“THE FOURTEENTH HOLE” (2/2).
[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Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction.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.]
Outstretched on the turf, with his face turned up to the sky, a man was lying; and as he gazed, his horror turned to amazement, as he recognized Jacob Cardwell, from whom he had been parted hardly an hour. Scrambling down the side of the quarry, he hastened towards him. A moment’s examination was enough to tell him that the man was dead. There was a clean-cut wound over the right temple – Mr. Cardwell was almost bald – and on gently turning the body over, Mr. Digby found a second wound, deep and jagged, at the back of the head. It seemed to him probable that this latter might have been caused by falling against a projecting corner of rock.
Even to Mr. Digby, unversed as he was in the rudiments of medical science, it was clear that death had occurred very recently, so recently indeed that his first thought was to look round for signs of the assailant. Clambering to the top of the quarry, he hastily scanned the links. The only people in sight were two ladies in blue and yellow jerseys nearly a quarter of a mile away, who were approaching the ninth green, where a man was at work with a lawn mower. There was, it is true, one other living being within the circle of the horizon, the airman, who still wheeled and pirouetted gaily in the light of the noonday sun.
For a moment Mr. Digby stood irresolute; then, descending again into the quarry, he examined the body and its surroundings more closely. There seemed to be no sign of a struggle. He hesitated to search the dead man’s pockets to see whether they had been rifled, but he saw that he still wore his heavy gold watch and chain. The bag containing the golf clubs was beside him; the golf ball lay in a rut in the gravel a yard away. All the clubs, however, were not in the bag. About two paces in front of the ball he saw the missing club, an iron, lying on the grass. He took it up and examined it carefully, thinking that he might find on it traces to show that it was the weapon that had dealt the fatal blow; but the head was as brightly polished and clean as his own iron. Mr. Digby looked around on the scene to fix every detail in his memory; then, taking an envelope out of his pocket, he made a rough sketch of the ground and the position of the body. It was just twelve o’clock. He could do no more than to hurry back to the ninth green as quickly as possible, stop the ladies from proceeding further, and get the help of the man who was at work with the mower.
After a few minutes’ hurried consultation, it was agreed that the groundsman should go back to the quarry and stay there until the arrival of the police, while Mr. Digby went on to the club house to telephone for assistance.
The course was closed for the day. In the club-room half a dozen members sat, discussing the tragedy over their whiskey and soda, trying in vain to pick the lock of fact with the key of conjecture.
Mr. Digby, in order to avoid the ceaseless repetition of an already thrice-told tale, had retired to the steward’s private room. On the table by his side was an empty cup of black coffee with an untouched plate of biscuits. He had no appetite for lunch. Mr. Drury, the muscular young curate of St. Paul’s, whose character Jacob Cardwell had discussed only that morning, kept him company. The younger man had been touched by the mute appeal that was written in the drawn face of the other as he sat bowed beneath the burden of the discovery of so sudden, so unexpected a tragedy. For ten minutes they had sat almost without exchanging a word.
“Let’s talk,” said Mr. Digby at last. “I believe the police will want to see me soon. What’s the news to-day from the front? I barely saw the papers this morning. But I forgot; you are not interested in the war.”
The curate forgave the incivility of the remark. He saw that the man’s nerves were all on edge. “On the contrary,” he said, “I am so much interested in the war, that if I were not a priest, I should be a conscientious objector. I don’t believe in the war, though. When has force ever brought about a change of heart? and what is the real use of a settlement, if human nature remains the same? Even if it could be shown that all this horror were the work of one man, instead of being the outcome of an unchristian civilisation to which we are all party, by what right could I destroy his life? And yet there is far more to be said for assassination, through which at least the guilty suffer, than for this wholesale system of man-murder. Why should I take a rifle and shoot down perhaps the very peasant who offered me food and a night’s lodging three years ago in the Bavarian Alps? Why should you, if you were twenty years younger, add wrong to wrong by blowing out the brains of some bespectacled merchant of Hamburg or Bremen whose chief interests in life were his family and his books? Why should I surrender my God-given gift of free-will to become a cog in a huge death-dealing machine, a mere unthinking tool in the great scheme of things?”
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Digby. “I can’t argue on these things, but somehow I feel sure you are wrong – while you are talking, other people are giving their lives for you out there.”
“Not with my consent. I’ve never taken a man’s life. I’ve never asked a man to give his life for me.”
“But all the same they are doing it, whether you like it or not. Yes, after all, you are part of what you call a machine, or if you like it better, a member of a huge body, with a festering sore at the centre; and you, poor little phagocyte (I think that’s the word), stranded somewhere away at the periphery of things, refuse to move with the other millions to bring health to the whole by destroying the germs that breed the poison. Bless my soul, Mr. Drury, if all the cells in our body thought like that, you wouldn’t find many people with a normal temperature.”
“Arguments by analogy,” said Mr. Drury, “are apt to be fallacious.”
“And arguments on an empty stomach embittered,” answered Mr. Digby. “I won’t argue with you. I shall only lose my temper, and the day is only half way through. But a soldier is no more an unreasoning tool than you or I. We are all tools in the hands of our Maker.”
The door opened and the steward came in.
