A Fictitious Fungus
The Murder of Dai EglwyswrwAt the request of Mr Cotton Mather Winston, I, J Seymour Grouth, the archivist of the Isle of Farnish*, relate this tale concerning the mysterious events which occurred in the Autumn of 1908 and in which Mr William Blackstone Wildman played such a remarkable role. It is well known that he was a detective of great perspicacity and intelligence; his persona as public benefactor, saviour of mankind, and hero is less perceived by those who remember his name -- alas, too few in these days of fast food and ephemeral fame. The reason Mr Winston has asked me to pen this narrative is twofold: (1) William Blackstone Wildman is dead, and (2) only I possess records of this case, which was referred to but briefly during conversations between the two men. Let me start by presenting you with the Farnish legend of the Sea-Damp Wanderer.
Who Is That Lady? A mysterious young woman of remarkable youth and beauty has been sighted once again. As we have previously reported, there have been several encounters with this phantasmagorical figure, who has been described as appearing wet and dishevelled, covered with fronds of kelp and otherwise quite nude. On spying a witness, she cries out "Help, I'm being drownded!" She has been seen in places as far apart as Glibwood and Southend, as well as in Farnisham itself. No resolution of this mystery has eventuated, as the lady vanishes when reached after. --The Farnisham Mirror, 20 December 1884
These apparitions and related events occurred sporadically over a period of years, then dwindled into legend -- a story to frighten the youngsters into staying at home after dark lest they encounter the "wet lady." But some twenty-five years after the fining of Samuel Stableton for public lewdness, Mr William Blackstone Wildman, the London detective, met the Wanderer.
He was at that time, at the start of my long career in law, staying with me at my house in Sibyl Square, on a visit concerning a case of defalcation that is of no relevance to this story. (I must point out, however, that Mr Wildman apprehended that culprit, to the recovery for island businessmen of some 40,000 pounds.) The encounter was brought to my attention by Mr Wildman over breakfast one bright but chilly morning. Kippers, coffee, and cold porridge -- his usual after a night's drinking.
"By the by, I met your famous Kelpie two nights ago, See. Up on Castle Hill after I left the Farnfork Arms. Thought a bit of bracing night air would do me well."
"Ah," I replied, "and did she live up to her reputation as a fair maid of the sea? 'Drownded' or nay?"
"Actually, a rather pathetic creature. But one thing I noticed -- very odd for a so-called ghost -- was that in her state of undress she was shivering. Then, when I offered her my coat, she just disappeared!"
"Rum business. But it fits the legend. I shan't take what you say very seriously, Will, as I suspect you had had somewhat too much of our island home brew."
"That may be the case, See. Now tell me a little about this instance of smuggling I've been reading about."
There was not much I could add to the scant facts reported by The Mirror. Smuggling has always been rife in Farnish, especially in Gelling and on the east coast. Arms running to the Fenians of Ireland was the latest fashion amongst the Red Herrings, as we called them (because no clue ever led to their identity). A coast guard at Glash Hill watch tower had been badly injured in a cove near Pig's Head during the latest outrage. This remote post had only recently been re-manned as a result of the gun trade.
"Is there any possibility, I wonder, that your fugitive embezzler has had dealings with the smugglers?" Wildman asked. "Perhaps to abet his escape?" As it turns out, there hadn't been. But this marked Wildman's initiation into the case of the Fictitious Fungus. That very afternoon, he set out for Glash Hill.
Rising behind the Court of Assizes in Farnisham is Farn Hill, upon which sits the prominent castle. Passing along the north side of the citadel, one finds a path overlooking the Vale of Glewburn with The Miller's Legs public house at its foot and Glew Farm at its head. Staying along the ridgeway, passing Pig's Head promontory on one's right and the vale on the left, one will soon nearly reach Southend, the southeastern point of the island, at which the sea cliffs tower nearly 400 feet; here one turns north to attain the coast guard watch tower atop Glash Hill. Gorse, rough grass, and bare rock cover the hill tops, and the wind is constantly blowing from the west at nearly gale force. The watch tower was originally a 'folly' constructed by Commodore Fransham in 1807 in the style of an ancient Irish hill fort with a Dark Age monastery inside it, complete with a round tower such as one sees at Cashel -- needless to say, no such building ever existed on Farnish in its past.
Having reached this windy place after nearly an hour's hike, Wildman questioned the guards, ever lonely and willing to speak to any stranger. Their colleague was still in hospital after being injured by the Red Herrings, but the garrison knew well all the details about the event. A small lugger had beached itself in the wee hours of the night on the strand under Pig's Head, although 'your lordship' need not bother to go there as all traces of the confrontation were gone. Best to head farther north, up past the Manor and all the way to Glen Lunge, which was the most likely place of origin of the smugglers. That, or even Glen Cleft, the remotest valley in Farnish.
"It is a lonely place, nobody about on the heath," observed Wildman later. "But I should think the watch tower is a futile and ineffective deterrent to smuggling. Good for spotting boats far out to sea, hardly adequate for observing activity in the dips and hollows or under the cliffs. A lip service, I wonder? After all, who benefits from preventing this venerable trade?"
