Half mast for the deemst.., p.1

Half-mast for the Deemster (Inspector Littlejohn), page 1


Half-mast for the Deemster (Inspector Littlejohn)

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Half-mast for the Deemster (Inspector Littlejohn)

  Half-Mast for the


  George Bellairs

  © George Bellairs 1953 *

  *Indicates the year of first publication.
























  "ANY sign of land yet?"

  The little man in a cloth cap and an overcoat several sizes too large for him, regarded Littlejohn with pathetic dog-like eyes. His complexion was pale green and he had only roused himself from his stupor in the hope of receiving some good news.

  "I can't see anything. . . ."

  Littlejohn wasn't feeling very good himself. He had done a fair amount of sea travelling in his time; several trips to the Continent for holidays or to see officials at the Sûreté in Paris. Once he'd been over to New York to consult the F.B.I. . . . But never anything like this! People said that on certain days you could see the Isle of Man from the mainland; now it seemed at the other end of the earth. This little man with his coat sleeves over his knuckles, made retching noises, hurried to the rail of the ship, was met by a large wave, and retreated soaked to the skin. He didn't seem to mind. . . .

  "If I ever reach land, I'll never go to sea again. . . ."

  Archdeacon Caesar Kinrade, Vicar of Grenaby, in the Isle of Man, was the cause of it all.

  "A friend of mine would like to have a talk with you," he had written. "And besides, if you don't pay me the promised visit before long, I will be too old to show you my beloved Isle. I am, as you know, eighty-three next birthday."

  Mrs. Littlejohn wasn't with him. Her sister, who had a Canon of the Church for a husband, and eight children, was moving again, this time to Comstock-in-the-Fen, and there was a vicarage with eleven bedrooms. With her ninth on the way and domestic help hard to get, the Canon's wife had sent the usual S.O.S. to Hampstead. . . .

  It was the middle of September and the weather on the mainland had been fine and bright. It had continued so across the Channel just long enough for an excellent lunch to be served and thereupon the Mona had started to roll, then to pitch, and then both. Some of the passengers began to disappear down below; those who had been singing to the accompaniment of Sid Simmons and his Ten Hot Dogs, picked-up and broadcast over the ship's loud-speakers, had grown silent. Some lay on the floor and groaned; others were strewn all over the place. The timbers rolled under Littlejohn's feet; a blast of hot roast beef and cabbage rose from the dining-room and swept the deck. Littlejohn struggled to the top deck and looked out at the heaving water and the leaden sky.

  "You ought to cross by boat," his wife had said. "It'll blow the cobwebs away. . . ."

  As he stood miserably peering ahead, the prospect slowly began to change. It was like the transformation scene at a pantomime, where the electricians by juggling with the lighting suddenly convert the devil's kitchen into the home of the fairy queen. The Mona was tossing in tortured gloom, but ahead the sun was shining on calm water, the sky was turning to blue, and, like a backcloth slowly illuminated by unseen floodlights, the Isle of Man with gentle green hills sweeping down to the sea, was stretched out before them.

  The man in the big overcoat was at his elbow. He tapped Littlejohn's arm gaily. His complexion had changed to a rosy pink and the brandy he had absorbed rose abundantly on his breath.

  "What did I tell you?" he said, as though he'd been a prophet of salvation all the way. "What did I tell you? There she is. . . ."

  He flapped his sleeve at the Island, like a conjurer who has performed a difficult trick. Having thus justified himself, he made off to the bar to celebrate. People were surging on deck smiling and congratulating one another as though the end of the world had somehow been deferred. As if to cheer them up still more, the Mona slid into calm water and blew a wild blast on her siren to those ashore, like a badly frightened cock which crows when danger is past. The echo from Douglas Head threw back the sound.

  The man in the overcoat was back.

  "What about a li'l drink?" he said to Littlejohn.

