The Secret of High Eldersham:  A British Library Crime Classic

The Secret of High Eldersham: A British Library Crime Classic

‘They’re terrible mistrustful of strangers in these parts.’ Samuel Whitehead, landlord of the Rose and Crown, is a stranger in the lonely East Anglian village of High Eldersham. When the ...

About The Author

Miles Burton

MILES BURTON was a pseudonym of Cecil Street (1884 –1964), a British soldier who became a prolific novelist in the ...

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Chapter I

Nobody knew better than Mr. George Thorold, the senior partner of Thorold and Son, the well-known Gippingford brewers, that in these days of highly-taxed beer it would not be an easy matter to find a tenant for the Rose and Crown. Consequently, when Hugh Dunsford called to see him and announced his intention of giving up the house, Mr. Thorold listened to him with a slight frown upon his handsome features.

“It’s like this, you see, sir,” explained Dunsford, an elderly man, short of stature, and with that curious furtive, half-mistrustful air not uncommon among the natives of East Anglia. “There’s not a decent living to be made at the Rose and Crown, and that’s a fact. I’m not saying that the place wasn’t a little gold-mine before the war, but those times are gone. A chap can’t afford his couple of pints of an evening with beer at the price it is, leastways the chaps about High Eldersham can’t. I might hold on if I was a single man, sir, but you see there’s the missus and the family to think of.”

“Yes, I know how difficult things are for the tenants of the smaller houses,” replied Mr. Thorold. “You know that we would do everything we could to keep you. What do you think of doing when you give up the Rose and Crown?”

Dunsford coughed awkwardly. “Well, sir, I did hear that old Hawkins, of the Tower of London in this town, was going to retire. And I was going to make so bold as to ask you, seeing that it’s one of your houses, if you’d consider me in his place. There’s a fine trade to be done there, and I could manage it proper, with my boy Dick and the missus to help me.”

Mr. Thorold picked up a pencil that was lying on his desk, and began to trace a series of complicated geometrical figures on a piece of paper that lay before him. It was true that Hawkins intended to retire in the following September, and it was certain that Dunsford, whose father before him had been a tenant of the brewery, would make an excellent landlord for the Tower of London. But the problem of the Rose and Crown presented itself with all its manifold difficulties. It stood in an isolated spot, and customers were few and far between. There was nothing about the house to tempt a man who wanted to earn money by the trade. And besides, it would take a stranger—a foreigner, as High Eldersham dubbed any one not born in the immediate neighbourhood—months, perhaps years, to establish that confidence so essential between a landlord and his local customers.

“Well, Dunsford,” said Mr. Thorold after a long pause, “you and your parents have been friends of the brewery far too long for me to stand in your way, even if I wanted to. Of course you can have the Tower of London if you want the house, and I shall be very glad to know that it is in such good hands, and to have you here in Gippingford. But I’m sure I don’t know who I shall get to take your place at the Rose and Crown. You don’t happen to know of anybody out your way who would like it, do you?”

Dunsford shook his head, “No, sir, that I don’t,” he replied. “’Tisn’t as if the place had a bit o’ land with it, so as a chap could pick up a bit with a few cows or something o’ that. There isn’t nobody round High Eldersham way as could do any good with the Rose and Crown, trade being what it is. Why, as I tell you, sir, I can’t myself.”

“Then I’m sure nobody else could,” remarked Mr. Thorold, with a smile. “Well, I shall have to see what can be done, that’s all. Since you are here, we may as well go into the matter of your tenancy of the Tower of London.”

When Dunsford had gone, Mr. Thorold sat for some time elaborating the design he had commenced, and think- ing of the Rose and Crown. That it had long ceased to be profitable he knew well enough, and his only surprise was that Dunsford had not come to the same conclusion earlier than this. The house was unfortunately placed. It was about twenty miles from Gippingford, the county town, and stood upon the old coach road running northwards. At one time it had been a favourite spot for changing horses, but with the advent of the car its popularity had departed, since it was neither imposing or romantic enough to attract the attention of the passing motorist. Further, within recent years a new main road had been built, absorbing the through traffic and reducing the old coach road to little more than a country lane. The result was that few strangers entered the portal of the Rose and Crown.

It had to depend, therefore, for its trade upon the inhabitants of High Eldersham, a straggling village upon the banks of the River Elder. But here again the Rose and Crown was unfortunate. The population of High Eldersham was in any case very small, not more than two or three hundred in all. And the more substantial people, farmers and so forth, were almost without exception “chapel folk,” who would have lost caste among their neighbours had they been seen entering so disreputable a place as a public house. The purchase, on market days in Gippingford, of whisky by the case, for consumption behind drawn blinds, they regarded, however, as a perfectly natural and respectable proceeding. Besides these, the population of High Eldersham consisted mainly of labourers, and they, as Dunsford had said, could not afford more than an occasional visit to the Rose and Crown. Finally,  still further to add to the disadvantages  of the house, it was situated some little distance from the village itself, which lay a mile or more away, at the end of a side turning branching off from the coach road opposite the Rose and Crown.

But, as Mr. Thorold was well aware, it was not the material drawbacks that presented the most serious problem. There is always a comparatively large number of people whose highest ambition is to become the tenant of an inn, and from among these there would be no difficulty in choosing a landlord for the Rose and Crown. But Mr. Thorold had a long experience of strangers as tenants in East Anglia. However hardworking and conscientious they might be, however keen to promote trade, the receipts of their houses had a way of falling off until they were perforce compelled to relinquish their tenancy. And this curious distrust of strangers, common throughout East Anglia, was particularly active in remote villages like High Eldersham. Yet Dunsford had said that no local man would take the Rose and Crown, and he knew every soul in the village and for miles around. There was nothing for it but to advertise.