Wildman perforce set himself to trek the distance northwards, although the evening was drawing nigh. He was soon overlooking the Vale of Norwort, with the peak of Mount Norwort towering to 1016 feet on its north side. Hardly a mountain by alpine standards, or even Welsh, but certainly a grim and barren place. He decided to descend to the Farm Manor estate, visible down in the vale, and hope to find hospitality there. And in this, he was very lucky indeed.
"What ho, my good sir," cried Lord Farnisham from his muddy tweeds out of the pig sty. "I know who you are, and welcome to my domain, such as it is. 'Tis no night to be out on the fells, and I should be pleased to have company this evening."
"A blessing on you, milord," said Wildman. "I had not expected to be so long in reaching Lunge hamlet."
"There's no welcome to strangers in Glen Lunge, Mr Wildman, nor even to southerners such as myself. A more devilish place you cannot imagine, albeit my son prefers to dwell in the summer house there, when he is not in Monte Carlo."
"And isn't that so often the way with the young? To live apart from the dull family life. But I do not wish to disparage..."
"Not at all, my dear sir, not at all. I have nothing but approval for Geoffrey's manner of living and would join him myself at the tables if 'twere not for my obligations to husbandry. Do you know pigs, Mr Wildman?"
"Of the human variety, yes. Of animal kind, not much. But those are indeed fine beasts you have."
"Tamworth pigs. The most voracious of all swine not in the wild. Yet affectionate and loyal to their master and providers of the leanest, tastiest bacon you will find in the British Isles."
And so on and so forth. I will not bore the reader with the behaviour of Tamworth pigs, their love life, eating habits, and endearing ways. Wildman later told me that enjoyable as his stay in the manor was, as well-fed and well-wined as could be, he was glad to resume his investigation the next morning, which was quite a bit warmer and less windy than the day before. Why at this point he was persisting in his search for possible abetters to our embezzler rather than tracing the more likely trail in Farnisham itself, I cannot tell you. In any case, that was the way the great detective was. Lest you feel this digression into pigdom irrelevant, I must say that the beasts played a prominent part at the end of this adventure.
What can one say about Glen Lunge? Remote, seemingly uninhabited, eight households in the hamlet with no smoke from the chimneys, no barking of dogs, no housewives chattering over the fence. There was no sign of any smuggling, any Red Herrings, any men at all; a decayed wooden pier and two decrepit little fishing boats was all there was to be seen, and the 'summer house', somewhat less than the size of Balmoral Castle, home of the Hon. Geoffrey Farnisham, was closed up tight. Wildman turned south in disappointment, taking the long winding trail up the glen to the ridge over Lake Norwort. To backtrack along the flanks of Mt. Norwort would have been daunting. Far worse to try the fells along the northeast coast with its towering cliffs and vast sea caves. No doubt these caves were put to good use, or I should say bad, yet to investigate them would require a coast guard cutter and a gang of men. "I prefer to do my detection in an urban setting," he mused to himself. "This rural adventure is for the birds. And by Jove, that looks like a red-crested gannet! Or is it the famous Farnish thorn-billed egret?" (From the official Farnish guide: "An extremely rare migratory bird, nesting in Spring on the East and West Fasts. The hen lays only one egg per season, regardless of whether it is fertile or not. It has been reported, without verification, that these creatures Winter in the Land of Serendip." Wildman was delighted to tell me that he had apparently seen one of these creatures when he described his outing.)
I shall cut off this Baedeker tour and take the reader directly to the Loch Norwort Hotel. It took Wildman three hard, sweaty, and leg-tightening hours to get there, but he was to spend the next several days in this not-quite-the-Ritz environment (as he so aptly put it). One last touch of Baedeker from the book: "This building was built in 1887 on the site of an older building that seems to have been a castle... Unfortunately, it was not very well designed to function as a hotel, as there is little interconnection between the guest rooms, the public areas, and the servant quarters. What makes up for this is the extremely Gothic Romantic style and the fact that it makes no pretense of being a Hilton or Holiday Inn. You can truly have a unique experience here, one that you will never forget (for better or worse)."
I joined Wildman there after his first day, as he had sent word that he was possibly on to something (but could not say what). I shall now describe a critically important evening in the public bar, in the company of Wildman and myself, the bartender Adam Mitherglew, a Welsh poet named Dai Eglwyswrw -- pronounced ig-liss-eroo --, his good friend Letitia Chamborde, a charming Frenchwoman, Captain Arssen, vacationing from Norway, Abigail Mitherglew, the manageress, 'Lofty' Loftus, Farnish's noted pole-vaulter, a bevy of locals, and of course, Luigi the Cook. We had just had an adventurous but delicious dinner, for Luigi, when he is sober, can compose some very interesting dishes, such as Tree Pig Marinara, Grillslug Marsala, Tosti la Piquante Herring, or often simply lamb shoulder with cabbage (with mint jelly imported from the Punjab) and boiled Irish potatoes with skins on (also imported); they call what passes for Yorkshire Pudding here 'Yawks-Sir' after an event in 1898 involving a Yorkshireman and a serving maid. I had the lamb -- quite tender and good, and the cabbage was nicely crisp and not over-boiled -- while Will indulged himself with, I think, Grillslug, not something I looked at closely.