  The holiday season was drawing to an end, but there was a good crowd waiting on the pier for the arrival of the boat, which glided comfortably into harbour and which, by an admirable piece of practised seamanship, the captain brought gently alongside in a matter of minutes. Someone waved to Littlejohn as he tried to catch the eye of a porter and get rid of his luggage.

  The Rev. Caesar Kinrade, Archdeacon of Man, was standing sturdily among a crowd of his friends, his shovel hat riding above the gallant white froth of his whiskers, his blue eyes sparkling. He wore his archdiaconal gaiters, too, but not like an immaculate prince of the Church; they looked utilitarian, like those of his forebears who, riding from parish to parish in the course of duty, found them more convenient on horseback than a cassock. The group round the parson all scrutinized Littlejohn with genial curiosity. The old man, with the native delight in tale-telling, had been treating them to the saga of how Littlejohn and he had between them solved the case of the man in dark glasses, and thus laid the foundation of a firm friendship.

  Lying in ambush in the quayside car-park were Teddy Looney and his chariot. The old touring car, looking like a cross between a charabanc and a hearse, had been spring-cleaned and the brass bonnet shone in the sun. Looney grinned and bared a gap in his teeth. He was pleased to see Littlejohn again and glad that the prompt arrival of the boat would get him safely home for milking time.

  "Good day, Parson. . . ."

  "Now, Reverend ! Good to put a sight on ye. . . ."

  "Nice day, Master Kinrade. And how's yourself . . .?"

  It was like a royal procession to Teddy's rattletrap. Everybody knew Parson Kinrade and everybody was glad to see him around.

  The porter with Littlejohn's bags wouldn't be paid when he found the Inspector was a friend of the Archdeacon, and Littlejohn had to thrust five shillings in the man's pocket to ease his own conscience. The pair of them were almost hoisted into Teddy's tumbril by friendly hands and with a jerk the vehicle made a start. They ran alongside the old quay, bristling with the masts of tiny craft of all descriptions, dirty coasters busy unloading, trim yachts, timber boats from the Continent. . . .

  "Hullo, there, Parson. . . ."

  The good vicar of Grenaby shook his head at Littlejohn.

  "I'll have to stop coming down to Douglas. They all get so excited to see me, and I get too excited, too, at seeing them. I'll be giving myself a stroke or something. . . ."

  The old car tossed round the bridge at the end of the quay and took to the country. Beneath the agitation of Teddy's conveyance, Littlejohn could still feel the roll of the deck he had endured for, it seemed, untold hours.

  "Take the old road, Teddy. . . ."

  The car rattled through Port Soderick village, raced down Crogga Hill, turned on two wheels at the bottom, and snorted up the other side. They reached the top with difficulty and there s
topped, for the contraption seemed to have caught fire. Dirty smoke oozed from under the bonnet, which Teddy opened to disclose a lot of dirty rags, smouldering with choking fumes.

  "Forgot to take out me cleanin' cloths," he said, scattering them over the stone wall which skirted the road.

  The parson, who hitherto had seemed half asleep, happy to let Littlejohn enjoy the scenery on the way in peace, suddenly roused himself.

  "Let us out of this, Looney. We'll stretch our legs and if you can get going again, you can catch us up. Come on, Littlejohn, stir your stumps. I've something to show you. . . ."

  They strolled to an eminence in the road and the old man pointed in the direction of the sea.

  "There ! Did you ever see the likes of that?"

  Difficult to believe the ocean had ever been rough, for now it stretched like a sheet of green glass as far as you could see. Between the road and the sea, undulating fields, divided by sod hedges, with gorse flaming on top of them and with clean white farmsteads dotted about them. Beyond, a long spit of land, like a granite spur, jutted out, with a ruined chapel and a fort at one side and a lighthouse on the other, and in the middle of the base of this triangle of rock, the towers of King William's College, in the old island capital of Castletown, rose strong and grey.

  Parson Kinrade fished in the tails of his coat and brought out an old pipe, which he filled from a pewter tobacco-box, after telling Littlejohn to help himself. They leaned their elbows on the wall and smoked, and Looney who had drawn up beside them, knew better than disturb them.

