Again, reader, I would not read this post first! It will spoil the mystery if you do! Here is a handy Table of Contents, complete with pictures and everything!
“What room,” asked Crowner, “is on the other side of this wall?” And he thumped the panel behind which the Viscount had just disappeared.
“The gun-room,” said the Countess, a queer smile on her face.
“Ah,” said Crowner.
In the deepest part of the woods, at the heart of an ancient oak, something is stirring. The baying of hounds is still in his ears- but they are denizens of the dark place, and they fade into the stifled silence of a snow-shrouded forest.
When he tries to remember (if words like remember, or like try, can be meaningful for such an entity), he cannot see beyond the darkness, the flashing teeth of the pack, the pitiless eyes of men and hounds.
The countryside has its own ideas about him, of course. Some say he came back from a long-forgotten war, riding hard til his horse was blown to reach Cadblister Hall before the Earl, so that he could spent a night with his lover the Countess- and that the Earl arrived too soon, and caught him, and set the dogs on him, and that somewhere in the vast forest they converged on him and tore him to pieces. Others say that he turned highwayman when the crops failed and that the Earl and his noble relations hunted him down like a fox and that the pack caught up with him in the heart of the forest. Still others say that it was his own pack of dogs that did for him, that he had come upon the Earl doing a deed of darkness (of murder, or of sorcery) in the forest upon a dark night, and that the Earl bewitched the man’s own dogs, and they fell upon him, and tore him to pieces. Some say that he was the true heir of the Earldom, that he was a Catholic, a Protestant, that he was one of Cromwell’s men, that he was himself a sorcerer, that he was a king here before William came, that his oak has twisted up somewhere inside its heart a golden throne, that a crown is tangled up somewhere high in its branches, that to find it is to die, that to find it is to become a king.
People will say anything. But it comes down to this: that he is The Yeoman, that these are his woods, that when he walks a Crabtree shall die.
And the Yeoman walks tonight.
“Go after him, chief?” Asked Sergeant Mug.
“We have to,” said Crowner, grimly. He didn’t like guns. Especially, he didn’t like whole rooms full of them. But duty was duty. The three policemen ran out of the drawing room, reaching the door to the gun-room just in time to hear the lock click on the other side.
It was a very solid door, the kind of door you get when the people who built it were thinking of the thwarting of invaders as they worked. Crowner, for form’s sake, tried the knob. It was, of course, locked.
“Wilkins, you know where the garage is, the old stable, where the cars are kept. Go there now. Don’t let the Viscount drive off in any of them. I suggest sabotage, just to be quite sure. Go!” And Wilkins went at a dead run.
“Mug,” said Crowner, “We’re going to have to break this door down.”
“That’ll be quite a job, sir.”
“Yes. And a gun leveled at us on the other side, like as not. But-”
“Duty is duty?”
In the drawing room, the Colonel eyed his forces. Women, most of them. Young Grudge, of course, and Alfie the Boots, and the Vicar was a vigorous man for his years. The Doctor was vigorous, too, of course, but his years were so many that the Colonel didn’t quite like ordering him out into the Weather. As for Sneakfork- well, he might be good for something, though the Colonel could not, at the moment, think of what. Carefully avoiding looking at the two women who sat still as statues in the throne-like chairs along the west wall, he began to bark his orders.
“Men!” He barked. “We’ve got a fleein’ murderer on our hands. Got to Take Action. Action! Might hole up in gun-room, of course. Then again- might not. Flee into grounds- sensible course. Now, I suggest-” There was a loud crashing noise from the hallway. “That Randall and Alfie go around the-”
“There he goes,” remarked Randall, pointing. The Colonel turned to stare out the window. Yes, that was a fleeing Viscount. Right.
“After him!” The Colonel howled, all ideas of Disposition of Forces forgotten in the excitement of the chase. And soon, all the people in the room (with four exceptions) were After Him, in the way that each thought best.
The door gave to a well-directed kick from Mug’s police-issue boots. Expecting a volley of shots, Crowner nevertheless led the two-man charge into the room.
He was just in time to see the Viscount disappearing through a window. With, he noted, a pair of pistols jammed into his belt. He turned to eye his subordinate. No, Mug wouldn’t fit through any of the windows in this room. But Crowner would. “I’m going out that window,” he said. “You- you go out the front door, I think. Try not to get shot.”
“Right.” And Mug was off. Crowner sighed. He liked going through doors, too. But there was no help for it. He eased himself through the window and into the chill and snow-filled air.