"Look you, I do not brook arms dealing," said the Welshman. "I should rather handle legs, as Letitia can tell you. 'When in my lover's legs I lie / Then ever nearer I come to die / For my tombstone let them write / Ware was he of his coming plight / My longsome doom is looming nigh / This is the end of poor old Dai'."
Not only was he a charming but foul-mouthed drunkard, he had very little of the bardic touch and to this day has not appeared in any but the most obscure anthologies. Yet he had an abiding interest in the art of smuggling, poaching, and revenue-cheating, regarding its practicioners the way a Sherwood Forest charcoal burner would regard Robin Hood. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of this activity through the ages, from crocodile poachers in Ancient Egypt, through traders in deadly and forbidden animals in the Rome of the Caesars, the piratical careers of Drake and Lafitte, and the Cornish wreckers who died out with their language (to his Celtic regret). It was no wonder Wildman was intrigued by this man, and encouraged his loud pontifications spiced with vulgarisms. Was this his hope of finding Charters? -- Yes, I am finally revealing the name of our quarry who is irrelevant to this story!
Adam said, "Try this Shlug. The best brew ever untouched by revenuers' hands." Shlug is our island beer, made from chaff from The Miller's Legs flour mill; it tastes somewhat like a glass of vodka with a tablespoon of wheat germ stirred into it.
"A round-a for us-sa all," cried Luigi. "And after, some of my a-special grappa."
"I always feel ready to leap over Mount Norwort after a taste of that, my Italian friend." Loftus had given up his vaulting several years before, but was always ready to jump the bar rail. Letitia ("It's horrid") and Abigail did not partake of the shlug, nor did I, but we all enjoyed Luigi's grappa. Wildman made arrangements to have a case of it shipped to London -- and paid very well for it.
"Is it true, I hear, that you coat your wine casks with the fungus that grows in thorn-bills' nests?" Captain Arssen said.
"'At's my secret ingredimente," said Luigi. "My gret grampa, the way to make taste like-a this, toll me, but I tell no one. Fungus? Whassa fungus? I don' know this word."
"Is it mushrooms or toadstools you mean, Sigurd?" Dai was showing great interest in this subject. "Or the mould like that shite grows in Stilton? Give me Caerphilly, none of your English cheese. It was said the secret of Caerphilly was smuggled into Wales by Saint Patrick from some Irish bog, but don't you believe it, bach. And Madoc himself is known to have traded cheese for truffles with the Indians of Mobile Bay. Now, look you, I am game for any old mouldy thing that grows from cow dung or a fallen oak, but when it comes to cheese, I draw the line. Now this grappa pro-cess is on my mind. So we will have a private talk later, boyo, and you can tell me all about your grand da."
And after that, we remained in the saloon bar for several more hours. There is none of that absurd closing-hour imposition in Farnish, as the island is a feudal feof and does not fall under Parliamentary legislation. Three days later, the Sea-Damp Wanderer appeared at our late-night carousal, hysterical and dripping wet. It was Letitia Chamborde, naked as the day she was born.
She was screaming. "They killed my Dai! My Dai is dead!"
Eglwyswrw and his doxy were staying in the Lake House, an impressive country house in the Lutyens style situated on an island in Lake Norwort a few hundred yards from the hotel. It is owned by the Smith-Cohens, good friends of mine, who were away in the West Indies and had lent the place to Dai. We were dumbstruck at this appearance at first, but Abigail in her efficient and no-nonsense way took charge of the distraught Letitia and sent us on our way to the Lake House. Wildman was instantly sober, and led the charge.
Of course our first action was to try resuscitation, to no avail. His flesh was a ghostly white, a colour seen on no living human being, except perhaps for an albino. Not the slightest touch of pink. What was odd was that his clothes and hair were soaking wet, yet there were no wet footprints leading to the body. Captain Arssen immediately voiced the consensus that Dai had been poisoned. It was only later that the medical examiner determined that he had drowned, and that he had in fact not been sick. Letitia it was who had vomited, on discovering the body.
And she also affirmed later that they had been alone in the house with all the entrances locked, that he had eaten no mushrooms or cheese, had drunk no grappa, had in fact had only leek and potato soup for dinner ("Horrid stuff -- I won't touch it"). While death had been estimated to have occurred before 11 o'clock, Miss Chamborde had not in fact appeared in the hotel until past one in the morning. And why was that? She had been napping before the discovery, she said. For her nakedness at the hotel, she offered no explanation. (We had our own lewd thoughts about what she had been doing before sleeping, but kept silent for the sake of the lady's modesty.)
