Rumpole and the Angel of Death (9 page)

‘I understand that. I was there, you know. Watching the hunt move off. I'd better warn you I heard what you said, so it's going to be a little difficult if you deny it.'

‘I said it,' Den told me proudly. ‘I said every word of it. We're going to win, you know.'

‘Win the case?'

‘I meant the war against the animal murderers. Did you see the looks on their faces? They were going out to enjoy themselves.'

I remembered the words of the historian Lord Macaulay: ‘The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.' But I wasn't going to be drawn into a debate about fox-hunting when I was there to deal with my first murder case for a long time, too long a time, and I fully intended to win it. I rummaged in my papers and produced the first, the most important witness statement, the evidence to be given by Patricia Fothergill of Cherry Trees near Wayleave in the county of Gloucester.

‘I'd better warn you that I met this lady at dinner.'

‘I don't mind where you met her, Mr Rumpole.'

‘I'm glad you take that view but I had to tell you. All right, Tricia – that's what she calls herself – Tricia is going to say that she saw a man in a red shirt in the driveway of the Eyles's house, Wayleave Manor. She heard you shout at Mrs Eyles. Well, we all know about that. Now comes the interesting bit. At about one o'clock in the afternoon of the day before the meet she'd been out for a hack and was riding home past Fallows Wood – that's where Dorothea Eyles met her death.

She says she saw a man in a red shirt coming out of the wood, carrying what looked like a coil of wire: “I didn't think much of it at the time. I suppose I thought he had to do with the telephone or the electricity or something. There was a moment when I saw him quite clearly and I'm sure he was the same man I saw at the meet, shouting at Dorothea.” We can challenge that identification. It was far away, she was on a horse, how many men wear red shirts – all that sort of thing . . .'

‘I'm sure you will destroy her, Mr Rumpole.' Gavin was trying to be helpful.

‘I'll do my best.' I hunted for another statement. ‘I'm just looking . . . Here it is! Detective Constable Armstead searched the van you came in and found part of a coil of wire of exactly the same make and thickness as that which was stretched across the path and between the trees in Fallows Wood.' I looked at my client and my solicitor. Neither had, apparently, anything to say. ‘Who drives the van?'

‘Roy Netherborn. It's his van,' Gavin volunteered.

‘Is he the hairless gentleman with the earrings?'

‘That's the one.'

‘And did Mr Netherborn pack the things in the van? The tools and so on?'

‘He did, didn't he, Den?' Gavin had been answering the questions. When he was asked one, Dennis Pearson was silent. ‘Had you taken wire with you before?'

‘We'd discussed it,' Den admitted. ‘There'd been some talk of using it to trip up the horses.'

‘Did you know there was wire in the van that day?' I asked Den the question direct, but Gavin intervened, ‘I don't think you did, did you?'

Den said nothing but shook his head.

‘Did you know that exactly the same wire was used as a death-trap in Fallows Wood?'

‘Den didn't know that. No.' Gavin was positive.

‘When did you arrive in Wayleave village? And
a question for Mr Dennis Pearson,' I invited.

‘We came up the morning before. We were staying with Janet Freebody who lives in the village. Janet's a schoolteacher.'

‘And chair of our activist committee.' Gavin was finding it difficult to keep quiet.

‘Where was the van parked?'

‘In front of Janet's house.'

‘From what time?'

‘About midday.'

‘You hadn't taken a trip in it to Fallows Wood before then?'

‘Den tells me he hadn't.' Once again, Gavin took on the answering.

‘Was the van kept locked?'

‘Supposed to be. Roy's a bit careless about this, isn't he, Den?'

‘Roy's careless about everything,' Den agreed.

There were a lot more questions that required answering, but I didn't want them all answered by way of the protective Gavin Garfield.

‘There's one other thing I should tell you,' I said as I gathered up my papers. ‘I know Rollo Eyles. I met him when he was at the Bar. And I was staying with him the night before . . . Well, the night before the fatal accident. I'll have to tell him I'm defending the man accused of murdering his wife. If you don't want me to defend you, you know that, of course, I shall understand.' I was giving them a chance to sack me even before my precious murder case had begun. I kept my fingers crossed under the table.

