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The york mystery, p.1
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       The York Mystery, p.1

           Emmuska Orczy
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The York Mystery



  Baroness Orczy

  This page copyright 2001 Blackmask Online.





  THE man in the corner looked quite cheerful that morning; he had had two glasses

  of milk and had even gone to the extravagance of an extra cheese-cake. Polly

  knew that he was itching to talk police and murders, for he east furtive glances

  at her from time to time, produced a bit of string, tied and untied it into

  scores of complicated knots, and finally, bringing out his pocket-book, he

  placed two or three photographs before her.

  "Do you know who that is?" he asked, pointing to one of these.

  The girl looked at the face on the picture. It was that of a woman, not exactly

  pretty, but very gentle and childlike, with a strange pathetic look in the large

  eyes which was wonderfully appealing.

  "That was Lady Arthur Skelmerton," he said, and in a flash there flitted before

  Polly's mind the weird and tragic history which had broken this loving woman's

  heart. Lady Arthur Skelmerton! That name recalled one of the most bewildering,

  most mysterious passages in the annals of undiscovered crimes.

  "Yes. It was sad, wasn't it?" he commented, in answer to Polly's thoughts.

  "Another case which but for idiotic blunders on the part of the police must have

  stood clear as daylight before the public and satisfied general anxiety. Would

  you object to my recapitulating its preliminary details?"

  She said nothing, so he continued without waiting further for a reply.

  "It all occurred during the York racing week, a time which brings to the quiet

  cathedral city its quota of shady characters, who congregate wherever money and

  wits happen to fly away from their owners. Lord Arthur Skelmerton, a very

  well-known figure in London society and in racing circles, had rented one of the

  fine houses which overlook the racecourse. He had entered Peppercorn, by St.

  ArmandNotre Dame, for the Great Ebor Handicap. Peppercorn was the winner of the

  Newmarket, and his chances for the Ebor were considered a practical certainty.

  "If you have ever been to York you will have noticed the fine houses which have

  their drive and front entrances in the road called 'The Mount,' and the gardens

  of which extend as far as the racecourse, commanding a lovely view over the

  entire track. It was one of these houses, called 'The Elms,' which Lord Arthur

  Skelmerton had rented for the summer.

  "Lady Arthur came down some little time before the racing week with her

  servantsshe had no children; but she had many relatives and friends in York,

  since she was the daughter of old Sir John Etty, the cocoa manufacturer, a rigid

  Quaker, who, it was generally said, kept the tightest possible hold on his own

  purse-strings and looked with marked disfavour upon his aristocratic

  son-in-law's fondness for gaming tables and betting books.

  "As a matter of fact, Maud Etty had married the handsome young lieutenant in the

  th Hussars, quite against her father's wishes. But she was an only child, and

  after a good deal of demur and grumbling, Sir John, who idolized his daughter,

  gave way to her whim, and a reluctant consent to the marriage was wrung from


  "But, as a Yorkshireman, he was far too shrewd a man of the world not to know

  that love played but a very small part in persuading a Duke's son to marry the

  daughter of a cocoa manufacturer, and as long as he lived he determined that

  since his daughter was being wed because of her wealth, that wealth should at

  least secure her own happiness. He refused to give Lady Arthur any capital,

  which, in spite of the most carefully worded settlements, would inevitably,

  sooner or later, have found its way into the pockets of Lord Arthur's racing

  friends. But he made his daughter a very handsome allowance, amounting to over

  3000 a year, which enabled her to keep up an establishment befitting her new


  "A great many of these facts, intimate enough as they are, leaked out, you see,

  during that period of intense excitement which followed the murder of Charles

  Lavender, and when the public eye was fixed searchingly upon Lord Arthur

  Skelmerton, probing all the inner details of his idle, useless life.