Wildman's interest was immediately piqued by the wet state of the body and the lack of wet footprints. He went through the entire house looking for signs of shed water and found nothing of interest in that way, although he did examine a few things closely and grunted inexpressively (can one grunt otherwise?) on occasion. He unbolted the door to the landing stage and looked outside. There was no boat such as the astute reader might have been expecting.
I knew right away that he suspected foul play. I saw nothing to indicate such a thing and explained the wet clothes by deducing that Dai had at some point fallen into the lake -- a deduction reinforced later by the discovery of high levels of alcohol in his system. My first thoughts on hearing of the cause of death led me to suspect an accident of some kind, with Dai falling into the lake in a drunken state, drowning, and being brought to land in an attempted rescue by Letitia, hence her state of undress. Her statement that the house had been locked up at the insistence of the Smith-Cohens to protect the valuable art works in the gallery and that neither of them had gone outside that evening made no sense, an hysteric delusion. She must have carried his body herself to where it was found, perhaps in vain hope that he could be revived with a hot bath. Poor silly woman! who then realized the truth and fled to the hotel in panicked despair. That, in effect, was the unsaid conclusion in the coroner's court two days later, in spite of Miss Chamborde's testimony that she had awoken from sleep on an armchair by the fireplace in the Parlour, entered the Long Gallery and found the poet lying dead at the other end of the room. Wildman hemmed and hawed at the verdict of accidental death and left the inquiry at Farnisham Castle in a state of disgruntlement.
"This is an impossible crime," he told me later. "A fictitious fungus. But obviously intended to be the purported cause of death. A drowning in a locked-up house (if we are to believe Letitia, which oddly enough I do). No apparent motivation on her part either to kill or to act as accomplice. And why did Dai not come to the bar that night? What was he doing, if not, to be vulgar, indulging in a lustful act?"
"Who, then," I said, "should be under suspicion? The Red Herrings? The Welshman was obviously up to something with them and perhaps discovered a secret that should not be threatened with revelation. My wager would be put on our friend Charters, having arranged to be smuggled off the island."
"Very likely if there is any truth in that line of approach. One could also point to Luigi, protecting his family secret. Or indeed to our Mr Loftus, who could have pole-vaulted out the bay window into the lake! Most obviously to be considered is Letitia Chamborde. The behaviour of women is unpredictable at best, even with the best of women. That her poisoning plan went awry most dreadfully due to the accident of his falling into the lake and drowning is the reasonable conclusion. If not sleeping, what was she doing during those two hours between the death and her startling appearance at the hotel? And yet I just do not credit her guilt or even complicity; my mind boggles at the idea. It is against all reason."
"You are smitten, Will."
"She is remarkably comely, to be sure. But in any case, one mystery has been solved. Letitia it was who appeared to me as the Kelpie of Farn Hill. Why she should be so is another matter which brooks no explanation."
At that point there was nothing more we could do, even after a surprise visit from Inspector Larynge of the Island Police. "Is it the truth what I hear that you met a mystery woman on Castle Hill in the guise of our sea-damp lady?" He did not beat about the bush. This was a remarkable display of our island 'bush telegraph' system, whereby everybody knows everybody's business though not perhaps to reveal to strangers.
Wildman shrugged, and was noncommittal, pleading an excess of shlug on that evening. It was clear to me that our wily inspector was closing in on Miss Chamborde, that not only Mr Wildman had suspicion of mystery or foul play in the matter of the Welshman, given the strange features relating to his demise.
"That was the very night of the occurrence under Pig's Head," went on the Inspector. "Did you see or hear nothing?"
"Not a thing, Inspector. Only the strange woman."
"Mr Iggleshrew was close with our illicit trading folk, I am given to believe. And his lady friend accompanies him everywhere. You knew the gentleman rather well, did you not, Mr Wildman?"
"He did not confide in me, if that is your meaning. But I can see that you are of the impression that Eglwyswrw and Miss Chamborde had been that night at the scene of the smuggling incident. Something must have happened to put her into that state in which you suppose I saw her. That is within the realm of possibility, but is speculation without proof. It is just as likely that what I experienced was a true haunting, or a mere delusion."
"Well, we shall see. I, for one, am hot on the trail and will get to the bottom of this matter. You, in your own London way, are playing your own game. In the end, we are both searching for the light. As a good Socialist, I'll apply the common sense of the working man. My parting word is 'churches la fem' as the French put it." He walked out of my parlour whistling. (As Wildman muttered "Humbug" under his breath.)
Our next surprise encounter of the day was the appearance at my house of the Hon. Geoffrey. "I thought you were in the south of France, sir," I said to the scowling young man. He obviously had something on his mind.
"I returned yesterday," he said. "The goddess of the spinning wheel was unkind to me in an extraordinary way. Such vengefulness on the part of that fickle lady!" Mr Farnisham was the splitting image of his pig-rearing father, but of a disposition very unlike. What he had come to me for was a business matter -- in fact, the arrangement of a loan, one more in an endless list. I told Wildman as much after Geoffrey had departed (not that you should suspect me of being one of our 'bush telegraph' gossips).
