetter went to the constable of the town and told his story; and he was told that a horse without a rider, with broken knees, and much disordered, had been found in Silver Street the night of Mr Peach's arrival. Mr Leadbetter saw the horse and the saddle, which was one made at Trowbridge, near Steeple Ashton; so he had no doubt that it was Mr Peach's horse; but Mr Peach himself had wholly disappeared; and though they searched the roads all about, they could find no sign of him.
The same day he went in his distress to Mr Burton, and told him all the story. Mr Burton had a shocked and pinched look, and seemed averse to hearing and talking alike. Mr Leadbetter himself felt very ill and weary, and he thought at first that perhaps Mr Burton was sorry that he had spoken ill of a man who, it seemed, must have met with some evil fate.
But suddenly a very horrible thought came into Mr Leadbetter's mind, so horrible that for a minute or two he could not speak. He seemed to see, as in a vision, a weary man on a horse, riding past a College gate, and that the man was struck by a thought and had alighted and gone in, and up a stair, and rapped at a door; and then words had been spoken and anger had blazed up, and then he saw two men struggling together; and then his dream came over him; he knew only too well whose figure he had seen in the turret chamber.
He sate lost in his thoughts, and looking up saw that Mr Burton was very pale and looking at him in a singular way.
Hardly knowing what he did, Mr Leadbetter said in a low voice, "Mr Burton, may I look into your little turret now?"
Mr Burton seemed to him to frown and wink, and then to gather himself together; then Mr Burton said in a loud uneasy voice, "My turret, sir?" adding, "Oh, look at it by all means. Why not, sir, why not? I must own it seems to me strange."
Mr Leadbetter rose and went across the room, and, opening the door, saw that the books had been shifted, and that the cupboard had been washed and scrubbed.
"What have you been doing here?" said Mr Leadbetter in a faltering tone.
"What have I been doing?" said Mr Burton, in a harsh and gusty voice. "This is strange behaviour, sir! I was ashamed of the disorder, and have had it cleaned, sir. Cleaned out and washed! Is that not permitted?"
Mr Leadbetter stood in silence and surveyed him. His tired brain could not bring the ends of the puzzle together, but he was certain now that something very dreadful had occurred. He sate down faintly in a chair, and he said, "Oh, dear sir, I have had dreams, terrible dreams, in which the turret played a sad part... Oh, dear sir, let me hear all; I shall not shrink from anything you may have to tell me... if passion overcame you... we are poor worms, but we may find grace and forgiveness for all."
He looked furtively at Mr Burton, who sate white and open-mouthed, and seeming ready to burst out into a rage; but he controlled himself and said, "Mr Leadbetter, you are speaking very strangely and wildly, and I do not understand you. You are disordered, dear sir, with trouble and anxiety, and you are not well. Let me give you a glass of wine, and let me entreat you to return home and rest. This unhappy man..." Mr Burton fell into silence, and then said, "Let me walk home with you, dear sir - you will permit that? And when you have rested, we will talk more of the matter."
"Nay, nay," said Mr Leadbetter, "I am well enough; it is you that are sick; let me have but a word, dear sir - a word of contrition; there is instant access to the Throne of Grace!"
"You distress me inexpressibly," said Mr Burton, "but I would not revive the matter now; be content, sir; go home and take some rest; you are not fit to talk now; indeed, I will soon tell you all that is in my mind."
Mr Leadbetter looked at him for a moment; and then refusing the wine which Mr Burton pressed on him, and declining all assistance, went home in great heaviness and dismay.
