Roger Butters

Murder in a Cathedral City

Extract:

         If only she had chosen to look out of her bedroom window when she had heard that surreptitious movement on Friday night, how much might then have been explained.
         She was engaged in the futile exercise of ruing her omission when she was disturbed by a muted noise from one of the rooms along the passage. Used to the creaking floorboards of an old house at night, she at first attached no importance to it. Then it was repeated. Pricking up her ears, she fancied she could identify the sound of someone getting out of bed. A necessary occasion, no doubt; it would be indelicate to listen further.
         The next sound was that of someone creeping barefoot along the passage beside her bedroom, which was strange, for the water closet lay in the opposite direction. And the stairs were creaking, very softly; surely no-one getting up in the middle of the night to prepare himself a hot drink would take such exaggerated precautions to avoid waking the others.
         It was all so similar to what she had heard the other night. When, almost certainly, the person she had heard had been him. The murderer. Was it possible that he was on the prowl again?
         This time she would look. Steeling herself against the cold, Miss Bell scrambled out of bed, rubbed a circle in the mist on the window and gazed out. The night had been clear, but haze was beginning to form, and the moon was blurred. The front drive lay silent and deserted in the yellow-grey light. Whoever it was had not emerged from the house, yet. Of course. The person creeping past her room had been barefoot. He was doubtless still engaged in putting on his shoes.
         Would she be able to identify him with certainty? If a man’s life depended on it? She could hear the sergeant-at-law for the defence: ‘I put it to you, Miss Bell, that at one o’clock on a January morning, at such a distance …’ ‘Did you visit my client’s room to ascertain whether he was present or not?’ ‘Or rouse the house?’ ‘Whyever not?’ ‘I put it to you, Miss Bell, that you are a young lady of somewhat over-active imagination …’ ‘I understand, Miss Bell, that many young ladies of your station in life are in the habit of reading, ahem, romantic fiction …’ At this everyone in court would laugh, and Miss Bell would feel about six inches tall. Or: ‘Perhaps you could explain to the court, Miss Bell, why you were lying awake listening for strange noises at one in the morning. Is that your usual practice?’ And herself, standing in the witness-box confused and distressed by all the questions until she came to doubt her own veracity. The crabbed old judge: ‘I would remind you, Miss Bell, that you are under oath.’ Worse still: ‘I think, Mr Smith, that a transcript of the discrepancies in this witness’s evidence should be passed to the Attorney-General with a view to enquiring into the possibility of perjury having been committed. An offence which, I would remind the witness, carries a maximum sentence of …’ Miss Bell closed her eyes and shuddered at the prospect.
         That was not her only reason for shuddering. Indeed it was the cold that brought her back to her senses. She was frozen at the window, and longed to be back within the warm sheets. Well, hardly warm, her whole room was far from that, and the bedclothes she had been allowed were inadequate, but warmer than shivering by the window in her shift. The goose-pimples stood out on her thin arms with a prominence that was almost indecent. Downstairs she could hear the bolts on the side door being drawn, and the soft scraping as it opened.
         She caught sight of her clothing beside her bed. Her throat went dry at the thought of what she intended. But surely it would be better than lying awake for the rest of the night awaiting the miscreant’s return, and not knowing. Suppose whoever it was committed another murder out there? ‘Do you mean to say, Miss Bell, that in full knowledge of the fact that another murder was likely to be committed, you simply went back to bed?’ (Laughter in court.) Judge, angrily: ‘This is no laughing matter. Has due consideration been given, Mr Smith, to the possibility of prosecuting this witness as an accessory before the fact?’
         She shook her head defiantly. A hasty scramble into some clothing, the donning of her cloak, and shivering not entirely with cold, Miss Bell crept out of her room. Downstairs she slipped out of a side door on to the frosty gravel in time to see an indistinct figure making its way across the lawn into the gathering mist. The cold was intense. Miss Bell pulled the cloak around her shoulders and hurried after her quarry.

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