"There was no ferry service yesterday," said the ever suspicious Mr Wildman. "How then did young Geoffrey arrive on the island when he says he did?"
I would not rise to this baiting. Dissolute as the Hon. Geoffrey might be, he was, after all, heir to the feofdom of Farnish, and must be above suspicion of involvement in any way with the Red Herrings. "He has his own boat and often makes the run from Fishguard to Farnisham, if not to Glen Lunge. If that is a clue to you, then I must say that it is a red herring, and not of the sort we have been talking about."
"I am not wool-gathering, See. I merely paint in the corners of our bigger picture, whether they be part of the main subject or not. There is all too much obscurity in this case. The fictitious fungus, the strange predilection of the young lady to watery encounters, a poet who is also an historian of crimes to which are attached a high level of tolerance and romantic appeal, a brutal but very real actuality in the smuggling line -- the traffic in weapons for the murder of innocent people. Indeed, a cook with a mysterious recipe for making grappa, on the side of levity, and a vicious but businesslike gang, on the heavy side. And in the middle is the mystery of how a man can drown in a dry house."
David Eglwyswrw's funeral, if that is what it is to be called, was held the next evening and is one of the most bizarre events I have ever witnessed. It was arranged by Miss Chamborde and Captain Arssen, with help from the incomparable Abigail Mitherglew and her son the barman. First, permission was required to perform a cremation as that was an uncommon thing in those days and needed court approval. I was instrumental in expediting this matter with the authorities.
There were very few actual mourners: the above named, Messrs Wildman, Loftus, and one Peter Black from Gelling, Lord Farnisham and his son, and a largish number of curious locals, including men from the coast guard tower. The ceremony was held out on Pig's Head, at ten o'clock, under a bright moonlit sky with clouds scudding across the heavens at a rate of speed that was dizzying when one looked up. From below was the sound of waves crashing on the shingle beach beneath the headland. Miss Chamborde was dressed in a gauzy black gown that swept behind her in the wind like smoke from an outdoor fire. It was she that lit the funeral pyre, which had been set up by the Mitherglews earlier, the body having been placed by us pallbearers, Wildman, Arssen, Loftus, and myself.
As the flames soared up, the Viking captain chanted out an odd eulogy from some strange Icelandic prose edda, Burnt Njal I was told later. I was to read it with fascination many weeks after, along with everything else I could find in the Volsung line in the William Morris translation amongst others. These grim stories of feud and revenge never fail to enthrall. Celtic as Dai had been, his soul was with the ancient Teutons.
A rasping groan issued from many throats as the crackling wood collapsed over the steaming corpse in a shower of sparks. "Better than Guy Fawkes's Day on Hampstead Heath," shouted Lofty Loftus. "Look to the lady. She's on fire!" Wildman quickly beat out the glowing sparks that had alighted upon Letitia's dress. "Step back," he said. "It will soon all be over and we can adjourn to the Farnfork Arms."
I swallowed back a rising choke as the odour of roast meat suddenly invaded my nostrils. We all stepped back and turned our heads away. A dark cloud quickly but briefly blacked out the moon and all that was to be seen were ghostly faces in the gloom.
"Look there, a boat!" cried out one of the coast guard. "Come on lads, down to the beach...." Indeed there was a small lugger bobbing in the waves below Pig's Head, its running lights swinging up and down. The Red Herrings come to show their respect? If so, nothing came of it as the boat soon turned back to the open sea after ringing its bell in mournful fashion. The watchmen returned up the cliff trail to the shrill mewing complaint of disturbed gulls.
"This is nonsense," said the Hon. Geoffrey. "Back to the manor, Father. A dose of your good brandy is in order."
"Quite right," the latter replied. "Come along, everyone. Shlug for our loyal tenants, and brandy for our guests. No public house tonight." As Hereditary Chief of the island -- it was he in fact who had countenanced this immolation -- we were honoured to attend him down the winding path into Norwort Vale, although the frustrated watchmen left us as we passed by the watch tower. Of the mysterious and taciturn Peter Black there was no sign.
In any case, the crowd, such as it was, dispersed quickly after quaffing their portion of shlug; the night was growing late and the weather on the change for the worse. The Mitherglews accompanied Letitia and the Norwegian captain back to the hotel after two or so brandies, leaving just the five of us to wind up the evening. I must say I was glad to accept Lord Farnisham's offer of accommodation for the night, as the long trek home was a daunting prospect.
"I really enjoyed that," said Mr Loftus, who was rather the worse for drink. "A fine Viking funeral the like of which has not been seen in these parts since the days of Ovlov-er-Olave." (He was referring to the Norse prince whose men had occupied Farnish in the tenth century.) "Who should have thought that dreamy twit had within him the spirit of the Hun?"
"Dai was a great spirit," Geoffrey remarked with some sharpness. "Not so many of his sort to be found on this wretched island."
"Ah, you miss the click of the ball, the cry of 'banco', the heady perfume of the ladies. I daresay I often wish I shared your fascination." Lord Farnisham was in pensive mood. "But is this island such a dull place? I have never found it so."