The loss of Mr Peach began to be noised abroad in Cambridge and was much talked of in all places of resort. There was an old and much dilapidated inn called the Anwyl Inn, from the name of an ancient extinct family. It stood in Chesterton Lane, opposite St Giles' Church, in front of a close named the Green Peele, at the corner of the Magdalene Pondyard, now the Fellows' Garden. It was a high, lean, sinister building, with a gable, where hung a battered sign. Its yard-gates opened to the west of the inn, and the yard ran far back among the houses. The landlord of the inn was a big, sly-looking man, very civil in his manner, and lengthy in discourse, much blown upon in repute; he was the friend of all the poachers and hucksters that lived about the Castle Hill, and was supposed to do a nefarious trade. But it was he who had found the riderless horse in Silver Street, and night after night there was a concourse to hear him tell the tale. "Ay, it was a misty night and shivering cold," he was saying one evening to a ring of topers in the tap-room, "you may wager your money on that, and none to take it up! Cold it was, cold in the bones: I was standing at the yard-door there and I heard a horse go jiggety-jig down N'thampton Street! There's something wrong there, said I, the man's drunk or stupid, to ride breakneck like that in a fog, that's what I said, not aloud but in my mind. So I went off after the horse, and couldn't come by him in the fog; but I'm a pretty fair goer, I am, if I mean to go; and then I catch a sight of him under the trees, and I see it was a horse and no rider; and I say to myself, there's something cruel wrong here; there's been a slip; and so on I go till I come up with the horse in Silver Street, and find him all bloodied and sweating. Well, I coaxed him, and got up to him, and took him round to the watch-house; and next day I come up before the Mayor, and tell him the tale straight, just as I am telling it to you: and the Worshipful say to me, 'You're a man, Cates, as is a good man and no mistake; you have ears and eyes of the best, and you are a merciful man too, Cates, a good merciful man and no mistake; and it would be better for the town if there were more such, and no mistake.' That's what the Worshipful said, and the others said the same."
There was a murmur of applause, and then a voice said, "No, there's no mistake about that, Mr Cates, and so say all; and what might your opinion be, Mr Cates, about the gentleman as was riding, or as ought to have been a-riding that bare horse?"
"There," said Cates, looking round, "so might you ask me and so I might say, he might have fallen off, or I might say again, he might not have fallen off; or he might have had a knock that was meant for him, or he might have had a knock as wasn't meant for him, and so we get no nearer."
"That's a true word!" said the others, "no nearer, that's it; no nearer to what we might know, or again, to what we might not know. A knock meant for him, that might be, for there are those we know, as might be more careful, or then again, they might not!"
"That's it, Sir," said Mr Cates, "you're a man of sense, like the Worshipful. 'You are a good man, by God,' he says to me, 'and no mistake,' and I says nothing to the Worshipful; for it's best to be silent if you are rightly praised, and know it's right; 'it would be better for the town if there were more of your sort, Cates,' says he; and I say nothing, gentlemen, but I ask, 'did I find the horse or not? Did I fear that something wasn't right, or did I not?' That's what I ask, gentlemen. It was a cold night, that was, shivering-cold in the bones..."; and the story began again.
A week later - there was still no news of Mr Peach - Mr Leadbetter was about again. He was still in a very heavy frame of mind. He had written a letter to Mr Burton, and had received no answer. There weighed on him the dread of some shocking discovery; and though he had no evidence in his mind, the dream was for ever with him, and gave him no peace. If he sate at his accounts, or with a book before him, the thought of the bare turret and the struggling figure painted itself horribly on the air. The light at the top, what was that? and what was that which fell so heavily from above? He could not tell; but only thought with horror of the newly scrubbed boards, and the ladder, and the anguish written visibly on Mr Burton's face. He had indeed enquired once at St John's, but Mr Burton had gone into the country and had left no address; and this added to his suspicions.
He was obliged, in the course of the week, to go and see about some repairs in an old house in Magdalene Street. It was a rickety old tenement which ran some way back; Mr Leadbetter went out into the back-yard to look at the hinder part of the house. To the east towered up the gaunt and sinister roof of the Anwyl Inn, with the elms behind.
As he stood there an odour, horrible, choking, insupportable, assailed his nostrils. "What is this detestable smell?" he said to the tenant, Mr Halliday, who was with him. "There's something very nasty here, that should be cleaned away!" "I don't rightly know, sir," said the tenant. "It comes from Mr Cates's yard - I have spoken to him about it, and he was angry with me; he said it was some hides a-drying in his yard, and it would be all right in a day or two. But there's something going on there I don't like, Sir, for there was a man out working there all the night, working quietly with a spade; and I heard the noise of something that kept falling and falling."
"Well, I must speak to Cates about it," said Mr Leadbetter. "He must not be allowed to poison all his neighbours. I never smelt anything so horrible: the College must see to this."
"I shall be much obliged to the College, Sir," said the tenant. "Mr Cates isn't an easy man to deal with."
Mr Leadbetter went round to see Cates. He found him standing in the yard of the inn, looking down to the west; he had a curiously preoccupied air, and gave a strange start when Mr Leadbetter spoke to him, immediately assuming a very civil demeanour and touching his hat.
"Mr Cates," said Mr Leadbetter, "I have come to speak to you about a most horrible smell in the yard. The College cannot allow a nuisance to continue. Mr Halliday tells me you have some hides drying. They must be removed at once, if you please."