  "It soon became a matter of common gossip that poor little Lady Arthur continued

  to worship her handsome husband in spite of his obvious neglect, and not having

  as yet presented him with an heir, she settled herself down into a life of

  humble apology for her plebeian existence, atoning for it by condoning all his

  faults and forgiving all his vices, even to the extent of cloaking them before

  the prying eyes of Sir John, who was persuaded to look upon his son-in-law as a

  paragon of all the domestic virtues and a perfect model of a husband.

  "Among Lord Arthur Skelmerton's many expensive tastes there was certainly that

  for horseflesh and cards. After some successful betting at the beginning of his

  married life, he had started a racing-stable which it was generally believedas

  he was very luckywas a regular source of income to him.

  "Peppercorn, however, after his brilliant performances at Newmarket did not

  continue to fulfil his master's expectations. His collapse at York was

  attributed to the hardness of the course and to various other causes, but its

  immediate effect was to put Lord Arthur Skelmerton in what is popularly called a

  tight place, for he had backed his horse for all he was worth, and must have

  stood to lose considerably over 5000 on that one day.

  "The collapse of the favourite and the grand victory of King Cole, a rank

  outsider, on the other hand, had proved a golden harvest for the bookmakers, and

  all the York hotels were busy with dinners and suppers given by the

  confraternity of the Turf to celebrate the happy occasion. The next day was

  Friday, one of few important racing events, after which the brilliant and the

  shady throng which had flocked into the venerable city for the week would fly to

  more congenial climes, and leave it, with its fine old Minster and its ancient

  walls, as sleepy, as quiet as before.

  "Lord Arthur Skelmerton also intended to leave York on the Saturday, and on the

  Friday night he gave a farewell bachelor dinner party at 'The Elms,' at which

  Lady Arthur did not appear. After dinner the gentlemen settled down to bridge,

  with pretty stiff points, you may be sure. It had just struck eleven at the

  Minster Tower, when constables McNaught and Murphy, who were patrolling the

  racecourse, were startled by loud cries of 'murder' and 'police.'

  "Quickly ascertaining whence these cries proceeded, they hurried on at a gallop,

  and came upquite close to the boundary of Lord Arthur Skelmerton's groundsupon

  a group of three men,
two of whom seemed to be wrestling vigorously with one

  another, whilst the third was lying face downwards on the ground. As soon as the

  constables drew near, one of the wrestlers shouted more vigorously, and with a

  certain tone of authority:

  "'Here, you fellows, hurry up, sharp; the brute is giving me the slip!'

  "But the brute did not seem inclined to do anything of the sort; he certainly

  extricated himself with a violent jerk from his assailant's grasp, but made no

  attempt to run away. The constables had quickly dismounted, whilst he who had

  shouted for help originally added more quietly:

  "'My name is Skelmerton. This is the boundary of my property. I was smoking a

  cigar at the pavilion over there with a friend when I heard loud voices,

  followed by a cry and a groan. I hurried down the steps, and saw this poor

  fellow lying on the ground, with a knife sticking between his shoulder-blades,

  and his murderer,' he added, pointing to the man who stood quietly by with

  Constable McNaught's firm grip upon his shoulder, 'still stooping over the body

  of his victim. I was too late, I fear, to save the latter, but just in time to

  grapple with the assassin"

  "'It's a lie!' here interrupted the man hoarsely. 'I didn't do it, constable; I

  swear I didn't do it. I saw him fallI was coming along a couple of hundred

  yards away, and I tried to see if the poor fellow was dead. I swear I didn't do


  "'You'll have to explain that to the inspector presently, my man,' was Constable

  McNaught's quiet comment, and, still vigorously protesting his innocence, the

  accused allowed himself to be led away, and the body was conveyed to the

  station, pending fuller identification.

  "The next morning the papers were full of the tragedy; a column and a half of

  the York Herald was devoted to an account of Lord Arthur Skelmerton's plucky

  capture of the assassin The latter had continued to declare his innocence but

  had remarked, it appears, with grim humour, that he quite saw he was in a tight

  place, out of which, however, he would find it easy to extricate himself. He had

  stated to the police that the deceased's name was Charles Lavender, a well-known

  bookmaker, which fact was soon verified, for many of the murdered man's 'pals'

  were still in the city.