Mr. Thorold devoted considerable pains to drawing up the advertisement. As an afterthought, he added the words, “the house would suit a pensioner,” and smiled grimly as he did so. It was no use accepting a tenant who had not some source of income independent of the takings of the house. The man would either give notice after his first quarter or go bankrupt. The advertisement was inserted in the Gippingford Herald, and for the next few days Mr. Thorold was inundated with replies, most of which, from the obvious unsuitability of the applicant, he consigned to the waste-paper basket.

Among the replies which he laid aside for consideration was one that especially appealed to him. The applicant described himself with refreshing brevity. Whitehead, Samuel Edward, aged 55, late sergeant Metropolitan Police, retired on pension, widower, no children. Would like to take the house if it had half an acre or so of garden.

Now, as it happened, the Rose and Crown had a very good garden, which Dunsford, an enthusiastic gardener himself, had always kept in very good order. Further, a police pensioner would make a very desirable tenant, there would be little fear of any irregularities taking place which might endanger the licence. After considering the matter carefully, Mr. Thorold wrote to the address in Hammersmith given by Whitehead, and asked him to come to Gippingford for an interview.

Whitehead came, exactly at the appointed hour, and Mr. Thorold was very favourably impressed. Whitehead, in spite of his height and girth, which were well beyond the ordinary, even for a policeman, looked active and alert. He was respectful and eminently self-possessed, and his cheer- ful face positively radiated good nature. Just the man for the place, thought Mr. Thorold. If anybody could get on with those queer High Eldersham folk, he could. It seemed almost a pity to exile such an excellent man to a place like the Rose and Crown.

“I ought to warn you, Mr. Whitehead, that the Rose and Crown does not do a very extensive trade,” said Mr. Thorold. “You may find at first that the profits do not quite come up to your expectations.”

“That won’t worry me, sir,” replied Whitehead. “My pen- sion is more than enough to keep me, and I’m anxious to get out of London and amuse myself growing a few flowers. I thought of taking a cottage somewhere till I saw your advertisement. Then I thought that a pub would be more cheerful, seeing that there would be somebody to talk to.”

The interview ended by Whitehead signing the lease of the Rose and Crown.

This had happened five years ago. Whitehead had entered into possession of the Rose and Crown in September, when Dunsford and his family had moved to the Tower of London, in Gippingford. And there he had remained, apparently perfectly contented with his lot. Rather to Mr. Thorold’s astonishment, the beer consumption at the Rose and Crown, after showing a decline for the first few weeks of the new tenant’s occupancy, had gradually risen to the average figure it had shown in Dunsford’s time. And Mr. Thorold’s traveller, whose business it was to visit all the houses belonging to the brewery, reported that “that new chap Whitehead seemed to be getting on very well.”

Almost exactly four and a half years after Whitehead’s first day as landlord of the Rose and Crown, on the evening of March 31st, Constable Viney, the High Eldersham village policeman, was cycling back home at the conclusion of his round. His way led him past the Rose and Crown and he had intended to go in and have a word with Whitehead, with whom he was on very good terms. However, his duties had taken him longer than he expected, and it was after eleven o’clock when he reached the door of the inn. Whitehead, as he knew, was in the habit of going to bed soon after closing time, ten o’clock, and the constable decided that it was too late to knock on the door.

He was about to pass on when he caught sight of a flicker of light in the window of the bar. Perhaps Mr. Whitehead had not gone to bed after all. Viney approached the window and looked in. The curtains were drawn, but did not meet by half an inch or so. Through this narrow aperture Viney could see that the lamp was out but that the fire was still burning. This was the light which he had seen.

Viney was on the point of turning away when a flame leapt up from the dying fire, illuminating the room with its flickering light. A massive wooden arm-chair was drawn up in front of the fire, and in this was the motionless figure of Mr. Whitehead, in an attitude of complete relaxation, his head fallen forward upon his breast. Viney smiled. He had known Mr. Whitehead doze off in his chair after a hard day’s work, before this. He rapped smartly upon the window, but Mr. Whitehead did not stir. Viney almost fancied he could hear him snoring.

Had it not been that the constable felt an urgent desire for a drink, he would have gone on home, and left Mr. Whitehead undisturbed. As it was, he knocked again, seem- ing in the still night to make enough noise to rouse the whole neighbourhood. But Mr. Whitehead made no sign of having heard him, and suddenly something in his attitude sent a thrill of apprehension running down the constable’s spine. No man could sleep through a noise such as he had just made, nor could he rest quietly in such a position. Filled with the conviction that Mr. Whitehead must be ill and in need of assistance, Viney hesitated no longer. He tried the door, but it was locked. There was nothing for it but more desperate measures; if Mr. Whitehead objected, he would pay for the damage himself.

He returned to the window, and put his elbow through a pane of glass. Then he reached for the catch, and opened the window. After a short struggle, he wormed his way through, and stood on the floor of the bar. Mr. Whitehead showed no signs of being aroused by these proceedings. The flame had died down by now, and the room was illuminated only by the dull glow of the fire. Viney put his hand on Mr. White- head’s shoulder, only to withdraw it with a startled cry.  At his touch Mr. Whitehead slid from his chair and collapsed in a heap in front of the fireplace. But Viney hardly heeded him. He fumbled for his torch, and cast its rays upon the hand which had rested for an instant on Mr. Whitehead’s shoulder. He had not been mistaken. The horrible stickiness which covered it was blood.

Reviews of

The Secret of High Eldersham: A British Library Crime Classic

“First published in 1930, this entry in the British Library Crime Classics series evokes a time when stouthearted chaps did their duty for king and country, and the village had only one telephone… This book marks the first appearance of amateur sleuth Merrion, who went on to feature in nearly 60 novels from Burton “

Publishers Weekly