As he said this he walked down the yard, with the inn-keeper following him. "They are in this shed," said Cates obsequiously, "and they shall be took away at once, I promise you, Sir - I didn't think they would be so strong - I did not indeed! The College won't be hard on a poor man who finds trade bad, and has to do many a bit of a thing for a living; it is a little tanning, Sir, that I have been a-trying."
Mr Leadbetter looked around him with a dissatisfied air. The scent hung heavily in the closed-in yard. "What have you been doing here, Mr Cates?" he said presently, "it looks as if you had been building!" He pointed with his cane to a heap of what looked like dried mortar, and a spade beside it.
"It's a bit of lime, Sir," said Cates in a very uneasy way, "it's for the hides, to bring the hair off - that's what it is, Sir."
"Why, the smells seem to come from the well!" said Mr Leadbetter, pointing to the orifice of a brick well, with a roller above, for drawing water.
Mr Cates looked at him very strangely, and wiped his brow with his hand. "It does seem to have poisoned the water," he said, "but I'll put an end to it all in a day or two, if the College'll give me time: it's a mistake, Sir, and I'll own it. I thought I could do a bit of tanning on the quiet, Sir - and that's my mistake, and I'm sorry for it."
"Well," said Mr Leadbetter, "the thing must be put straight at once - I will pay you a visit to-morrow, and see if all is right. If not, I shall have the whole place cleaned out myself; the College will not have a public nuisance. We must be just and fair, Mr Cates, and merciful too, even in the matter of smells, if we hope to obtain mercy."
"Yes, Sir," said Mr Cates, "just so! To obtain mercy!"
And Mr Cates took off his hat and held it in both his hands, as if mercy might somehow fall into it, like rain from Heaven.
"It shall be all right to-morrow, Sir - I promise you," said Cates very humbly.
As they walked back together through the yard, the inn-keeper seeming to breathe more freely, Mr Leadbetter said, "You are not looking well, Mr Cates - this horrible stench is bad for you; you must be sensible. By the way, it was you, I think, who found poor Mr Peach's horse astray?"
"Yes, Sir," said Cates, "I followed 'im all down the road in the fog; but about what you were saying, I'm not well. It's the time of the year; and tanning 'ides, that's an un'ealthy trade; and it was the chill I took that night in the fog."
At this moment a young woman came out of the house, with an old coat, which she shook out as if to air it, and threw it down upon a bench in the yard. Mr Leadbetter's eye fell upon it, and he drew in his breath sharply, as if he were about to say something; it was an old-fashioned riding-coat with long skirts, blue-green with use and weather. But he said nothing, and turned sharply away with a nod to the inn-keeper.
Mr Cates took off his hat, and waited until Mr Leadbetter was out in the street. Then he caught up the coat, and with an oath to the girl who stood in the doorway, he went into the house with the coat. Then he went into an outhouse and got a wheelbarrow, and with a sigh, as though he were feeling ill, he wheeled it off into the street. Half-an-hour later he returned, with the wheelbarrow full of lime; and then he went back to the taproom, drew a jug of beer, sate down very wearily by the fireside as if he were faint, and drank the beer off, presently dozing away in his chair.
Mr Leadbetter, looking very thin and pale, went back towards the College, then hesitated, and finally limped away into the town.
That night when the moon was down, about three of the morning, all lights having long since been put out in the street, a little group of men, walking quietly, gathered in the darkness of the wall of St Giles' churchyard. Two of them carried a heavy looking bundle slung to a pole which they bore on their shoulders; they arrived, not all together, but singly, all saving these two, until eight men were assembled in the shadow of the wall. They hardly spoke at all, or only in whispers. At a quarter past three, two men, one of them walking lame, in low-crowned hats and cloaks, came gently along from the direction of Magdalene. As they came, they stopped and spoke to two other men, who stood one on each side of a little entry that led out into Magdalene Street from among the houses, called Copped Passage. When they arrived opposite the Anwyl, where the others were gathered, they spoke quietly with the men that were there met; and then, as the half-hour struck on St Mary's clock, the two men who had arrived last, with two others, crossed the road and knocked loudly at the Anwyl door.
After a short pause they knocked again, and presently a window in the gable was thrust up, and a head was put forth, while a female voice asked shrilly what they wanted. "Come down, madam, and open at once without question," said a clear and decisive voice. "In the King's name!"