Richard Crabtree wanted to say the right thing. The two noblewomen sure looked miserable. And he had a kind of duty, as a kinsman, to offer them some comfort.
“Say, Countess, I sure am sorry about the boy,” he said.
The Countess did not reply. She was examining the carvings along the left arm of her chair.
“Yes. You did say something, didn’t you?” Said the Countess, without raising her head. “But it would have been of more material assistance to me if you had died. Good day, sir!” There was a screaming sort of creak. The Countess’s chair revolved. She was gone.
“Mother!” Lady Belinda looked around in sudden panic. “Dear me!” She cried. “I don’t think she should be let loose in the gun-room just now. Good-bye.” And Belinda’s chair, too, was suddenly gone.
“Well, I’ll be!” Said Richard Crabtree, staring. “Aunt Theodolinda,” he continued, “looks like we’re all by our lonesomes.”
But Aunt Theodolinda answered only with a snore. She had, remarkably given the exciting circumstances, dropped off to sleep.
“Gee!” Said Richard Crabtree.
“I’d put that down, mother,” said Belinda, taking a step nearer to where her mother stood, ably loading a hunting rifle.
“Would you?” There was a sneer in the Countess’s voice. “My only son is being hunted like an animal through his own grounds. I think it is quite time to pick a gun up. Don’t you?” She clicked the rifle back together and headed for the window. Belinda lunged at her, and received a gun-butt to the stomach for her pains.
“Next time,” said the Countess, looking down at where her daughter sprawled upon the floor, “I shall shoot. Don’t follow me. I shall aim for the head.” Briefly, she pointed the rifle at her daughter’s smooth white forehead. “You know Gerald is by far my favorite child. In fact,” and the Countess’s cool voice stung, “I don’t even like you.” And she slipped through the window. Belinda looked out, just in time to see her mother replace the veil over her face and disappear into the shadows of the forest.
“Stand and identify!” Bellowed the Colonel.
“Inspector Crowner, at your service. Which way did the Viscount go?”
“Dashed if I know, Inspector. Off like a bally jackrabbit.”
“But I reckon I can tell ye,” spoke another voice. Both men jumped. “The heir is making for Dead Man’s Clearing, like as not. Aye, I figure he’ll be goin’ that way.” A smoke-ring emerged from the blackness.
“Thank you,” said Crowner, and ran on.
The Yeoman paused in his drifting, and seemed almost to smell at the air, like an animal. Yes, yes. The boy was close, and the boy was scared, and it was good. But he wanted to see. He must see. He drifted on, insubstantial as the air.
Randall Grudge lay in the snow in a great clearing in the woods. He knew it had been but a few moments since his fall down the hill, but it felt like longer. It felt like much, much longer. The moon had come out from behind the ranked masses of cloud, and it seemed inordinately bright. So much whiteness, and that great glaring moon. It hurt his head. Or his head hurt. He wasn’t sure. His thoughts seemed as clumsy as frozen fingers fumbling with a key.
He’d been chasing. Something. What, now? He could not recall.
There was the noise of someone blundering about, quite close. Good.
“Help,” said Randall. The noise stopped.
“Who is that?” The voice trembled with terror.
“I think-” Randall’s voice was weak, he noted with surprise. He must be hurt rather badly. “I think I’ve broken something.”
And now someone stood over him, looking down. Randall, with great difficulty, focused his eyes upon the face.
“Me,” he said. “But- I don’t have a mustache.”
The face smiled. “You,” it said, almost with friendliness. Almost. “You usurping little bastard.” A kick came smashing into Randall’s side. “I’ve hated you ever since I learned how to hate.” Another kick. Randall coughed, tasted blood in his mouth. “And I hear there’s to be a wedding.” Another blow sent pain howling through the man in the snow. “You stole my woman,” he kicked again, “my father,” kick, “you’ve made all of us look ridiculous-” kick, “and then he wanted to give-” kick, “you-” kick, “-everything! Everything to you- you, who had done nothing, given him nothing, nothing!” The Viscount, Randall noticed, and the observation felt strangely remote, was weeping with rage. “Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!”
“The way you say it,” said Randall, barely above a whisper, for something seemed to be wrong with his lungs, “it really is an insult.” And then, because he couldn’t kick back, he smiled, and whispered, “big brother.”