"Is there anything but the occasional smuggling run to excite in this place?" said Mr Loftus. "No, I miss the cheers of the crowd as when I topped the bar at thirteen feet."
"The last time I saw you jump you landed face down in the Glew Burn," Geoffrey sneered.
"Enough of that," said Lord Farnisham. "More brandy, gentlemen?" And yes, indeed, we had more.
"They done for the other one, Mr G."
I set down my coffee cup lest I should spill the contents. "Done for whom, Mrs Arris?" My housekeeper was always first with the latest intelligence. It was the second day after the funeral.
"That Taff's woman. The one up at the lake. Poisoned, she was."
Wildman looked up over his kippers with a startled stare. "Miss Chamborde? Poisoned?"
"They say 'twere the toadstools, but who's to know, sir, with them foreign chiefs. I'd not eat a morsel out of his kitchen."
"Quickly, See. We must be off to the hotel."
We took my bicycles, as it was quite a distance to Lake Norwort. People were going about their daily business as we passed through town. In a high state of anxiety and shortness of breath we reached the hotel.
"But of course she's not dead," Abigail huffed when we had explained our abrupt arrival. "Whoever gave you that notion? Nothing more than an upset tummy. Toadstools my eye! Luigi knows better than that."
Wildman said, "May we see her then? I am very concerned."
"Come with me. I've tucked her in the Green Room."
We hurried through the awkwardly arranged corridors and arrived at the bedroom. Mrs Mitherglew knocked, and entered without waiting for a response. "Why, she's gone," she exclaimed.
"She must have returned to the Lake House," I said. "Let us be off."
And there we found the Kelpie Lady, lying dead in the very same place as her lover had lain just days before. "Confound it," Wildman shouted, "another drowning, by gad. Look! Her wet clothes. The pallour. The water adrip from her mouth. And as before, not a sign of a wet footprint!"
My dudgeon was up. "You must ferret out this scoundrel, Wildman. There must be a clue."
"Only the lack of one. The fictitious fungus again. Help me carry her to the couch." That being done, he searched the house, but it was I who made the startling discovery.
"The Gainsborough has been taken," I cried. "Robbery as well as murder. What an outrage!"
"Never mind, my friend. I found the missing leeks and am beginning to see daylight in this affair."
"Mr G, you'll not believe your ears. The Inspector has gone and arrested his young lordship." Mrs Arris could not restrain her indignation as she put out more Brussels sprouts.
"That does not surprise me in the least," said Wildman. "No doubt our Socialist friend discovered the missing painting in the Glen Lunge summer house. That is indeed where I should have expected to find it. But the Honourable Geoffrey would never have been stupid enough to resort to such a theft."
"Here, here," I said. "Mrs Arris, you tell your friends that we shall put a stop to this nonsense." At last, there was a prospect for some action. Our long day of futile inactivity and endless questioning on the part of the police was drawing to its end. I had no idea what Wildman had on his mind with reference to leeks as bearing on the case, but surely he could exonerate Geoffrey Farnisham. And that in fact was what he was commissioned to do, for Lord Farnisham himself burst into the dining room in a state of rage.
"That blighter should never have been promoted to Inspector. I thought so at the time and am now certain. Wildman, surely you can help me in this matter."
"Not only will I help, I will put an end to all this mystery this very night. Did I tell you, See, about my encounter in Glibwood this afternoon? No, of course not, for I was saving it for after dinner."
"You have revealed nothing to me all day," I said. "Leeks and daylight, and running off into the woods by yourself. What on earth were you up to?"
"I merely needed solitude to think this out. I did not expect a deus ex machina to appear. But he did. What do you know about this Peter Black?"
"A fisherman from Gelling," said Lord Farnisham, "and I suspect a smuggler. We have had him in our sights for many a day, but he has been demmed elusive."
"A friend of Mr Eglwyswrw, you know, and particularly of Miss Chamborde. He did not say so outright, but I suspect that he is more than a simple smuggler, is in fact the head of the operation."
"And where does that relate to my son's predicament?"
"It does not at all. And that is precisely why it is of so much importance. Tell me about this Gainsborough."
"Larynge found it wrapped in canvas in the coal shed. Anybody could have put it there. My son has no knowledge of it whatsoever. Somebody is trying to implicate him in this Chamborde business." Lord Farnisham lit up a cigar without asking permission, he was that distraught.
"That is patently obvious. But here is the plan: Peter Black asked me to meet him tonight at Pig's Head, where we had the immolation. The condition is absolute secrecy. He agreed that only Seymour should accompany me, but I suspect he will tolerate your presence. You must promise me that whatever you discover relating to the smuggling affair be kept in total confidence."
"Much as I detest the blighters, I swear by my honour that I shan't say a word. But Geoffrey must be exonerated."
"Let us go, then. I've had enough of this meal and detest Brussels sprouts in any case. Have some brandy first as we have an hour or so to kill before we set off."