The window was put down, a light was kindled, and presently the door was opened by a young woman much dishevelled, reported to be Mrs Cates. After a short parley with the men, she was pinioned, and made no protest. The door of the yard was then opened, and the other men were admitted. On hearing the sounds, a man who had been working quietly out in the yard by the light of a lantern, put his lantern out, and went quickly and silently up a little ladder that leaned against the wall. The men all then came into the yard, and waited in silence, the young woman standing beside them.
Presently footsteps were heard in the street, and the two men that had been waiting by Copped Passage came up; between them walked Mr Cates, now also pinioned, bare-headed, and evidently in an extremity of fear, from the husky way in which he spoke, often moistening his lips.
When they were all assembled, some orders were given. The lame gentleman, who it was now observed was Mr Leadbetter, with the young woman and two of the other men, moved into the house. Mr Cates had tried to slink up to his wife, but was prevented, and a meaning look passed between them. The others went down the yard towards the well. Lanterns were then lighted, and it was seen that there was a heap of white dust, or lime, close to the well, with a spade stuck in it; and the rim of the well was dusted with the same. The packages were undone, and were seen to consist of long poles, like punt-poles, to the ends of which were attached hooks of iron. The stench from the well was horribly perceptible, and the other gentleman in the cloak, who was now seen to be the Mayor, a leading burgess of the town, held his handkerchief to his face, as did some of the others. Two of the men then went to the well, and plunging down their hooks, began to prod about with them, and when they encountered anything to draw up. But whatever it was that they hooked, again and again it escaped them, and plunged back into the waters of the well. At last, however, something was firmly hooked, and was hauled up to the well's mouth, the odour being now nearly intolerable. The men drew round, and the Mayor coming near looked a moment at the thing that was drawn up, which seemed like a ragged and oozy heap of something, much sprinkled with white, of the bigness of a man. The Mayor turned away, very pale and troubled, spat several times upon the ground, and presently drew out a pipe and tobacco, at which he puffed very fiercely, some others doing the same. The Thing was then laid in a sheet of canvas which had been spread on the ground, and was securely tied up. One of the men then went away, and returned in a few minutes with a hand-cart, on which the Thing was set, while water dripped and dribbled from the canvas.
Presently they were softly called from the house; the Mayor went in, and in the tap-room, which was dimly lighted, was a strange scene. Mr Cates sate on a chair as pale as death, his eyes seeming to start from his head, and every now and then he coughed an ugly cough. On the table were spread a little valise and some articles of clothing. The young woman stood by, her hands clasped together in a despairing manner.
The Mayor then drew out a paper and read out a couple of warrants; then he said that he must ask some questions, and he stated that one Thomas Peach having disappeared, in or near Cambridge, ten days before, and a horse having been found which was now known to belong to the same, much enquiry had been made; and he went on to say that Mr Leadbetter, the Bursar of Magdalene College, having seen a riding-coat which he recognised as belonging to Mr Peach, in the yard of the Anwyl Inn, warrants of search had been issued.
Mr Leadbetter then said that having searched the house by the Mayor's authority he had found a valise and wearing apparel belonging also to Mr Peach, laid away in a cupboard.
The Mayor then said further that a body believed to be that of Mr Peach had been drawn from a well in the yard; and that Mr Cates, the landlord of the inn, had been working at the edge of the well, and had made his escape by the entry known as Copped Passage, there to be caught by two posted constables. He therefore committed the bodies of the two prisoners, John Cates and his wife, to the Town Gaol, to take their trial. But that if they chose to say anything, they might do so, if they could give any lawful explanation of what had been found; but he cautioned them that anything they said would be brought up at the trial.
There was a silence, and then Mr Cates, making a strong effort, and speaking low and huskily, said, "It's bad, Worship, it looks bad, and no mistake, but it ain't as bad as it looks, before God. The gentleman, Mr Peach as may be, came to my yard with his horse on a foggy evening ten days ago. He said he was going to Magdalene College, and asked me to put up the horse. We went into the yard together, and the horse trod on a bit of a board, which brought down a pile of planks that leaned up against the wall; and he was startled like, and let out with his heels, and struck Mr Peach on the head and breast, and he fell down where he stood, and the horse ran out of the yard. There was no one about, and I took the gentleman to the house and laid him on a bed, and then I started off to catch the horse, and caught him down by Silver Street; and then I come back, and the gentleman lay never so still, a-bleeding from his head, and I took the clothes off him, and there was a hole in his head under the ear, where the hoof 'ad tore him, and another great wound in his chest; and I saw he was dead and gone. Then I was cleaned mazed out of my senses. I knew that the house had a bad name, through no fault of mine, and p'raps I had a bad name too, all through my misfortune of being poor and that, Worship. And then I thinks I'd better hide him away and say nothing. I don't say I oughter done it, but I was that worried I couldn't think, and then I put him in the well, and put the things away, and then in the morning I see I done wrong, and dursn't speak of it for fear they should ask me why I put him down the well. That's all the truth, before God, Worship, and I ain't done no wrong, so to speak, in a way." The wretched voice choked and was silent, but it was evident that the words made an impression - the story at least hung together.
