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Was it murder, p.1
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       Was It Murder?, p.1

           James Hilton
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Was It Murder?




  First published by Ernest Benn, London, 1931

  Published in the USA as “Was It Murder?”

  * * *


  The Strange Affair In The Dormitory


  The Strange Affair In The Swimming-Bath

  A Speech Day And An Inquest

  Enter Second Detective

  Lambourne’s Story

  The Third Oakington Tragedy

  The Detective Gives It Up


  More Theories

  Amorous Interlude

  Almost The Fourth Oakington Tragedy

  Lunch For Two In Soho

  Enter Third (And Last) Detective

  * * *


  Pilate might well have added: “What is youth?”—And so the modern father too may wonder, Faintly remembering his own, forsooth, But feeling it would be an awful blunder To tell his sons a tenth part of the truth About the sex-temptations HE came under. Therefore, in England now, on every hand, This proper study of mankind is banned.

  So, after patient effort, composed Colin Revell in his Islington lodgings on a murky December morning. You will have rightly deduced that he was young, rather clever, and not hard up enough to have to do any real work. He was, in fact, just as old as the century; had had one of those “brilliant” careers at Oxford that are the despair alike of parents and prospective employers; and enjoyed a private income of a little over four pounds a week. Added to which, he was an only child; his parents were both dead; and his relatives were the usual collection of retired colonels and tea-planters who, from their fastnesses at Cheltenham, eyed him with as little relish as he did them.

  His unassuming ground-floor front looked on to a somewhat decayed street within walking distance of the Caledonian Cattle Market. The hour was a trifle short of noon, and the remains of a recent breakfast lay pushed somewhat away from him on the table. His purple dressing-gown and black silk pyjamas contrasted oddly with the landlady’s furnishings, which, in an ecstasy of admiration for their Victorian antiquity, he had allowed to remain exactly as when he had first entered into occupation. It was a pose, undoubtedly, but an amusing one. The landlady, a Mrs. Hewston, thought her lodger rather “queer”, but as he paid her well and regularly and did not appear to mind her stealing his gin, she was glad enough to keep him.

  Gin, indeed, was the sedative with which, having composed his stanza, Revell restored a somewhat fatigued mind. His friends were all aware that, besides writing occasional literary articles for a high-brow weekly, he was “at work” on a full-length satirical epic in the manner and metre of Don Juan. He had begun it during his final year at Oxford, and by the date at which this story opens it had grown to lack only two things— continuity and a publisher.

  A clock somewhere in the neighbourhood began the chiming of noon. Factory-sirens shrieked; groups of children straggled out of an elementary school opposite. And the postman, observing Mrs. Hewston in her basement kitchen, descended the area steps and handed her three letters with the remark: “All for your young gentleman.”

  A moment later the young gentleman was opening them. One was a returned article from the Daily Mail (too good for them, of course, he consoled himself); another was a bill from an Oxford tailor equally famous for high prices and long credit. And the third was the following:

  The School House, Oakington. December 15th


  I don’t think we ever met, but as you are an O.O. and I am the present Head of Oakington, perhaps we can do without an introduction. My friend Simmons of Oxford mentioned you to me some time ago as a neat solver of mysteries, and as there seems as if there might be one at Oakington just now, I take the somewhat large liberty of asking your help. Could you spend the coming week-end here? I should be glad to put you up, and there will be the final house-match to watch on Monday, if you are interested.

  Yours sincerely,


  P.S.—A good train leaves King’s Cross at 2.30 to-morrow afternoon. Dinner-jacket.

  Revell digested the communication over a second and more potent gin- and-vermouth. It seemed to him distinctly the sort of thing which (in books) drew from its reader the comment “Whew!” Accustomed and even pleased as he was to receive week-end invitations, the Headmaster of Oakington was hardly a host he would have chosen. He disliked schoolmasters and sentimental revisitings with almost equal degrees of intensity, and the two in conjunction could raise in his mind only the most dismal of prospects.