  "We've to call at Castletown," said the Archdeacon at length. "The court's sitting there to-day and I've promised we'll pick up the Deemster when it's finished. . . . Know what a Deemster is?"

  "A judge here, isn't he?"

  "More than that, Littlejohn. A very ancient office . . . very ancient and stands in eminence next to that of the Governor of the Isle himself. In this small place, the Deemster's all His Majesty's mainland judges rolled into one. Civil, Criminal, County Court, Quarter Sessions. . . . All rolled into one. Judge of Appeal, too, against the decisions of his colleague, the other Deemster, when he sits with a judge from over the water to help him. . . ."

  "A busy man !"

  "That's right. And before the laws were written or decisions recorded, he'd to remember the law. . . . Breast Law it was then, as if cherished in his heart. . . . They only take civil cases in Castletown now. First-Deemster Quantrell's sitting to-day. I'm calling to bring him with us for dinner at Grenaby. He wants to meet you. He's in trouble. Somebody's tried twice to murder him."

  The parson dropped his last sentence like a bombshell and then was silent. It seemed impossible to think of murder in such a place. The birds were singing; the gulls were crying; a man, a woman and a sheep-dog climbed the road over the hill opposite and vanished; a small train puffed past in a cloud of steam and whistled; and, out at sea, a yacht with white sails spread, slid quietly round the granite spur of Langness and was gone.

  Littlejohn pushed his hat on the back of his head, rubbed his chin, and smiled.

  "My wife's last words were 'Keep out of mischief,' " he said. "By which she meant, I always seem to run into trouble if I go on holidays without her."

  Parson Kinrade tapped his pipe on the wall.

  "Oh, come now. I'm not intending this to be a busman's holiday. You're here because I wanted to see you again. But whilst you're with us, I thought you might perhaps help and advise a good man who's in trouble."

  "Only my joke. Of course, I'll do anything you want. But aren't the local police good enough? They might take it to heart if—how do you say it?—if 'a fellah from over' started trying to teach them their business."

  The vicar patted the moss on top of the wall and then turned his far-seeing eyes on the Inspector.

  "This is only a little island, Littlejohn. News travels fast. They love a little gossip and the police aren't above joining in. Once it got abroad that somebody was out to murder a Deemster, where would he be? The law is above everybody else. It's safe and impregnable. Or that's the illusion that's to be created about it if people are to respect it. 'That's the man somebody's after murdering,' would think every malefactor brought before him. It just wouldn't do, Littlejohn. That's why Deemster Quantrell's told nobody but me and I said you were the man to share the secret and put it right in secret. Understand?"

  "I understand. How did it happen?"

  "Simply enough. His Honour drives his own car. The roads are good here and one tends to develop a fair turn of speed. Even Teddy there. . . . The hills are pretty steep and there are bends and drops at the bottom of them. Fortunately the Deemster's steering went wrong too soon. It broke as he drove it out of his garage. Whoever'd sawn into it, did it a bit too much. . . ."

  "Sawn into it? Are you sure?"

  "His Honour's no fool. In his young days he mended his own motor-bike and then his car. It was sawn, all right. He guessed then that somebody was up to no good. He kept it quiet for his wife's sake and, lest some local tittle-tattler should get talking, he sent for new parts and a mechanic from the mainland to fit them."

  "But who could have wished to . . .?"

  "That's just it. Who could? Deemster Quantrell's a member of a very old Manx family, always highly regarded, which has given to this land dozens of fine men; deemsters, doctors, lawyers, parsons. Everybody loves the Quantrells. And as for criminals he's sentenced. . . . Do the mainland judges get murdered for their judgments? No, they don't. And any fierce sentences Deemster Quantrell ever gave were in the past, long ago. There hasn't been a murder trial here for untold years and most of the real bad criminals go across to the mainland and commit their evil deeds and get their just dues across the water. . . ."

  "What about the second attempt, sir?"