I cannot, as a writer of the legal and dry-as-dust sort, do justice to what happened on that eventful night. Yet as the teller of a detective tale I must. Reader, bear with me. First of all we dressed warmly for the occasion, all in dark clothing, as the warm spell of the past few days had departed. I armed myself with a pistol, but had none to spare for the other two gentlemen. We set off in Lord Farnisham's trap, and decided to approach Pig's Head from the north, making a stop at the manor first for his Lordship to arm himself and Wildman. He muttered something, too, about his blasted pigs. Nothing eventful occurred during this part of the trip, the journey taking place in brooding silence for the most part. Glad I was, though, that we had dressed for the weather, for it was truly abominable in spite of being dry. The wind was howling from the northeast -- one of our patented island gales. By approaching Pig's Head by way of the Vale of Norwort, we were tripling the distance to be covered on foot as compared with to the route past the castle from Farnisham. It was perhaps a mistake to have gone to the manor first.
Peter Black, when he suddenly popped up from behind a tor near the headland, was not pleased to see Lord Farnisham but accepted his promises grudgingly. "I do it for the sake of the lady. Your son can rot for all I care. He didn't ought to have killed the poor girl. There was no need, and it offends me sorely."
"Of whom do you speak?" I said. "Surely not young Geoffrey?"
"Never you mind. You will find out soon enough. And I do like my dramatic moment! This way, sirs, we have a ways to travel and a rough go 'twill be in places."
Back we went, along the top of the Glew vale, past the smooth seaward edge of Glash Hill with its watch tower -- ("They will not be on the watch tonight, I warrant," Black stated. "Best put out the lantern for a time, though.") -- past the head of Norwort Vale, with the wind now blowing directly into our faces. What a hike that was! I could scarcely breathe, and was in a sweat despite the cold. Several times we stopped to avail ourselves of the brandy Lord Farnisham had so foresightedly brought with him. "Is it to Mount Norwort we go?" I managed to shout above the wind's howling.
"Near by," said Peter Black, "but not to the summit. See there, where the trail dips to the east? 'Twill not be that long ere we reach our goal. And indeed the path follows the little rill in its channel and will keep us from the wind." How he could see anything in this darkness, illuminated only by the waning moon, is beyond comprehension, although Black's lantern kept the footway in plain sight.
It was not easy going. I slipped twice, and nearly wrenched my ankle. The others proceeded like mountain goats; I felt shamed. Then of a sudden, Black darted behind a rocky outcrop. He beckoned us to a dark niche, into which flowed the little burn. "Down here. We will be getting a bit wet, but there's no help for that." That was an understatement I must say, for the waters ran into a narrow cavern with no dry spot to either side so that we were forced to wade in the middle of the stream.
"Hush now. Not a sound. See there? The light? I must put out my lantern again."
At that point there came a soft grunting squeal. I whirled round in alarm and before the light was expunged saw a horrifying sight. It was two huge boars, one behind the other in the ankle-deep water. "Hush, my dears," said Lord Farnisham; at the same time, "You idiot, pardon your lordship."
"They are quite well-trained," Farnisham said, huffily. "I have taught them to track, and quite good they are at it. I felt we might need some additional protection and let them loose when we were at the manor. They have been on our trail ever since. And not a peep 'til now! Good boys. Archie and Dennis. One would not normally expect two unaltered males to get along at all, but they were brought up together from the same litter.... Not a word, now, lads."
"Hush then. And keep them trotters behind us. If they utter a sound, they are bacon," hissed Peter Black, pulling out a revolver. "Come over to this ledge and look down. Careful now! And be quiet no matter what you see."
There was scarcely room for all four of us to look over at the same time, but when it was my turn, I gasped in surprise. There was a huge sea cave below us, with an inlet from the ocean. On a small strand within the great archway were grounded two luggers. Several men were toiling under the light of torches, unloading large wooden crates. On one side stood a tall fierce-looking figure holding a notepad and hissing whenever one of the men dropped or fumbled a load.
"Yes," whispered Wildman from behind me. "It is Captain Arssen. He is your gun-runner and supplier of arms for the Fenians."
"You bastard," cried Lord Farnisham. "You murdering, thieving bastard!" He could not be restrained. Over the ledge he scrambled, pushing me roughly aside. His pigs followed him with narrowed red eyes and slavering tusks. The slope was not as precipitous as it first appeared, but was nonetheless a considerable drop. The man and his feral pigs slid down onto the strand. Smugglers fled in alarm to the luggers, dropping their burdens wheresoever they stood.
"Get out of here, boys," shouted Peter Black. "There will be no trouble about this. That is the man we want," pointing at the snarling Norseman. "Leave him and go."
And go they did, fleeing into the teeth of the gale, despite the desperate lunges from the captain to try to capture them. It was only a matter of minutes before the great cave was empty save for the cornered villain, backed against the wall with ferocious beasts, a furious Earl, a vengeful fisherman, and two indignant detectives facing him in a half circle.
