“THE FOURTEENTH HOLE” (1/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents.
This final story, “The Fourteenth Hole,” ventures beyond the homely and pleasantly lazy storylines which largely characterise the collection. At first it threatens to become a golfing tale, but its preposterous murder scenario and moral quizzicality soon mark it out as a detective story from the GK Chesterton school of Father Brown. The apparent moral of the story amounts to possibly the most ludicrous case to be ever made for the First World War.
Harvey was both a Quaker and an active serviceman, and the mystery of this story is his motive for writing it. The last few months have seen the widespread commemoration of the WWI centenary and “The Fourteenth Hole” (with its title implying the hellishness of 1914) provides another opportunity to pause and contemplate the morality of this conflict.]
It was entirely for the sake of his health that Athelstan Digby took up golf.
The suggestion first came through Sir Samuel Travers, whom he had met coming out of the Infirmary after one of the weekly board meetings.
“Anyone can see that you are working far too hard,” he had said. “In a few weeks’ time you will be coming to me with your two guineas, which I shall pocket and then give you exactly the same advice which I am about to offer to you now gratis, and that is, to join the Lingmoor Golf Club and set aside one morning a week for exercise and a complete change of scene. There’s nothing like it. I didn’t take up the game until five years ago, and I shall never be any good at it. That doesn’t matter. If I can’t beat any one else – and incidentally I’m far better than Cavendish – I can always try to better my own record. I warn you that if you come to me, Digby, I shan’t take your two guineas. I shall forward them to Paynton-Brown, the honorary treasurer. If you wait a minute, I’ll give you his address.”
So Mr. Digby joined the Lingmoor Golf Club. He expected to be disappointed; he told himself that at sixty a man has no business to waste his time in learning to play a game; he hated the intense enthusiasm of golf talk; it annoyed him to find men who seemed otherwise to take life lightly enough suddenly become serious over details of handicaps and medal play. Yet, in spite of all his prejudices, Mr. Digby succumbed to the fascination of the game. After half a dozen lessons from the professional he started into this new world alone. He preferred to play by himself, carefully counting his strokes. During the first month two days stood out in isolated splendour, the one when he did the thirteenth hole in three, the other when he beat the vicar of St. Michael and All Angels, who had been a member of the club for nearly nine months, by two up and one to play.
Mr. Digby usually made a point of setting aside Monday mornings for golf. There were few people then on the links, though it was a day that was popular with parsons, who regarded Monday, he found, much as their parishioners regarded Sunday, as a day divinely sanctioned for rest after the labours of the week.
On a morning in May, Mr. Digby set out from his house in Ellesmere Terrace for the links, carrying his clubs, which Alice, the housemaid, had polished until they shone like silver, and feeling almost certain that he would beat his previous record for the course of 132. The tram took him to within twenty minutes’ walk of his destination, and in the tram he met Mr. Cardwell, bent on the same errand as himself.
Jacob Cardwell, of the firm of Cardwell, Cardwell, and Hope, was a stockbroker, with whom Athelstan Digby had dealt until their relations had become strained over what Mr. Cardwell termed a regrettable little misunderstanding and Mr. Digby an inexcusable misreading of instructions. But time had softened the quarrel. He knew that Cardwell had been badly hit by the war; that he had sold his estate at Letchington, and was now living in a semi-detached villa. He had resigned his membership of the Bradborough Club; and as at one time the man had been one of the most constant frequenters of the smoking room, Mr. Digby could only account for it by the supposition that he could no longer afford to pay the subscription. He felt very sorry for Jacob Cardwell, and showed his sympathy by remarking, a trifle gruffly, it must be owed, that it was a beautiful day.
The breach in the dam of Mr. Cardwell’s reserve had been made and the flood burst forth. Yes, the weather was fine; it would be appreciated in France; good fighting weather. It was high time things out there got moving; and so they would, if only we had got the right generals. Brains, he declared, were what we wanted; though, of course, there was a shortage, too, of men.
“Conscript us all, Mr. Digby, that’s what I say. Let them put you and me into khaki, if they want us to work at their ledgers. I’m ready. Don’t let’s have any more of these tribunal scandals. Don’t let’s see any more strong young curates playing golf on Monday mornings. Send ’em all to the trenches. Some of us old fogeys will do their work for them. I flatter myself that I could preach a better sermon than most of them any day in the week, given half an hour’s notice. There’s that Socialist fellow, Drury, from St. Paul’s, a great, big, hulking brute of a pacifist, whom I meet up here sometimes on a Monday morning. Why isn’t he in khaki, polishing a rifle instead of a cleek? Why isn’t he in Belgium, making the Germans replace the divots?”
“I can’t tell you,” said Mr. Digby. “I haven’t asked the man, though I’ve often wanted to. But we get out here. You go straight up to the club house, I suppose?”
“No,” said Mr. Cardwell, “I think I shall slip in at the ninth and do half a round before lunch. I’m expecting a friend this afternoon, and I’m not quite as young as I was. I can’t enjoy two whole rounds in the same day.”
“Well,” said Mr. Digby, “I may see you later. I’m not going directly up to the club house. An old foreman of mine lives in that little cottage across the field. He’s something of a poultry expert. I’ve got my eggs from him these last five years, and I’ve a little bill to settle with him. We may meet at lunch.”
“At any rate,” he said to himself, as he climbed the stile and walked across the field to the cottage, “I have escaped his asking me to play with him. I may be unsociable, but to-day, at any rate, I much prefer to go round the links alone and at my own pace.”
It was after eleven when Mr. Digby drove off from the first tee, a clean straight drive that seemed to carry away with it the cares of the last fortnight. The day had started well. He almost wished that he had brought a caddy with him – usually he found that they tended to put him off his play. It was with difficulty that he restrained himself from trotting after the ball. There were few people on the links in spite of the unclouded sun that stole from the close-cropped turf all the odours of spring. How good was the smell of the fresh-cut grass on the green! How peaceful the regularly-interrupted drone of the lawn-mower!
“Golf,” thought Mr. Digby, “is after all very like trout-fishing. Each serves as an excuse for pottering about in fields or by the side of streams. We’re too shy to call on Nature without some sort of absurd excuse.” But this was at the fifth hole, which he completed – after losing his ball – in fourteen strokes. From a purely golfing point of view he was beginning to be afraid that the early promise of the morning was not to be fulfilled. Under the circumstances it was just as well that he had not brought a caddy. In any case he had the course almost to himself, and when he foozled a shot, there were only the sheep to see – or feel it. Up above in the blue one of the aeroplanes from the big new aerodrome at Whitchurch wheeled and pirouetted. If that morning Mr. Digby had been asked to fly, he would not have hesitated a moment to accept an invitation into the unknown.
The fourteenth hole on the Lingmoor Links was generally admitted to be the most difficult of the course. A good drive cleared a low stone wall and sent the ball skimming into the fairway over the saddled crest of a little hill that, hidden from the tee itself, sloped on the left to the gravelly bed of a stream, and on the right ended precipitately in an old sandstone quarry. Only once in his golfing life had Mr. Digby succeeded in keeping to the via media; the fourteenth hole was for him an expensive one. Nervously he tee’d up his ball. The worst, at any rate, had not happened. It cleared the top of the wall by a few inches; but, instead of turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, it veered so far to the right as to avoid the quarry altogether. The designers of the course had never considered the requirements of a player of Mr. Digby’s calibre. But Mr. Digby never played that ball, for, as he walked towards it, he saw below him in the quarry a sight which filled him with horror…