  Yet the letter was curious enough to give him, after his moment of instinctive recoil, the faint beginnings of interest. It was in so many ways the sort of letter one did not quite expect from a schoolmaster. There was a mingling of friendliness and curtness in the wording of it that Revell, as something of a word-fancier himself, could not help but admire. He liked, too, the sentence about the house-match; it was unexpectedly broad-minded of a headmaster to conceive the possibility of an old boy not being interested in house-matches. (And Revell most emphatically wasn’t.) And then, too, there was the mystery—whatever it might turn out to be. A mystery always attracted him. Anything attracted him, in fact, that brought with it the possibility of being drawn into some new vortex of interest. His soul yearned with Byronic intensity for something to happen to it. He was almost twenty-eight, and so far he seemed to have done nothing in life except win the Newdigate, give a terrifying study of the Jew in the O.U.D.S. production of The Merchant of Venice, publish a novel (of course he had done THAT), and rake in an unexpected tenner for inventing the last line of a limerick about somebody’s chewing-gum.

  That little affair at Oxford, as well—it pleased him that it was still remembered and that old Simmons still talked about it. A rather valuable manuscript had disappeared from the College library, and by means of a little amateur detective-work he had succeeded in tracing and recovering it. The whole business, concerning as it did the integrity of one of the dons, had naturally been hushed up, but not without many pleasant compliments to the undergraduate whose versatility could take at a single stride the gulf between Shylock and Sherlock.

  But what finally turned the scale in Revell’s mind was the last word of the postscript. Dinner-jacket. There, he decided, spoke that rara avis, the headmaster who was also a man in the world. Dinner-jacket. It suggested good food, perhaps even good wine; and Revell delighted in both. For a moment he permitted his imagination to soar; then, having decided definitely to accept the invitation, he packed his bag, dressed with care, sent a wire to the School from the post office round the corner, and made the necessary arrangements with Mrs. Hewston.

  That afternoon, during the rather tedious train-journey, he dallied with further stanza composition, but had not time to do very much before Oakington station intervened. The dingy goods-yard, the gravelled platform, even the faces of one or two of the station staff, were all familiar to him. As he gave up his ticket and stepped into the lane he could glimpse the School buildings directly ahead, surmounting the ancient village with a halo of nineteenth-century Gothic. “The School, sir?” interrogated a cab-driver who evidently recognised him. He nodded with ghastly pride. He was an Old Boy.

  Whether Oakington was or was not a pukka public school might have been aptly debated by a squad of mediaeval theologians raised from the dead. On the one hand, it was included in the Public Schools Year-Book, it ran an O.T.C., it reckoned to send a few scholarship boys to the universities each year, and it had a school-song of unimpeachable mediocrity. Yet, on the other hand… there had been a feeling in the scholastic world that Oakington might
well be the answer to the question: When is a public school not quite a public school? It is only fair to add, however, that this feeling had been diminishing steadily since the advent of Dr. Robert Roseveare. Lately, indeed, in the offices of scholastic agencies and even across the table of the annual Headmasters’ Conference, it had begun to be whispered that Roseveare was something of a new broom. And it was generally agreed that after his predecessor’s long and easy-going régime there had been a good deal left to sweep up.

  Structurally the School was all that gargoyles and crocheted spires could make it. If there were sermons in stones, Revell reflected, as the cab turned into the drive towards the Head’s house, then Oakington was a complete ecclesiastical library. He was on the point of mentally elaborating the theme when he perceived through the gathering twilight a newer structure, put up since his schooldays and in a style which he mentally classified as Hampstead Garden Suburb Elizabethan. “That’s the new War Memorial ‘All, sir,” remarked the cabby, glowing with local patriotism. Revell nodded. He had heard of it. More than that, he had even (he recollected) subscribed a guinea towards it. Life was full of such strange ironies.

  His spirits rose, however, a few minutes later when a white-haired butler admitted him into a room which, despite the fact that it had not been structurally altered since he had last seen it, looked nevertheless a different room of a different house. Furnished richly yet with taste, it had a touch of masculine severity that was somehow in complete harmony with the butler’s words: “The Head is expecting you, sir. He is in the study, if you will follow me.”

