Authors: Freeman Wills Crofts
Born in 1879, Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish engineer and one of the preeminent writers of Golden Age detective fiction. Educated in Belfast, he was apprenticed at eighteen to his uncle, who was chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. Marrying in 1912, he was to hold various positions in railway engineering before becoming Chief Assistant Engineer, and it was during an illness-induced absence from work that he wrote his first novel,
(1920), which became an international success. Considered a classic of the detective genre, it was followed by a steady production of more than thirty novels, most of which featured the meticulous Inspector French of Scotland Yard. An influential and key pioneer of the genre, Crofts became an early member of the legendary Detection Club in London along with Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley and other established mystery writers. He also wrote numerous plays for the BBC, dozens of short stories, a number of true crime works, and a religious book. Known for tight plots and scrupulous attention to detail, his work set new standards in detective fiction plotting. In 1939, the author was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In retirement from engineering he continued to write and pursued music, carpentry, gardening and travel. He died in 1957.
FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS
THE LANGTAIL PRESS
This edition published 2011 by
The Langtail Press
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy © 1927 The Society of Authors
TO MY WIFE
WHO SUGGESTED THE IDEA FROM WHICH
THIS STORY GREW
Ruth Averill moved slowly across the drawing-room at Starvel, and stood dejectedly at the window, looking out at the Scotch firs swaying in the wind and the sheets of rain driving across the untidy lawn before the house.
The view was even more depressing than usual on this gloomy autumn afternoon. Beyond the grass-grown drive and the broken-down paling of posts and wire which bounded the grounds, lay the open moor, wild and lonely and forbidding. A tumble of dun-coloured sedgy grass with darker smudges where rock out-cropped, it stretched up, bleak and dreary, to the lip of the hollow in which the dilapidated old house had been built.
To the girl standing in the window with a brooding look of melancholy on her pretty features the outlook seemed symbolical of her life, for Ruth Averill was not one of those whose lives could be said to have fallen in pleasant places.
But, in spite of her unhappy expression, she was good to look at as she stood watching the storm. Though rather under medium height, she had a charming figure and something of a presence. She was dark, as though in her veins might flow some admixture of Spanish or Italian blood. Her features were small and delicate, but her firmly rounded chin gave promise of character. She scarcely looked her twenty years of age.
But though she had the fresh vitality of youth, there was something old-fashioned in her appearance not out of accord with her surroundings. She wore her long dark hair piled up in great masses over her broad forehead. Her dress was of the plainest, and in the fashion of three years earlier. Though scrupulously neat, it was worn threadbare. Her shoes were cracked and her stockings showed careful darns.
For Ruth Averill was an orphan, dependent on the bounty of her uncle, Simon Averill, for every penny. And Simon Averill was a miser.
Ruth was born in Southern France, and she had dim recollections of a land of sun and warmth, of jolly people and bright colours. But since she had come to this gloomy old house in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors the joy had gone out of her life. Her companions during childhood had been the two not very prepossessing servants and the still less attractive gardener and outdoor man. With her Uncle Simon she had nothing in common. Even at the time of her arrival he was elderly and morose, and every day he seemed to grow more self-centered and less approachable.
After some years a break had come in her life; she had been sent to a boarding school. But she had not been happy there, so that when she was “finished” she was almost glad to return to the dullness and loneliness of Starvel.
There she had found changes. Her Uncle Simon was now an invalid, querulous and solitary, and living only for the accumulation of money. His passion took the form of collecting actual coins and notes and hoarding them in his safe. He made no attempt to cultivate the friendship of his niece, and had it not been that he required her to read to him once a day, she would have seen him but seldom.
At this time also the two old women servants and the gardener had gone, and their places had been taken by a comparatively young married couple called Roper. Ruth did, not take to either of the new-comers, though more efficient than their predecessors, with the result that the fourteen months which had passed since her return from school were lonelier than ever.
Had it not been that Ruth had developed an interest in flowers and gardening, she would have found herself hard put to it to fill her life. Gardening and her friendship with a semi-invalid entomologist, who lived close by, together with occasional excursions to the neighbouring market town of Thirsby, were the only distractions she could count on.
But recently another factor had come into her life. She had met on a number of occasions a young man named Pierce Whymper, the junior assistant of an ecclesiastical architect in Leeds. Whymper was acting as clerk of works during some renovations to the parish church at Thirsby, and when Ruth had gone with one or two of the local ladies to inspect the work he had been particularly attentive. He had begged her to come again to see how the job progressed, and she had done so on more than one occasion. Then one day she had met him walking near Starvel, and she had invited him to come in and have tea. This visit had been followed by others and they had made excursions together on the moor. Though no word of love had been spoken during any of these interviews, she knew that he was attracted to her, and though she would hardly admit it to herself, she knew also that she would marry him if he should ask her.