  "So far the most pushing of newspaper reporters had been unable to glean further

  information from the police; no one doubted, however, but that the man in

  charge, who gave his name as George Higgins, had killed the bookmaker for

  purposes of robbery. The inquest had been fixed for the Tuesday after the


  "Lord Arthur had been obliged to stay in York a few days, as his evidence would

  be needed. That fact gave the case, perhaps, a certain amount of interest as far

  as York and London 'society' were concerned. Charles Lavender, moreover, was

  well known on the turf; but no bombshell exploding beneath the walls of the

  ancient cathedral city could more have astonished its inhabitants than the news

  which, at about five in the afternoon on the day of the inquest, spread like

  wildfire throughout the town. That news was that the inquest had concluded at

  three o'clock with a verdict of 'Wilful murder against some person or persons

  unknown,' and that two hours later the police had arrested Lord Arthur

  Skelmerton at his private residence, 'The Elms,' and charged him on a warrant

  with the murder of Charles Lavender, the bookmaker."


  THE police, it appears, instinctively feeling that some mystery lurked round the

  death of the bookmaker and his supposed murderer's quiet protestations of

  innocence, had taken a very considerable amount of trouble in collecting all the

  evidence they could for the inquest which might throw some light upon Charles

  Lavender's life, previous to his tragic end. Thus it was that a very large array

  of witnesses was brought before the coroner, chief among whom was, of course,

  Lord Arthur Skelmerton.

  "The first witnesses called were the two constables, who deposed that, just as

  the church clocks in the neighbourhood were striking eleven, they had heard the

  cries for help, had ridden to the spot whence the sounds proceeded, and had

  found the prisoner in the tight grasp of Lord Arthur Skelmerton, who at once

  accused the man of murder, and gave him in charge. Both constables gave the same

  version of the incident, and both were positive as to the time when it occurred.

  "Medical evidence went to prove that the deceased had been stabbed from behind

  between the shoulder-blades whilst he was walking, that the wound was inflicted

  by a large hunting knife, which was produced, and which had been left sticking

  in the wound.

  "Lord Arthur Skelmerton was then called and substantially repeated what he had

  already told the constables. He stated, namely, that on the night in question he

  had some gentlemen friends to dinner, and afterwards bridge was played. He

  himself was not playing much, and at a few minutes before eleven he strolled out

  with a cigar as far as the pavilion at the end of his garden; he then heard the

  voices, the cry and the groan previously described by him, and managed to hold

  the murderer down until the arrival of the constables.

  "At this point the police proposed to call a witness, James Terry by name and a

  bookmaker by profession, who had been chiefly instrumental in identifying the

  deceased, a 'pal ' of his. It was his evidence which first introduced that

  element of sensation into the case which culminated in the wildly exciting

  arrest of a Duke's son upon a capital charge.

  "It appears that on the evening after the Ebor, Terry and Lavender were in the

  bar of the Black Swan Hotel having drinks.

  "'I had done pretty well over Peppercorn's fiasco,' he explained, 'but poor old

  Lavender was very much down in the dumps; he had held only a few very small bets

  against the favourite, and the rest of the day had been a poor one with him. I

  asked him if he had any bets with the owner of Peppercorn, and he told me that

  he only held one for less than 500.

  "'I laughed and said that if he held one for 6000 it would make no difference,

  as from what I had heard from the other fellows, Lord Arthur Skelmerton must be

  about stumped. Lavender seemed terribly put out at this, and swore he would get

  that 500 out of Lord Arthur, if no one else got another penny from him.

  "'It's the only money I've made to-day,' he says to me. 'I mean to get it.'

  "'You won't,' I says.

  "'I will,' he says.

  "'You will have to look pretty sharp about it then,' I says, 'for every one will

  be wanting to get something, and first come first served.'