‘I'd like you to carry on with the case, Mr Rumpole,' Den was now speaking for himself. ‘Seeing what you did for that dog, I don't think I'll cause you much trouble.'

‘Oh, why's that?'

‘Well, you see . . .' Dennis Pearson was still smiling pleasantly, imperturbably.

Gavin looked at him anxiously and started off, ‘Den . . .'

But my client interrupted him, ‘You see, I did it.'

‘You knew he was going to do that?' Gavin was driving me from the prison to Gloucester station in a car littered with bits of comics, old toys, empty crisp packets and crumpled orange juice cartons with the straws still stuck in them. I supposed that, in his pale, vegetarian way, he had fathered many children.

‘I had an idea. Yes,' Gavin admitted it. ‘What do we do now?'

‘We're entitled to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses and see if they prove the case. We can't call Dennis to deny the charge, so, if the Prosecution holds up, we'll have to plead guilty at half-time.'

‘Is that what you'd advise him to do?'

‘I'd advise him to tell us the truth.'

‘Why do you say that?'

‘Because I don't believe he is.'

I wanted to work on the case away from the garrulous Gavin and the uncommunicative Den. I thought that they lurked somewhere between the world of human communication and the secret and silent kingdom of animals, and I didn't feel either of them would be much help down the Bailey. The case seemed to me to raise certain awkward and interesting questions, not to say a matter of legal ethics and private morality which was, not to put too fine a point upon it, devilishly tricky to cope with.

As I sat in Chambers I decided it was better for a legal hack like me to stop worrying about such things as ideas of proper or improper behaviour and concentrate on the facts. I lit a small cigar and opened a volume of police photographs. As I did so, I stooped for a moment to pat the head of the gloomy Lancelot, who had become my close companion, and then realized he was gone, ferreting for disgusting morsels, no doubt, at the edge of the sea while Dodo Mackintosh sat at her easel and perpetrated a feeble watercolour. I felt completely alone in the defence of Den Pearson, who didn't even want to be defended.

I hurried past the mortuary shots of Dorothea and her fatal injuries, and got to a picture of a path through trees. It was a narrow strip hardly wide enough for two people to pass in comfort, so the beech trees on either side were not much more than six feet apart. A closer shot showed the wire, then still stretched between nails driven into the trees. The track was muddy, with patches of grass and the bare earth. I picked up a magnifying glass and looked at the photo carefully. Then I rang little Marcus Pitcher, who, I had discovered, was to be in charge of the Prosecution. ‘Listen, old darling,' I said, when I got his chirrup on the line, ‘what about you and me organizing a visit to the
locus in quo?
' When he asked me what I meant, I said, ‘There was once a road through the woods.'

‘A day out in the country?' Marcus sounded agreeable. ‘Whyever not. I'll drive you.'

My learned friend was a small man with a round face, slightly protruding teeth and large, horn-rimmed glasses, so that he looked like an agreeable mouse, although he could be a cunning little performer in Court. Marcus owned a bulky old Jaguar and had to sit up very straight to peer out of the windscreen. In the back seat a white bull-terrier sat, pink-eyed and asthmatic, looking at me as though she wondered why I'd come to ruin the day out.

‘Meet Bernadette,' Marcus introduced us. ‘As soon as she heard about the trip to the Cotswolds, she had to come. Hope you don't mind.'

‘Not at all. In fact I might have brought my own dog, but Lancelot's away at the moment.'

At the scene of the crime Bernadette went bounding off into the undergrowth, while Marcus, his solicitor from the D.P.P.'s office, and I stood with the Detective Inspector in charge of the case. D. J. Palmer was a courteous officer who lacked the tendency of the Metropolitan force to imitate the coppers they've seen on television. He led us to the spot where death had taken place. The wire and nails had been removed to be exhibited in the case, and the hoof marks had been rubbed out by the rain.