The Viscount’s face contorted. A leg was drawn back for another kick- and Randall winced, readying himself for the pain. Something wicked and considering came into the Viscount’s face, and the blow came – and Randall doubled up – but the blow came as just a little tap- and the Viscount smiled unpleasantly. “Coward,” he whispered. “Worthless little coward. Oh God, I hate you.” This was a cry from the heart, terrible and sincere and spoken as if through bubbling tears. And saying it seemed to give the Viscount a further idea. He fumbled with something hanging at his side. “That’s a point. Yes. If I’m to hang or flee, I shouldn’t leave a little worm like you alive. Tidy as you go, and all that,” he said, and there was now something metal in his hand. “Yes. I’ll jolly well finish you before I go. Clean the place up a bit, what?”
“All you’ll ever do to any place,” hissed Randall, “is foul it.”
And the Yeoman watched from the shadowy fringe of wood- and smiled. Soon. Very soon. He drifted closer, and in his heart was leaping joy, to know that, once again, Crabtree blood would flow into the soil of Yeoman’s Woods. His woods.
Crowner saw the clearing at last. It was just down the hill from where he stood. And by God, the witch was right! The clearing was bathed in moonlight, and a man stood there, a young man with a mustache. The Viscount. Crowner made his way forward cautiously, trying to make as little noise as possible.
“No further, Inspector.”
Crowner stared wildly in front of him. He could see the trunks of great trees, branches, a boulder jutting out of the snow, a shadow upon the boulder- a shadow shaped like a woman sitting on a boulder- a shadow that was moving-
The Countess raised her veil- and her rifle as well. Her face was tired in the moonlight that filtered down through the bare branches. But she held the rifle as one familiar with rifles, and her voice had had no tremble in it.
“Countess, this is quite pointless.” Crowner’s voice, he was pleased to note, did not tremble either.
The Countess shrugged. “All the same, I shall shoot you if you take but one more step. And I am a good shot.”
Crowner looked beyond the Countess, into the clearing where his murderer had been. No, into the clearing where his murderer yet was. The Viscount was just standing there, looking down. Why? Why wasn’t he running? And then Crowner looked back at the Countess. She just sat on her boulder and regarded him steadily. Sighted him, Crowner corrected himself. Steadily.
Crowner prepared to step forward, and, as he did so, prepared also to die. But most women, he reminded himself, would not shoot. This was something he’d learned in many unpleasant professional scenes. They would snatch up a gun and point it at you, but they would not shoot you, not unless they were in a red rage. And this woman was not in any kind of rage. And that, now that Crowner thought about it, was what he found unnerving. The chill aristocratic calm of the woman holding the rifle. But he prepared his muscles for movement all the same. It was due to his sense of duty, probably. Or stubbornness. Something, anyway, was going to make him take another step.
The Countess, seeing, perhaps, a slight shift in Crowner’s posture, tightened her finger around the trigger.
The Viscount drew back the hammer on his pistol. Randall stared up at him- and then at something just behind him. His eyes widened. “Well, I never,” Randall whispered. “He does walk for bastards.” And he felt, for some reason, that this made things better. Everything seemed better. Even dying. “The Yeoman,” Randall whispered, smiling idiotically.
The Viscount scowled down at him. “Praying? Shut up.” His finger tightened around the trigger.
A shot rang out.
The Countess looked down at her rifle in some confusion. “I didn’t-” she said.
The Viscount looked down at his pistol in some confusion. “I didn’t-” he said. And then he crumpled to the ground.
And for a split second, Randall and the Yeoman regarded each other. And then there was a rustle, as of a wind, and Randall was alone in the clearing. He smiled up at the moon. He wasn’t sure what was funny, but something surely was. He closed his eyes.
“Randall! Oh, Randall, are you alive?” Verity Meadows, her face pale, was looking down at him. “I shot him. Oh, I shot him. Oh God- and he taught me to shoot!” And Miss Meadows burst into incontinent tears.
“Is he dead?” Randall felt but mild interest in this or any other subject. The pain was receding into a deep chill that did not bode well. And he felt incredibly sleepy.
“He is dead,” said Miss Meadows.
The Countess looked towards the clearing- and saw her son fall dead to the ground.
When she turned back to Crowner, no tears shone in her icy eyes.
“Are you,” she asked, quite coolly, “intending to arrest me for poisoning that man?”
“Yes, your Ladyship. I am.”
She nodded. “Very well.” And then she repeated it. “Very well.” She lowered her veil over her face and rested the rifle on her knee. Crowner moved forward.
“Lady Cadblister,” he intoned, “I must warn you-”
The tip of the Countess’s lady-like shoe pulled the trigger.