“The police inspector would like a few words with you, if you can spare the time,” he said.
“Well,” said Mr. Digby, rising from his chair, “I must be going. Good afternoon, Mr. Drury; and forgive me if I have been abrupt. We must agree to differ.”
Mr. Digby returned from business an hour before his usual time. The events of the day had left him restless and weary; he found it impossible to concentrate on his work. From his interview with the inspector early in the afternoon he could see that the police were at a loss to explain the morning’s occurrence. Cardwell was too insignificant a man to make enemies. Robbery, in the ordinary meaning of the word, could be ruled out of court. Was it suicide? The man, it is true, had passed through deep waters. One of his sons had been killed; his fortune had vanished; his health had failed. But even to Mr. Digby, ignorant as he was in such matters, it was clear that the wound he had seen could not be self-inflicted.
The problem fascinated Mr. Digby. He could not leave it alone. Again and again he found himself coming back in thought to the quarry and the secret that it contained.
It must have been nearly seven, when, going from the dining-room to the study, his eyes rested on his bag of clubs, which were leaning against the hat-stand. “I’ll give them to Alice to clean,” he said, as he took them up. And then the thought flashed into his mind, “Why was it that the only club not in Cardwell’s bag was an iron?” He had never asked himself the question before; but certainly it was one that was difficult to answer. He had supposed that Cardwell had been killed just as he was about to play his ball out of the quarry. But in that case the club would have been a lofting-iron. He went into the study and sat down with the envelope on which he had drawn his rough sketch of the scene of the tragedy on the table before him.
“I believe I understand,” he said at last. “I’ll ring up the steward and get a list of the names of the members who were playing this morning and the order in which they played. If I can’t get the other piece of information from him, the inspector of police will give it me. We’ve had dealings together before now.”
At half-past nine that evening, Mr. Digby was sitting in Mr. Drury’s room in the slums of Back Coventry Street, waiting for the curate’s return. He was away at the Boys’ Club, the landlady told him, but would be back any minute. It was a small room, sparsely furnished. The table was littered with books and papers; a pair of boxing-gloves lay on a chair in the corner; the walls from floor to ceiling were lined with book shelves. Above the mantelpiece, with its pipes and tobacco jar emblazoned with some college arms, hung a Medici Society reproduction of Leonardo’s “Last Supper.”
“Badly framed,” thought Mr. Digby. “It would have looked far better in plain oak, with no mount showing.”
“Sorry to have kept you, sir,” said the curate, as he opened the door. “Monday night is always a busy one at the club. Do you smoke?”
“No, thanks,” said Mr. Digby. “I came – well, it’s rather an awkward thing to explain, and I hope you won’t mind my asking questions, but what sort of golf balls do you use?”
“I nearly always play with a Skipper.”
“You’ve got the ball you played with this morning? I wish you’d show it me.”
“Certainly,” said the curate. “I believe it’s still in my pocket. Yes, here it is!”
“It isn’t a Skipper,” said Mr. Digby, as he looked at it carefully. “It’s a Silver Queen.”
“That’s funny,” said Drury; “I could have sworn I was playing with a Skipper.”
“What time did you start to play this morning?” asked Mr. Digby.
“Oh, some time about ten.”
“Could you tell me roughly when you would be at the fourteenth hole?”
“I suppose it would be between half past eleven and twelve. But why do you ask?”
“Mr. Drury,” said Digby, “don’t be shocked at what I’m going to say to you. I think it will come easier from a friend than from others. Of course it was quite an accident. Mr. Cardwell, you killed…”
“The curate’s face suddenly blanched. “I killed Cardwell?” he asked. “Killed Cardwell, a man whom I hardly knew by sight!”
“Yes, yes, as I said, it was an accident. It might have happened to anyone. You knew nothing about it, of course. But listen, and I’ll try as best I can to explain things to you. You would not notice Cardwell on the course. When I travelled up with him on the tram this morning, he told me that he was going to chip in at the ninth. Supposing now that he came up through the wood and started at the fourteenth tee. Suppose that he sliced his ball and landed in the quarry. He played his ball out of the quarry, a good, clean shot that he would feel sure had landed on the fairway, and in his excitement, he replaced the lofting-iron and took out the club which he felt sure he would require next. In the meantime you had tee’d your ball. Tell me, do you remember that drive?”
“Yes,” said Drury, slowly, “it was a good drive. I let myself go. I thought at the time that it was rather too far to the right, but when I climbed the wall and crossed the rise, I saw my ball a bare hundred yards from the green.”
“It wasn’t your ball that you saw,” Mr. Digby said, “it was Cardwell’s. Your ball had struck the face of the quarry and bounding back dealt Mr. Cardwell the blow which killed him. I’ve read somewhere that a clean cut wound on the head can be caused by a blunt object. He fell and struck his head against a rough projection of rock. Cardwell always used to play with Silver Queens. The ball that we found beside him was yours, Mr. Drury.”
The young man sat with his head bowed, covered by his hands.
“I’ve killed him!” he said. “I’ve killed him!”
“Yes,” said Mr. Digby, as he laid his hand on his shoulder, “you’ve killed him. You were the unwitting instrument that God thought fit to use.”