  The study presented another striking change; under the régime of the Reverend Dr. Jury, who had been Head of Oakington in Revell’s time, it had been a gloomy, littered apartment, full of dusty folios and sagging bookshelves. Now, however, it looked more like the board-room of a long-established limited company. A thick pile carpet, a large mahogany pedestal-desk, nests of bookshelves in the two alcoves by the side of the fire-place, a very few good etchings on the walls, and several huge arm-chairs drawn up in front of an open fire, gave an impression that was anything but pedagogic. And Dr. Roseveare himself confirmed the impression. He was tall (well over six feet), upright, and of commanding physique. Bushy, silver-grey hair surmounted a strong, smooth-complexioned face into which, however, as he gave Revell a firm hand-grip, there came a smile both cordial and charming. His voice was melodious, perhaps a little wistful, and in his accent there was just the faintest and most fascinating flavour of something that was not quite Oxford, or even Cambridge. He looked, in fact, rather like a popular preacher (Revell thought of Mr. R. J. Campbell in his spell-binding days), yet with an agreeable and compensating touch of worldliness that his perfectly cut lounge-suit suggested but in no way emphasised. “Delighted you could come,” he remarked, throwing off his gown with a Roman gesture. “Apart from any private reason, it is always a pleasure for Oakington to receive her old boys. We feel we are in their debt quite as much as some of them feel they are in ours.”

  Revell nodded politely, guessing that such an adroit remark was bound to have done duty on many previous occasions. As a collector of such felicities, he added it joyfully to his store. A little old-boyishness in response seemed clearly indicated, so he replied, slipping easily into the part, that it would be jolly to look at the old scenes once more.

  At which Dr. Roseveare smiled warily, as if rather wondering. For a few minutes they fenced skilfully over such subjects as the weather, house-matches, the coming Christmas holidays, the life of a young man in London, and the new War Memorial Hall. Of this latter Revell diplomatically observed that Oakington had always needed a hall. Roseveare replied: “Oh yes, undoubtedly. Some people like the present structure. The plans, anyhow, were passed before I came here.”

  The admission, with all its possible implications, drew them together. Within five minutes Revell had ceased to be old-boyish and Roseveare had ceased to be—or at least to appear to be—wary. The two talked easily, intimately, and with that flow of goodwill that always exists between two people who each know that the other recognises and appreciates technique in conversation.

  By dinner-time Revell had grown accustomed to astonishments. A charmingly furnished bedroom with the latest type of bathroom adjoining, his dinner clothes laid out on the bed with all their proper creases intact, an electric warmer already between the sheets—all added to his sensations of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. When the second sounding of the gong summoned him downstairs, he found his host reading the evening paper with his back to the study fire. “Ah… no news of any importance… I’m afraid I cannot offer you a cocktail, but a glass of sherry perhaps? I usually take one myself.”

  It was exceedingly good sherry, and the dinner, when they adjourned to the panelled dining-room, was worthy of such a handsome beginning. “I have a good cook,” explained the doctor, almost apologetically. The good cook, however, could hardly claim credit for the excellent Volnay, or for the Napoleon brandy, served in balloon glasses which, at Roseveare’s suggestion, they took at leisure in the study afterwards.

  “You will smoke?” queried Roseveare, offering a box of Coronas. “I may not do so myself, unfortunately, but I shall enjoy the scent of yours. Good… And now, I am sure, you are waiting for me to mention the little affair I hinted at in my letter to you.”

  Revell was waiting, it is true, but without any intense eagerness. If life could continue to provide such agreeable moments of suspense, he at any rate would not be impatient.

  “I shall be interested, of course,” he answered.

  “No doubt my letter surprised you?”

  “Well, perhaps I was—a little—puzzled by it.”

  “Exactly.” Roseveare seemed to welcome the reply. “And that, my dear boy, is just my own position in a nutshell—I am PUZZLED.”