  "'Oh! He'll serve me right enough, never you mind!' says Lavender to me with a

  laugh. 'If he don't pay up willingly, I've got that in my pocket which will make

  him sit up and open my lady's eyes and Sir John Etty's too about their precious

  noble lord.'

  "'Then he seemed to think he had gone too far, and wouldn't say anything more to

  me about that affair. I saw him on the course the next day. I asked him if he
  had got his 500. He said: "No, but I shall get it to-day."'

  "Lord Arthur Skelmerton, after having given his own evidence, had left the

  court; it was therefore impossible to know how he would take this account, which

  threw so serious a light upon an association with the dead man, of which he

  himself had said nothing.

  "Nothing could shake James Terry's account of the facts he had placed before the

  jury, and when the police informed the coroner that they proposed to place

  George Higgins himself in the witness-box, as his evidence would prove, as it

  were, a complement and corollary of that of Terry, the jury very eagerly


  "If James Terry, the bookmaker, loud, florid, vulgar,was an unprepossessing

  individual, certainly George Higgins, who was still under the accusation of

  murder, was ten thousand times more so.

  "None too clean, slouchy, obsequious yet insolent, he was the very

  personification of the cad who haunts the racecourse and who lives not so much

  by his own wits as by the lack of them in others. He described himself as a turf

  commission agent, whatever that may be.

  "He stated that at about six o'clock on the Friday afternoon, when the

  racecourse was still full of people, all hurrying after the day's excitements,

  he himself happened to be standing close the hedge which marks the boundary of

  Lord Arthur Skelmerton's grounds. There is a pavilion there at the end of the

  garden, he explained, on slightly elevated ground, and he could hear and see a

  group of ladies and gentlemen having tea. Some steps lead down a little to the

  left of the garden on to the course, and presently he noticed at the bottom of

  these steps Lord Arthur Skelmerton and Charles Lavender standing talking

  together. He knew both gentlemen by sight, but he could not see them very well

  as they were both partly hidden by the hedge. He was quite sure that the

  gentlemen had not seen him, and he could not help overhearing some of their


  "'That's my last word, Lavender,' Lord Arthur was saying very quietly. 'I

  haven't got the money and I can't pay you now. You'll have to wait.'

  "'Wait? I can't wait,' said old Lavender in reply. 'I've got my engagements to

  meet, same as you. I'm not going to risk being posted up as a defaulter while

  you hold 500 of my money, You'd better give it me now or'

  "But Lord Arthur interrupted him very quietly, and said:

  "'Yes, my good man .... or?'

  "'Or I'll let Sir John have a good look at that little bill I had of yours a

  couple of years ago. If you'll remember, my lord, it has got at the bottom of it

  Sir John's signature in your handwriting. Perhaps Sir John, or perhaps my lady,

  would pay me something for that little bill. If not the police can have a squint

  at it. I've held my tongue long enough, and' "' Look here, Lavender,' said

  Lord Arthur, 'do you know what this little game of yours is called in law?'

  "'Yes, and I don't care,' says Lavender. 'If I don't have that 500 I am a

  ruined man. If you ruin me I'll do for you, and we shall be quits. That's my

  last word.'

  "He was talking very loudly, and I thought some of Lord Arlhur's friends up in

  the pavilion must have heard. He thought so too, I think, for he said quickly:

  "'If you don't hold your confounded tongue, I'll give you in charge for

  blackmail this instant.'

  "'You wouldn't dare,' says Lavender, and he began to laugh. But just then a lady

  from the top of the steps said: 'Your tea is getting cold,' and Lord Arthur

  turned to go; but just before he went, Lavender says to him: 'I'll come back

  to-night. You'll have the money then.'

  "George Higgins, it appears, after he had heard this interesting conversation,

  pondered as to whether he could not turn what he knew into some sort of profit.

  Being a gentleman who lives entirely by his wits, this type of knowledge forms

  his chief source of income. As a preliminary to future moves he decided not to

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