Tenth Chapter

- Justice is served -

A loud, indignant voice rose from the entrance hall. "What! Do you mean to tell me I've missed dinner? After forcing the mare to ride – or rather, swim – hell-for-leather along roads not fit for the name, more often than not in a shower, to bring you news, you say I shan't even have dinner?" Under the genuine vexation, however, a jocular note could be discovered; and there was a quiver of laughter in Mr. Flowers's low, soothing response.

The party abandoned the window and rushed, instead, headed by Mrs. Byrne and Mrs. Flowers, to the parlour door. This opened into the central entrance hall, where the company found the landlord in the act of receiving a greatcoat, its many capes dripping and steaming in the sudden warmth, from Mr. Coningham. The latter, on perceiving the congregation in the doorway, swept off his damp hat and bowed. "I have good news for you all:" said he, "tomorrow, a fresh stagecoach is to issue from London, and if you will but be good enough to present yourselves at the Crown Inn at W— by noontime, it will collect you when it passes there."

No cheer went up: the party, which had given the gentleman up for lost, was too shocked by his return to make an answer.

Mr. Coningham shrugged and turned back to the inn-keeper. "My man is to come to us tomorrow and bring your gig and colt. Would Jem be good enough to rub down the mare, do you think? She's had a hard time of it, I fear."

This, the host promised at once; and added that he was sure the missus must have something or other left over from the dinner.

"You are a treasure, Flowers," said Mr. Coningham from his heart; before setting off up the stairs with his valise, to change his dress.

Miss Cumpton, though sleepy, waited in the parlour for the gentleman to finish his dinner and join them there. It was a long wait; and she sat brooding throughout, abandoning even the pretence of civility towards Mr. Shipley beside her.

At length he came, and, politely saluting the assembled company, seated himself by the lady and the curate at once.

Miss Cumpton wished him welcome back.

"I thank you; you were all exceedingly surprised to see me, were you not?"

"Very," said the lady stiffly. She could not speak with him of her discoveries before the Reverend, and it irked her.

"Yes, indeed, my dear madam, how very right you are!" the divine immediately inserted. "One might wonder, in this weather, why you bothered to come back at all?"

Mr. Coningham regarded him with mocking eyes. "Ah, but you see, my good man, I still had business here; it was always my intention to return – to pay my reckoning to the landlord, if for no other reason! Did you think I would neglect poor Flowers so shamelessly?" His chilly voice belied his good-humoured expression. "Or did you suspect that I had fled this country for the continent? To join the Beau in his march on Buonaparte, perhaps? I warn you, my good man, that I am a very dull stay-at-home; I would not have liked such a career in the least."

Miss Cumpton stifled a giggle at the Reverend's expense: at the sound, Mrs. Bingham's eyes snapped towards her; and in a loud voice, that dame announced, "If we are to make an early start tomorrow, Vera my love, do you not agree that we had better go to bed?"

The niece, though vexed, could not but obey.

She did not undress, but began instead to repack her bandboxes, all the while under her aunt's suspicious gaze. As soon as she might, she exclaimed in shock, and told Mrs. Bingham that she had left behind her letter to Jane and Lucy Cumpton in the parlour – 'She should not like that Mrs. Byrne to get her hands on it… Might not she go and fetch it?'

The aunt's eyes narrowed sceptically; but she gave her permission with a wave of her hand.

Luck was with her: she encountered Mr. Coningham in the hallway, where he was giving instructions to his tyger.

She begged a moment's speech with him; a concerned look clouded his brow, but he granted the interview. 'Did she require his assistance with anything? Was something the matter with her good aunt?' – but there she could set his mind at ease; her urgent message concerned the murder of his cousin.

The cloud lifted. "I beg you, my dear madam, not to worry yourself any more on that subject. The magistrate is still unable to leave London, but I assure you the business is all but resolved. I went away only in order to verify some details which would confirm my suspicions – and I am persuaded that all that is needed now is a confession."