  "Two bricks off a block of property being pulled down in Douglas. Two, I said. Like the barrels of a shot gun. Bang down comes one and misses His Honour's head by inches. Then another. And nobody up on the building, because it's dinner time for the men."

  "Is he sure it was deliberately done?"

  "No wind blowing; no children playing on the site. Just nobody about. Deemster Quantrell sent a policeman to look into it. He said he'd seen something fall down. He didn't tell the officer it had nearly fallen on him. . . . That settled in his mind that somebody was out to give him trouble, to put it mildly. . . ."

  Littlejohn knocked out his pipe and shook his head.

  "It looks like deliberate attempted murder. It's as well we're going to meet the Deemster. Maybe I can do something."

  "I'm sure you can. Quietly, circumspectly, you'll put things right. We'll talk it over after dinner, and then you can decide what to do for the best. Well . . . I see Teddy's getting mad at the thought of his unmilked cows. Let's be getting along."

  They followed the undulating road, with broad panoramas of hills and the sea until, with a quick turn, it joined the main highway to the village of Ballasalla, beyond which the view opened to reveal the ancient island capital of Castletown with its old granite castle standing like a bastion ahead of them. As they slowed down to pass the busy airport of Ronaldsway, the parson gripped Littlejohn's arm and pointed ahead.

  On the topmost tower of Castle Rushen stood a flagstaff, and they were slowly hauling up the flag.

  Teddy Looney turned in his seat.

  "They seem to be celebratin', sir. . . ."


  The limp flag had stopped half-mast and a puff of wind caught it, revealing the emblem of the Island, three legs, in armour, and spurred, in gold on a red ground.


  "Hurry ahead, Looney," cried Parson Kinrade. "I hope it isn't, but it looks as if . . . as if . . ."

  "Half-mast for the Deemster, sir?"

  Littlejohn finished it for him, and they sat in silence until Looney braked at the roundabout leading to the by-pass road at Castletown.

  "Go along into the town, Looney. . . ."

  But the parson needn't h
ave said it. Standing at the junction was a policeman with a bicycle, who jumped with interest at the sight of Looney's car. He hurried across and held up his hand. He saluted smartly as he saw the Rev. Caesar Kinrade.

  "Afternoon, Archdeacon. The sergeant said I was to look out for you on your way back from Douglas, and say he'd like to see you, if you don't mind. . . ."

  "I was coming in any case . . . I promised to pick up the Deemster. . . ."

  The constable's face assumed a look of reverent awe, as though he were already marching in the funeral procession.

  "The Deemster died half an hour since. That's what the sergeant said he wanted to see you for. . . . And . . ."

  The bobby turned to Littlejohn, gave him a look of admiration and fellow-feeling, and saluted again, a feat which required considerable contortion, because the officer's head was thrust through the open window of the car.

  "And are you Inspector Littlejohn, sir, of Scotland Yard?"

  He uttered Scotland Yard in tones a pilgrim would use of Mecca.

  "Yes, Constable . . ."

  "I was to bring you along, too."

  "Why?" asked the parson curiously. "Nobody knows he's here. . . . Or do they?"

  The constable cleared his throat.

  "Beggin' your pardon, Archdeacon, but I shouldn't be talkin' like this. The sergeant said to bring you right away. . . . But they found a note the Deemster must have just started to write before he died. It said, 'My dear Inspector Littlejohn. . .' and then it finished. So the sergeant said you was to come as well, if you please. . . ."

  He flipped a thumb at Teddy Looney to indicate he had better be driving along, and mounted his bicycle to escort them.

  "Here, here," called the Archdeacon. "How did he die? Was he murdered . . .? Shot . . .? Stabbed . . .? What?"

  He couldn't wait.

  The constable looked at the ancient whiskers reproachfully.

  "Oh, come, sir. Not that. He had a seizure in his room in the court. They found him dead when they went to call him after the lunch adjournment. . . . They thought at first he was asleep. . . ."

  And to speed up progress, the bobby put on a spurt, pedalled ahead, and waved to Teddy Looney to get a move on.

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