Such was the general condition of affairs in the old house of Starvel on this gloomy September afternoon, an afternoon which was to be remembered by Ruth as the end of her old life and the prelude to a new existence in a different world.
As she was standing, staring mournfully out of the window, the attendant, Roper, entered the room. She did not know then, though she realised it afterwards, that the message he was bringing her was to be the herald of a series of terrible and tragic happenings, so dark and sinister and awful that had she foreseen them she might well have cried out in horror and dismay. But she did not foresee them, and she turned with her instinctive courtesy to hear what the man had to say.
The message, though almost unprecedented, was in itself the reverse of alarming. Roper explained that Mr. Averill had instructed him to hand this note, which he had received in a letter to himself, to Miss Ruth, and to say that he hoped Miss Ruth would accept the invitation it contained. Further, that as there would be expense in connection with the visit, he wished Miss Ruth to have the ten pounds enclosed in this other envelope. She could go in to Thirsby in the morning, get any little thing she might want, and go on to York in the afternoon.
With rapidly beating heart Ruth unfolded the dog-eared corner of the note, which was addressed simply “Ruth,” and read as follows:
“ ‘Oakdene,’ Ashton Drive,
, —I hope you will allow me to address you in this way, as your father and I were old friends. I nursed you when you were a baby, and though we have not met for many years, I do not feel that you are a stranger.
“This is to ask if you will come and stay here for a few days and meet my daughters Gwen and Hilda. I do hope you can.
“Our autumn flower show opens on Wednesday, and the roses are always worth seeing. I am sure you would enjoy it, so try to reach here on Tuesday afternoon and you will be in time to go there with us.
“Yours very sincerely,
Ruth could scarcely believe her eyes as she read this friendly letter. Mrs. Palmer-Gore she dimly remembered as a large, kindly, fussily-mannered woman, whom she had liked in spite of her trick of giving unpleasantly moist kisses. But she had never visited her, or even been to York, and the prospect thrilled her.
But unexpected as the invitation was, it was as nothing compared to her uncle’s attitude towards it. That he should have given her permission to go was surprising enough, but that he should have sent her ten pounds for her expenses was an absolute miracle.
a sum! Why, she had never had the tenth part of it in her possession before! And
she could buy with it! Visions of frocks, shoes, hats and gloves began to float before her imagination. Feeling as he did towards money, it
good of her Uncle Simon. She turned impulsively to Roper.
“Oh, how kind of uncle,” she exclaimed. “I must go up and thank him.”
Roper shook his head.
“Well, miss, I shouldn’t if I were you,” he advised in his pleasant Scotch voice. He came from somewhere in Fife. “The master’s not so well, as you know, and he particularly said he didn’t want to be disturbed. I’d wait and see him in the morning before you go. You will go, I suppose?”
“Of course I shall go, Roper.” She hesitated, undecided. “Well, perhaps if he said that, I’d better see him in the morning, as you suggest.”
“Very good, miss. Then I’d best arrange for a car to take you in to Thirsby in the morning? About ten, maybe?”
“Thank you. Yes, about ten will do. And you might send a telegram to York which I will write for you.”
The man bowed and withdrew, and Ruth gave herself up to glorious dreams of the next few days; not so much of visiting the Palmer-Gores and York, but of getting away from Starvel. Yes, she admitted it to herself at last. It was to get away from Starvel that she really welcomed the invitation. While there had been no chance of quitting it, she had not realised how terribly bitter was her hatred of the place. And not the place only, but of every one in it. She hated her uncle—in spite of the ten pounds. She hated Roper with his sleek civility, and most of all she hated Mrs. Roper, who always treated her with a veiled insolence, as if silently taunting her because of her dependent position. Oh, how splendid it would be to get away from the place and everything connected with it, even for a few days! And she determined she would use the opportunity of this visit to find out what her chances would be of getting some job by means of which she could support herself, so that she might never be forced to return to Starvel or see any of its inhabitants again.
That night she could scarcely sleep from excitement, and next morning she was ready with her shabby little suitcase long before the time at which the car was to arrive.
She was somewhat uneasy about her uncle’s condition. For several days he had been ailing, and when she had gone in to say good-bye to him before leaving she had thought him looking very ill. He was asleep, but breathing heavily, and there was something in his appearance which vaguely disquieted her.
“I don’t think he’s at all well,” she said to Roper when she came down. “I believe he should have the doctor.”
“I was of the same opinion, miss, and I took the liberty of calling at Dr. Philpot’s when I went in to order your car. But the doctor’s ill. He’s got influenza and is confined to bed. I thought of going on to Dr. Emerson, and then I thought if it’s only influenza that’s wrong with Dr. Philpot we might just as well wait. He’ll likely be about again in a day or two.”