She was shaking her head fretfully throughout, and immediately he finished speaking, she began, "I guessed why you went away, sir, and indeed I laud your efforts; but you were mistaken! The perpetrator was not, as you supposed, Miss Kylton."

"I don't understand: all the facts I have discovered thus far seem to support my suppositions. Who, then, do you believe to be the murderer of my cousin?"

She told him. A look of consternation appeared upon his face, but vanished again within seconds, and with a comprehending, "Ah!" he bade her Goodnight and marched away.

He found the little girl creeping along the corridor to the kitchen, in search of water for her mistress; and hailed her in jovial tones. Her face brightened when she heard of the restored coach service; but his soon grew serious and he demanded, "Patsy, pray tell me: precisely how did your family come to be ruined?"

The following day dawned bright and clear: the rains had ceased abruptly and completely; and the landscape, though still moist, looked a great deal more welcoming under the pale blue sky.

Mr. Coningham's groom had arrived early in the morning with the colt and gig; this equipage was to be had out yet again to convey the travellers to the Crown Inn at W—.

The Byrnes, Miss Kylton and Patsy were seated in the back; the Reverend Mr. Shipley was to ride on the box with Jem Flowers. The gig was later to return for the Binghams and their niece. (Nobody thought any more of the coachman and the Peverell brothers: they were left to follow of their own accord. The upshot of it was that Mr. Flowers found them lounging about the stables that evening and drove them to a boxing inn at the town of E—, and left them there, horses and all, sincerely hoping never to see them again.)

Miss Cumpton, upstairs, had bestowed a cursory hug on Peter Byrne, the only member of the stage party she was sincerely sorry to bid farewell; she continued to skulk upstairs until the gig had rattled away along the muddy road, leaving Mr. Shipley to think that she was still abed and asleep like her uncle and aunt.

As soon as the gig was well out of sight, however, she descended to the parlour to make a hearty breakfast there, waited on by Mrs. Flowers. When she had finished, she began to fumble with her reticule, thinking to pay their bill so as to spare the Flowerses her uncle's grumbling. But, "Oh, no, Miss!" exclaimed Mrs. Flowers, "I won't take your money. You never wished to stay here, and I daresay you had a most uncomfortable time of it. I wouldn't dare to ask you to pay!" She cut short Miss Cumpton's remonstrances. "Besides, Miss, it's all been already paid for." Miss Cumpton glowered at her, but could have nothing more to say.

She had a great deal to say, however, when Mr. Coningham presently joined her. 'How dared he render her so beholden to him without her consent?'

At first he denied all connection with the mysteriously paid inn bill; but she pestered him so he could scarcely swallow his breakfast; at length he was moved to say, with maddening serenity, "You might as well leave the subject alone, you know. Do not fancy yourself to be special: I paid for all of the company – except Pev and his brother, of course, since they should actually have laid their money down, having been the cause of this whole unfortunate situation; and surely you could not be so unreasonable as to expect me to have franked that odious bore of a clergyman."

She gave a splutter of laughter and almost choked on her tea. "And how did you find my suspect yestereve?"

"Very forthcoming, after some time; but not in the least remorseful. She feels the extremity of her actions, and expressed herself to be 'sorry for my loss'; but she stands by what she has done and will not admit to having been in the wrong."

Further conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Bingham, who had pounded down the stairs, shocked at the discovery of the lateness of the hour. "Verity!" she shrieked, panting, upon discovering her niece; "what are you still doing here? We are to leave as soon as may be!"

Mr. Coningham consulted his pocket watch, and deemed the hour to be not so very late. "Won't you have some breakfast, my dear madam?" inquired he kindly.

"Breakfast? Breakfast! You must see, sir, that we have no time for any such nonsense. The gig is to return at any moment, and so I have asked Mrs. Flowers to prepare a basket for us. Verity, you will come with me at once!"