But an unforeseen interruption occurred. Mr Leadbetter, as pale as death, came forward, and, with hand outstretched, said, "Cates, you lie - you have told half the truth, which is the worse of lies. Mr Mayor, this man is lying."
"Gently, gently, Mr Leadbetter," said the Mayor. Mr Cates has told his story clearly. You must have some evidence, you know!"
"Why," said Mr Leadbetter, "my poor friend was not dead. He was thrown down the well, and he struggled for his life: he called on the name of God, and he twice cried for help in God's name. And this man threw something down upon him and stunned him, so that he went beneath the water and was choked. And if you ask me how I know it, I saw it with my eyes and heard it with my ears"; and then he added, with a solemn and uplifted air, "in the spirit!"
No one spoke. There was a silence, and then there was a sound as of something breaking. The landlord collapsed together, and fell out of his chair, striking the ground with a heavy thud, and lay there. His wife screamed out, "Yes, John, confess... you told me all that, you know, when you came back to bed."
A year later Mr Leadbetter and Mr Burton were seated one on each side of a comfortable fire in a little study of the parsonage in Steeple Ashton. Mr Leadbetter's health had given way after the strange events above recorded, and he had felt obliged to leave Cambridge, so he had taken the living of Steeple Ashton, and Mr Burton was paying him a visit.
"Yes," said Mr Leadbetter, "this was poor Peach's room, and most of the furniture is his. Who would have thought that I should so soon be at home here and he gone from us. The ways of God are indeed unsearchable."
Mr Burton pulled rather a wry face and said, "after all it was a College living!" Mr Leadbetter smiled and shook his head.
Presently Mr Leadbetter said, "I have not liked, dear Sir, to speak much of the sad events of last year; they are better forgotten. But I should like to ask you two questions."
"By all means," said Mr Burton.
"This, then, is my first question," said Mr Leadbetter. "What made you act so strangely to me when I came to your rooms to question you - the day when you had the cupboard cleaned out?"
"That is easily answered," said Mr Burton. "In the first place, I was not well myself. I had been much shocked that I had spoken so angrily about poor Peach - though indeed he did me a great wrong - and had refused all reconciliation; and then, if I may speak bluntly, your own manner, dear Sir, was so strange, that I feared for your mind - I thought you had lost your senses!"
Mr Leadbetter smiled. "Very natural!" he said: and then resuming: "Now the second question," he said, "is addressed to myself as much as to you. I have often questioned with myself why it was that in my dream I mistook the well that I saw for your turret. It was marvellously like the turret, and it set me on a wrong scent from the first. Was it a mere chance that I had seen your turret first that very day, or was it the work of the Devil, that I might be thus confused and helpless, or was it the Providence of God, for some end that I cannot discern, that I might see how easily I could fall into vile suspicions of a good man?"
Mr Burton shook his head. "Who can tell?" he said. "For myself I do not much believe in chance, nor indeed very much in the Devil either!"
"Tut, tut," said Mr Leadbetter. "We have warrant of Scripture for him, to say nothing of our own corrupt hearts."
Presently he resumed again. "Now I ask myself too, how it was that he was enabled to send a message to me at the last - for that it was a message, I doubt not. I could not help him; it but enabled me to avenge him - and I like that least of the whole affair!"
Mr Burton still said nothing, and Mr Leadbetter continued, "I have indeed wondered whether his fate was so evil after all; he was suddenly summoned, it is true, and he was thrust roughly into a painful and grievous death; but his passage was swift, and perhaps we think too much of our poor bodies. It may be that it is better thus swiftly to enter into life eternal, naked and wounded, and swimming in a foul well, than to fade out of life, fretful and peevish and dismayed, with physic by the bed and the blankets tucked beneath the chin?" and Mr Leadbetter smiled to himself, and stirred the fire on the hearth.
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