‘“There was once a road through the woods,”' I told the Inspector, ‘“Before they planted the trees./It is underneath the coppice and heath,/And the thin anemones . . . But this one isn't, is it, Inspector?'

‘I'm not quite sure that I follow you, Mr Rumpole.'

‘This road hasn't disappeared so that

Only the keeper sees

That, where the ring-dove broods,

And the badgers roll at ease,

There was once a road through the woods.'

‘It's a footpath here as I understand it, Mr Rumpole.' The D.I. was ever helpful. ‘Mr Eyles is very good about keeping open the footpaths on his land.' It did seem that the edges of the path had been trimmed and the brambles cut back.

‘Is the footpath used a lot? Did you ever find that out, Inspector?'

‘Ramblers use it. It was ramblers that found Mrs Eyles. A shocking experience for them.'

‘It must have been. Don't know why they call it rambling, do you? We used to call it going for a walk. So people don't ride down here much?'

‘I wouldn't think a lot. You'd have to be a good horseman to jump that.'

We had come to a stile at the end of the narrow track. Beside it there was a green signpost showing that the footpath continued across the middle of a broad field dotted with sheep. The stile had a single pole to hold on to and a wide step set at right angles to the top bar. I supposed it would have been a difficult jump but I saw a scar in the wood. Could that have been the mark of a hoof that had just managed it?

Marcus Pitcher called Bernadette and she came lolloping over the brambles and started to root about in the long grass at the side of the stile.

‘You gents seen all you want?' the D.I. asked us.

Marcus was satisfied. I wasn't. I thought that if we waited we might learn something else about that cold, sunny day in March when Dorothea died as quickly as she'd said she'd always wanted to. And then I was rewarded. Bernadette pulled some weighty object out of the grass, carried it in her mouth and laid it, as a tribute, at the feet of Marcus Pitcher. I said I'd like a note made of exactly where we found the horseshoe.

‘I don't see what it can possibly prove.' Marcus was doubtful. ‘It might have been dropped from any horse at any time.'

‘Let's just make a note,' I asked. ‘We'll think about what it proves later.'

So the polite Inspector took charge of the horseshoe and he, Marcus and Bernadette moved on across the field on their way back to the road. I sat on the stile to recover my breath and looked into the darkness of the wood. What was it at night? A sort of killing field – owls swooping on mice, foxes after small birds – a place of unexpected noises and sudden death? Was it a site for killing people or killing animals? I remembered Dorothea, old and elegant, handing down with a smile to Den what she said was a flask of fox's blood. I thought about the hunters and the antis shouting at each other and Den's yell: ‘One of you is going to die for all the dead animals.' And I tried to see Dorothea, elated, excited, galloping down the narrow path and her sudden, unlooked-for near-decapitation. From somewhere in the shadows under the trees, I seemed to hear the sound of hoofs and I remembered more of Kipling, a grumpy old darling but with a marvellous sense of rhythm. I chanted to myself:

‘You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,

And the swish of a skin in the dew,

Steadily cantering through

The misty solitudes,

As though they perfectly knew

The old lost road through the woods.

But there is no road through the woods.'

But there was no swish of a skirt. It was Rollo Eyles who came cantering down the track, reined in his horse and sat looking down on me as I sat on his stile.

here? I heard the police were in the wood.'

I looked up at him. He was getting near my age but healthier and certainly thinner than me. He was not a tall man, but he sat up very straight in the saddle. His reins were loose and his hands relaxed; his horse snorted but hardly moved. He wore a cap instead of a hard riding-hat, regardless of danger, and an old tweed jacket. His voice was surprisingly deep and there was little grey in the hair that showed.

‘I was having a look at the scene of the crime.' Then I told him, as I had to, ‘I'm defending the man who's supposed to have killed your wife.'

‘Not the man who killed her?'

‘We won't know that until the Jury get back. Do you mind?'

‘That he killed Dorothea?'

‘No. That I'm defending him.'

‘You have to defend even the most disgusting clients, don't you?' His voice never lost its friendliness and there was no hint of anger. ‘It's in the best traditions of the Bar.'

‘That's right. I'm an old taxi.'

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