Miss Cumpton cast a regretful glance at her plate, still piled high with samples of Mrs. Flowers's excellent cooking. "Have you yet repacked your trunks, Aunt?" she asked on a stroke of genius.

The buxom lady's florid face grew pale. She had not; she would need Vera's help.

"I will come to you presently, Aunt," soothed Miss Cumpton. "My own bandboxes are quite ready; so I will be able to devote all my time to you; but let me finish my breakfast first of all!"

The aunt, puffing and muttering under her short breath, left them.

The episode had introduced a fresh note of urgency to Miss Cumpton's voice as she, too, became increasingly conscious of the hour. She leant forward and demanded, "You will tell me now, if you please, sir, precisely what motivated the girl to commit such an atrocity."

The gentleman laid down his knife and fork, preparing to tell a long story; he fortified himself with a swallow of Mr. Flowers's good ale; and began, "Patsy acted for the same reasons as I suspected her aunt to have done. I am greatly indebted to you for discovering the familial relationship between them; and obtaining the information regarding the ruin of her family. Through Mr. Shipley I heard, on the first evening after my cousin's death, that you had discovered that Patsy lived on Ascerley's estate as a small child. I supposed it likely that, as the niece had lived there, the aunt must also have some connection to the area.

"It was the story of the ruin that prompted me to leave and make some private inquiries. Around about the time when I was old enough to be taking an interest in estate affairs (that is possibly why I remember it so vividly) there was, within my family, – my branch was never keen on that of the Baron – an infamous rumour relating to Hildebrand's father. My uncle Ascerley was universally acknowledged to be a cruel and unreasonable landlord, as I believe you were told by good Mistress Byrne. The rumour concerned, I think, one of the most reprehensible acts of his life.

"One of his tenants was showing himself to be independent-minded: of his own accord, he applied modern farming techniques, and he began to harvest crops better and larger than the estate had ever produced before. My uncle insisted on a part of the profits, besides the due the farmer already paid to him. The tenant rightly pointed out that it was he himself who had paid for his new seeds and equipment; that the Baron had never done anything for him and his family; in short, that he had no right to demand more money.

"My uncle then decided that he must have this tenant's land for himself. He tried all sorts of methods to chase the man away; but he would not budge. A couple of years later, the potato harvest once more allowed the man to bring in a marvellous crop, which he was to take to market. The night before he was to go, however, his barn, where the potatoes were kept, was completely destroyed in a sudden fire."

"This tenant was Miss Kylton's father?" asked Miss Cumpton, ignoring a summons from her aunt upstairs.

"That is what I went to verify in the family archives – and so indeed it transpired to be. Nothing could ever be proven against my uncle; old Mr. Kylton was utterly ruined, and eventually left his farm. Patsy Kylton was two years old: her father was Miss Kylton's elder brother. Miss Kylton, the youngest child, was then of marriageable age, but her lack of fortune frightened all her suitors away. Mr. Kylton died not long afterwards; his son took his young family away to another parish, where he bought another farm and began to rebuild his fortune from scratch, but up till now he has been unsuccessful. Miss Kylton left for Bath, where she taught school for some years.

"Although financially Miss Kylton's situation is better than those of her siblings, Patsy confided to me that her brothers and sisters all have spouses and children, and therefore feel that the situation of Miss Kylton, having been forced to make her own way and demean herself by teaching for a living, was the most pitiable of all. Patsy grew up feeling sorry for her aunt; and being grateful to her also, for her financial aid to the family. By the time we met her, Patsy was ready to do anything that she thought might benefit her kind aunt – one might say that the temptation of having Ascerley so near proved to be too much."

Miss Cumpton was confused. "But the story you related concerned your uncle – why would she visit the sins of the father upon the son?"