  Revell glanced up with the beginnings of keener interest. There had been in the “dear boy” a suddenly emotional inflection, as if, behind the mask of bland benignity, the elder man were calling out for sympathy from the younger. “I hope I shall be able to help you, sir,” Revell said, simply.

  “I hope so, too, though I am afraid you may think the whole affair too fantastic even to be considered. Perhaps I had better give you a brief outline—fortunately it will not be very complicated. It concerns an extremely sad and unhappy accident that occurred here at the beginning of this Term.”

  He waited as if for Revell to make some comment, and then continued: “There was a boy here named Robert Marshall, a younger brother of our head prefect. A much elder brother—Henry, I think—was here in your time. I don’t know if you knew him?”

  “Slightly, that’s all.”

  “Ah yes, yes. He was killed during the last days of the War—most tragically, for he was under nineteen and ought not to have been sent out. His death, indeed, was such a blow to his parents that they both died within a couple of years. The two younger boys were left—Robert and Wilbraham. They came on here in the usual way and at the usual ages from a preparatory school. Pleasant boys—not brilliant, perhaps, but well liked and altogether a credit to the School. Wilbraham, as I said just now, is our present head prefect—a boy of sound character, good at games, and very popular. He will leave next summer, no doubt, and enter Oxford —there is, fortunately, plenty of money. But to come to the point. About three months ago his younger brother—Robert, that is to say —was the victim of a most peculiar and distressing accident. A heavy gas-fitting fell on him in the dormitory during the night, killing him instantly.”

  “Good Lord!” Revell, who till then had been listening rather dreamily, found himself suddenly jerked into attention.

  “Some of the London papers had a paragraph about it,” Roseveare went on. “I don’t know if you noticed it?”

  “No, I’m afraid I didn’t.”

  “Then I certainly think it will be best if, before saying any more, I allow you to read the account of the inquest, reported fairly fully in our local paper.

  He took out a pocket-wallet and produced therefrom a folded newspaper-cutting. “Take your time,” he remarked, handing it over. “And remember—all this happened three months ago.”

  It was a column and a half in length, and Revell, at a first quick reading, seized its main points as follows. The accident had taken place on the first Sunday-night-Monday-morning of the Autumn Term. It had not been discovered till daylight, when a boy named March, who had chanced to wake early, saw that something had happened, and raised the alarm. The gas-fitting was a heavy, old-fashioned, inverted-T-shaped affair, one of a series that were suspended in a double row along the whole length of the dormitory. Underneath the junction of the horizontal and vertical sections of piping a brass tip had been fitted, apparently for ornamental effect. Marshall, it seemed, had been sleeping with his head exactly under this tip, so that when the whole thing collapsed the effect must have been like a heavy spear falling on him.

  Of several witnesses called, none could give much real information. The school doctor, a fellow named Murchiston, described how he had been sent for at seven in the morning to examine the body. Death, he thought, had been instantaneous, the skull and brain having been pierced. The accident might have taken place from five to eight hours before—he would not care to commit himself more than that.

  The housemaster, Mr. T. B. Ellington, described the position of his private house, next to the School House block containing the dormitory, but quite separate from it. He was not only Marshall’s housemaster, he explained, but the boy’s cousin as well. It was his habit to walk through the dormitory and turn off the gas-jets at ten o’clock every night. He had done so as usual on that particular Sunday night. He had not noticed anything at all peculiar about any of the gas-fittings. After bidding the boys good night he had worked for a time in his own private room adjoining the dormitory and had then returned to his house and gone to bed. That might have been, perhaps, as late as one o’clock, for he had been busy marking terminal examination papers. He had certainly heard nothing unusual during that time. He knew nothing at all about the accident till a boy came to him soon after six o’clock with news of what had happened. He had immediately hastened to the dormitory and had found Marshall dead. The whole gas-fitting, wrenched or broken off at the ceiling, lay across the bed in the position in which, apparently, it had fallen. He had been too much distressed to examine it minutely. There was a strong smell of gas in the dormitory, so he had sent a boy to turn off the supply at the main. Then he had sent another boy to fetch the Headmaster.

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