"You do not think you can hold me," Arssen said. He pulled out a gun and shot one of the pigs. In a rage, the wounded animal and its companion charged the Norseman, and what happened then is something I cannot bring myself to describe. The appalling screams and the crunching, tearing noises will haunt me to the end of my days. Peter Black put an end to the victim's sufferings with one clean shot to the head.
Explanations and a winding up, the bane of many a mystery story. But it must be done for the record. First of all, we agreed to leave the body of the captain in the cavern, where it would never be found. There would be too much to explain if the police were to enquire about our actions that night and about the savagely mangled corpse. It would be given out, when Wildman went to the Inspector, that Arssen had escaped when confronted with his guilt at the hotel. Mrs Mitherglew would surely cooperate, as would her son and Mr Loftus, who were to back up our story. This we arranged as we plodded once again across the flanks of Mount Norwort, down past the manor, where Lord Farnisham left us to tend to his wounded Archie. The occupants of the hotel -- at which we spent the rest of the night -- were in agreement with our scheme. Even Luigi, who was offended that the Norwegian had accused him of adulterating his grappa with mould. At some point Peter Black slipped away back to Gelling, as ever the secretive and wily smuggler; he had achieved his revenge and swore ever after to stick to his trade in the illicit transportation of rum.
"You know, of course," said Wildman, puffing on an evil smelling cheroot he had obtained from Black, "that Arssen stole the painting and planted it on Geoffrey Farnisham to mislead the police. What you don't know is that he really did poison Dai Eglwyswrw with a deadly mushroom. It was in the leek and potato soup Dai had that night. Why it did not kill him I cannot fathom, unless perhaps it was the capaciousness of his persona as a drinking man -- does alchohol counter the effects of Death Cap or whatever it was? I cannot say. I am no doctor of medicine. Nor, apparently is our medical examiner, by London standards. No Spilsbury, he."
"How did he come to drown, then?" asked Lofty Loftus.
"They met on the boat landing outside the house, while Letitia was sleeping. Arssen rowed over from the hotel as we were getting well into our cups -- nobody was paying much attention to who was where and when. Dai was all in favour of your normal rum-runner, but arms for revolution were beyond the pale. No doubt, Arssen had recruited Dai for some adventure with the spice of some profit in it. What it turned out to be was too much for Dai to stomach, and he threatened to go to the police. Arssen went over to check up on the results of his gambit with the mushroom, and ended up pleading with a drunken but indignant Welshman. In the course of the quarrel, Dai was pushed into the lake and drowned, or perhaps he was knocked unconscious and held under. Probably the latter. Arssen then took the corpse by boat round to the side, climbed up the plinth onto the terrace, and pushed it through that mock arrow-slit by the side of the bay window. By the time the body was found, probably the next morning, as Letitia was presumably sleeping in her bedroom, it would likely be dry. The mushrooms would be detected and put down as an accidental cause of death, for we know Dai was fond of mushrooms in spite of his goings-on about Caerphilly cheese. At least that was the hope.
"Arssen had a dilemma, for one or the other -- poison or drowning -- would be the ascribed cause of death, perhaps both would be detected. Too much of a coincidence to be accidental. But what else could he do? What he in fact did, then rowed back to the hotel and joined us in the bar as though he had just been out for a call of nature. Where he lost his head entirely was in the matter of Letitia. She had her suspicions and no doubt had been confided in to some extent by Dai. It was a danger too perilous to our villain's continued well-being. And when she went over to investigate the boat landing and the terrace at the Lake House, he ruthlessly killed her in much the same way as he had her lover.
"I am tempted, however, to give him the benefit of a doubt and class her death as accidentally occurring during the confrontation. Ruthless as he was, he had no hatred of the poor girl. In any case, it was a fatal mistake, for it aroused the anger of his partner in crime. And the consequences we all know."
"And why did my housekeeper go on about toadstools having done for Miss Chamborde?"
"Never underrate your island 'bush telegraph', See, nor take it as infallible. Somebody was spotted in the woods behind the hotel gathering mushrooms in the dead of night. Who else but the foreign cook would do such a bizarre thing? No islander would eat such an abomination. It is like your Sea-Damp Wanderer. When the truth is not known, embellish."
J Seymour Grouth, Nov. 1970 (from the William Blackstone Wildman Collection by Grobius Shortling)
[We are lucky we do not encounter the Gray Widow in this story; she was an infant at that time, but became famous as a 'superhero' of the Wonder Woman sort, complete with a Fortress of Solitude cave -- in fact the very cave in which Fictitious Fungus ends violently. In any case, there are enough other improbable events in this story to keep one amused. --Grobius]
* Editor's Note on Farnish: The Isle of Farnish is located in the Irish sea, midway between Anglesey and the Isle of Man. It is very small, and hardly ever visited (although there is a web page devoted to it). The principal town, Farnisham (or Nostril), has a population of less than 1000. Many yachtsmen in the know frequently visit, but scarcely any tourists, hotel accommodation being in short supply and public transporation to the island very limited -- ferry from Fishguard only, as there is no airport. Therefore, it is quite unusual to find a detective story set in this remote place, especially one concerning William Blackstone Wildman.
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