The gentleman had made use of his momentary silence to moisten his dry throat with another sip of ale. He swallowed quickly and set the tankard down. "You are quite right: but there is more to the story. As I mentioned, Miss Kylton settled at Bath. She wrote to my uncle once or twice for recompense: he disposed of her letters and never replied. When my uncle died, however, and the estate passed to my cousin, she thought the son might be more complying, and wrote to him at once. I am ashamed to admit this – so far from merely ignoring her letters, which would have been bad enough in itself, Ascerley burned the letter, and sent the scorched fragments back to Miss Kylton. This happened a week or so before she set out to visit her brother: it affected her greatly, and she told her family of it."

Another yell from Mrs. Bingham reached their ears; Miss Cumpton quickly scooped up the last of her eggs. "I was very surprised at this outcome myself," she acknowledged between bites; "Patsy is so very tiny, and shy: I would have supposed her to be physically incapable of overpowering a full-grown young man."

"You will recall, dear madam, that my cousin and his friends were drugged. Patsy knew where the laudanum was kept; how it is used; and what its effects are. The combined effects of laudanum and excessive quantities of brandy must have caused my cousin to fall into a sleep close to unconsciousness. Patsy grew up on a farm, so she knew a little about slaughtering cows and pigs; I know from experience how sharp Mrs. Flowers keeps her knives; it cannot have been as difficult to take my cousin's life as you would suppose. Also, Patsy's size is misleading: she may look thirteen, but is in fact months away from her eighteenth birthday. She is a lot stronger than one would suspect. Still, if Peter Byrne had not seen her enter Ascerley's room, I would not have believed it myself."

"Miss Verity Cumpton!" cried Mrs. Bingham's shrill voice from the second floor landing, "if you do not join me here this instant I shall—."

"I do find it somewhat incomprehensible," said Miss Cumpton, raising her voice over the din, "that you should have so firmly established the truth of your suppositions – even have obtained a confession from the guilty party – and still be prepared to see her off to the Bath stage."

"As you may recollect, my dear madam," said Mr. Coningham gravely, "I promised at the outset of this whole sorry business that I would see justice done. It is my humble opinion that it can hardly be just to hand over a young girl like Patsy to the authorities, who would probably hang her for murdering one whose station in life was so decidedly above her own. I know what my cousin was; I saw the squalor his tenants lived in; I know what has been done to her family, though I cannot begin to imagine what she must have suffered. No, to me it seems that justice is best served by letting them go."

"How very right you are," praised Miss Cumpton warmly.

"Vera!" came another cry from upstairs. "Need I come to fetch you?" and, "I must go," announced Miss Cumpton needlessly, draining the last cold dregs of her tea. "I thank you for everything; I am fully aware how much I am in your debt…"

"Verity!" shouted the aunt.

"Go," recommended the gentleman, devoting his attention once more to his breakfast ale.

The gig rattled up to the door once more; the colt was sweaty and wheezing, and young Jem scarcely less so. At last all trunks, valises and bandboxes were packed; Mr. Bingham was roused and dressed; and Mrs. Flowers had given into Mrs. Bingham's care a basket brimming with carefully prepared provisions for their journey. The aunt and uncle had bustled out, followed by the inn-folk, laden with their baggage. Miss Cumpton, clutching her own assorted bandboxes, lingered by the door. Her aunt shrieked another summons; she was approaching the carriage when Mr. Coningham strode out of the inn to take leave.

He arrived in time to hand the ladies into the carriage.

Mr. Bingham ceased being disgruntled long enough to shake hands; Mrs. Bingham, still fractious, deigned to offer him two fingers (the presumption of which action caused Miss Cumpton to blush). He bade Jem drive safely, wished them a comfortable journey; and finally took Miss Cumpton's extended hand, brushing it lightly with his lips. "I should be honoured, ma'am, if you would permit me to pursue an acquaintance with your family at Bath."

With twinkling eyes, the lady pointed out, "But Bath was never the goal of your journey."

The crooked smile appeared. "I assure you, madam," he said gravely, "you mistake."